5 June 2016
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 5C (RCL)
1 Kings 17:8-24
Luke clearly intended to have his readers make the connection with the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. This connection helps to provide an interpretive frame, but the story is unique in its own right. First, the son of the women is called monogenes houis, meaning “only born son” or “only begotten son.” It is the word John uses for Jesus in the prologue. So, our attention is called immediately to this son. Secondly, the narrator (Luke) says, “When he saw her, the Lord had compassion on her” (or was “gut-wrenched”). This is the first time Luke uses this title for Jesus — characters in the story have called him “sir,” but this is the first time in the narration. Now we are really paying attention. Thirdly, Jesus touches the bier — rendering himself unclean for seven days. Fourthly, when addresses the dead man, he calls him neaniskos, “young man.” The word neaniskos shows up very infrequently in the New Testament. The young man who follows Jesus in the garden covered only in a linen shroud in Mark’s Gospel is neaniskos, and is the same young man who shows up at the empty tomb in Mark’s Gospel. In Matthew’s Gospel, the rich young man who asks Jesus what is necessary to enter the kingdom is called neaniskos. Is this young man a type of the newly baptized, the neophyte? Is he a type for the risen Christ? The story opens all these questions.
The connection to the story of the widow of Zarephath may help answer those questions. Elijah had just announced to Ahab a drought on the land, and then fled to the Wadi Cherith, where ravens brought him bread and meat. When the water in the wadi ran out, he went to Zarephath and met the widow at the gate. He asked her to bring him water, and when she went to do so, he told her to bring him a bit of bread as well. Her response is wonderful: As the Lord is your God, I was just now gathering a few sticks to bake what I have left for my son and myself that we may eat it, and then die. Elijah tells her to go ahead and bring him some first, and the jar of meal and cruze of oil will not run out until the Lord sends rain on the earth. The woman trusts the words of the prophet; she demonstrates more faith than Israel had in the wilderness when they gathered more manna than a day’s worth. She is willing to trust God for her daily sustenance. And Elijah has been reduced to living on her charity. She is not an Israelite, but an outsider. The covenant was meant precisely to provide support for people like her, and Ahab and the Kings of Israel had distorted the covenant to imply ascendancy for themselves.
This story clearly demonstrates the YHWH, not Baal, is the god of rain and fertility, but that the appropriation of the cult by the monarchy (and the monarchy’s implication in the cult of Baal) is a misuse of the cult. The cult of YHWH, which includes stipulations like not harvesting one’s field to the edge, in order that widows and orphans and foreigners might have sustenance), was tied to the land, not to the monarchy. The Gospel of the Hebrews narrates the story of the rich young man (neaniskos) slightly differently from the canonical gospels. When he asks Jesus what he must do to inherit the kingdom, Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, which he replies he has done. Jesus asks him how that is possible, since there are poor without bread and clothing. If he had been keeping the commandments (the covenant), he would have already given everything to the poor.
Luke puts this story of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain immediately on the heels of the story of the centurion’s slave. The centurion and the people of Capernaum had found ways to live on good terms. Like Elijah, the people of Capernaum were dependent on the good faith of a foreigner. When we use the covenant to draw lines between inside/outside and have/have not, we are misusing the covenant. The widow of Nain could easily have been pushed over the edge, as her only-born son, her only means of support had died. Jesus steps in and accepts her condition (touching the bier — being made unclean, outside the community, for seven days), in order to resolve it. It is the interdependence of the covenant that raises the only-begotten son. We have to be willing to accept the aid of outsiders, the unclean, to learn from the broken, before the covenant “works.” In this, we experience the resurrection of the son.