Filling in the Gaps

A sermon from The Rev. Linda Griggs: 2 Kings 2: 1-2, 6-14 and Luke 9:51-62

From Midrash to Gospel:

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

We have been hearing in recent weeks about the way the imagination helps us to construct a picture of God. The imagination also helps us to ‘fill in the gaps’ as we engage with a Bible passage—to see how the Spirit speaks to us through the text as we wonder what is going on between the lines. This is a version of the ancient tradition of commentary that the Jewish household knows as midrash. Midrash at its core understands that inspiration in Scripture doesn’t just come in the writing—it also comes in the reading and pondering.

So in the spirit of midrash, we enter the world of Elijah and Elisha, wherein there are many gaps to pique our interest.

Apparently, Elijah and Elisha go way back, though Kings make only two references to them when they are together; one is in today’s passage, in which Elijah ascends, and then a few chapters earlier when they meet each other for the first time. In that episode in First Kings God tells Elijah to anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in his place. So Elijah seeks out Elisha and finds him…at the plow, toiling along behind a brace of oxen. In what seems a strange way of introducing himself, Elijah throws his mantle over Elisha and keeps on walking without saying a word. (Take a second to picture this.) Elisha may or may not have found it surprising to have someone’s cloak tossed on him in the middle of a field, but apparently he knows an invitation when he sees one, and goes running eagerly after Elijah, saying, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Elijah gives him permission to go back but bids him be mindful of his call. And Elisha shows every evidence of understanding the implications: He promptly slaughters the oxen, cooks them over a fire made from the yoke used to guide them, feeds his community, and heads off with Elijah without a backward glance: “Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.” Elijah’s invitation transformed Elisha from farmer into prophet’s servant in the space of a breath. He (somewhat) literally burned his past to move into an unknown future.

And that is the last we hear of this pair—as a pair—for several chapters. There is some speculation that the separate Elisha and Elijah story cycles might have pertained to a single figure, not two, but at some point in the various tellings it became important to show them in relationship. It is an invitation to imagine. How did they get along? Was Elijah grumpy in the mornings? Did Elisha ask too many stupid questions? Where did they go and what did they talk about in their travels?

Interestingly the lesson we heard today also leaves gaps; the Lectionary leaves out a few verses so that we miss the fact that Elijah stops three times—before Bethel, Jericho, and the Jordan and asks Elisha to stay behind, and each time Elisha refuses. More important, today’s passage leaves out the fact that other prophets twice say to Elisha, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And Elisha says, ”Yes, I know; be silent.” So he knows. But he doesn’t want to talk about it. Is he in denial? Is he unwilling to confront his master? The tension builds as the journey continues.

After Elijah uses his rolled-up mantle to channel Moses and the pair crosses the mmiraculously partedJordan, Elijah asks what he can do for Elisha, and Elisha requests a double share of his master’s spirit. This is a traditional way of saying that he would like to succeed Elijah as a son, no longer as just his servant. Elijah leaves the matter in God’s hands. And in response God affirms Elisha’s request, granting him a dramatic vision of his master being carried away in a flaming maelstrom. As the mantle of Elijah falls upon Elisha once again, he cries, “Father! Father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” In a flash of both boundless joy, and plunging sorrow, Elisha receives his new identity as son and prophet of the divine Word, even as Elijah leaves him, alone and bereft by the Jordan, tearing his own garment in his grief.

I always want to take a breath after this scene, just to absorb the visceral and emotional impact. But we aren’t given a minute. Elisha takes up the mantle and speaks. And here again, we can only imagine. Is he angry as he demands, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?”, slamming the rolled up mantle on the water? Or is he grateful and confident in his new-found role as Prophet?

Perhaps it’s something between the two, as conflicting emotions continue to whirl inside of him. Because it is here that we can see the crux of the story; we see what happens at the intersection of love and loss. This is the place where Elisha assumes his identity. It’s where he finds his vocation.

Now. Hear again the disturbing words of Jesus in this new context: “Foxes have holes and birds have nests…Let the dead bury their dead…No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back…” Luke’s comparison of the Gospel passage to Elijah is deliberate, as we see references in both stories to an approaching ascension, and as we see both Elijah and Jesus journey a bit, then stop, then journey again. Both Jesus and Elijah are intent upon their destiny. And as we listen to Jesus alluding to the great prophets we can see that Jesus is not just being randomly cruel in challenging his would-be followers. He needs them to understand that God has always asked for a realignment of priorities and that now matters are coming to a head as he sets his face toward Jerusalem. Those who would follow will need to redefine their notions of home and family, even life and death, as they take on the mantle of discipleship. Elijah and Elisha knew it, and that is why Luke draws the connection. Great love and great loss. Vocation and transformation.

I love the fact that one of the most visible symbols of St. Martin’s is a cloak. Basically, it is the same as a mantle. Certainly, the cloak is a symbol of our parish’s identity of service and compassion in the tradition of St. Martin of Tours. In the context of today’s scripture I invite you to imagine an expanded vision of our cloak—to imagine St. Martin’s mantle resting upon each of us. Imagine it enfolding us in our vocation as kingdom dreamers, standing in the intersection where Elisha stood and where Jesus calls; in that place where loss and brokenness meet the love and compassion of God. Imagine joyfully and prayerfully bearing that mantle in a world that is in desperate need of some countercultural Christian hope; Imagine that mantle empowering us as a community of healing and wholeness that is articulated in all of our relationships and in everything we do, within and outside of these walls.

Admittedly it’s a broad and challenging invitation. What exactly will this mantle look like? How will it fit? God is leaving it to our imagination to weave and tailor it.

And it’s up to us to fill in the gaps

The Sound of Sheer Silence

There is a pre-modern view of religion as something existing outside time and place. According to this view religion, like the US Constitution originates in a timelessness free of the taint of culture and history.

All human experience is formed within the context of culture. Even prophets and Founding Fathers are products of their culture. For the last three weeks, we have been following the comings and goings in a period of the prophet Elijah’s life during which, he is hounded by Ahab, King of Israel, and his pathologically narcissistic wife, Jezebel. Last week I wrote about Jezebel and Ahab’s narcissism and you can see my detailed exposition here.

Elijah is very much a man of his culture. His contest with the prophets of Baal recorded in 1 Kings 18 gives us a view of a very acculturated religious conflict. There is much in this story that offends our sensibilities, especially our sense of God. The very images of God can only be articulated through the use of human imagination. Human imagination is to some extent limited by expectations. Expectations are very much shaped by culture.

As we have been following events in the life of Elijah in the first book of the Kings, so too, we have been following the Apostle Paul as he writes to the Christians in Anatolia in his Letter to the Galatians. Like Elijah, Paul is definitely a man of his times, formed and molded by his cultural location as a Pharisee Jew of the Hellenic-Roman, Jewish diaspora. Like Elijah, we have ambivalent and ambiguous responses to Paul. We find his fierce zealotry a little disconcerting. Yet we soar with his eloquence when he writes of faith, hope and love.

Traditional confusion over which of the thirteen letters ascribed to Paul are from his actual hand has created a disconcertingly contradictory impression of him. How does Paul view slavery, the role of women, the exercise of authority, relations between Jews and Gentiles? He takes a particular line in one letter. Then he espouses the very opposite, in another.

The thirteen Pauline letters span a period from the mid 1st to the mid 2nd centuries AD. Over this period of time culture and attitudes change in a more conservative and conventional direction as the early Christian communities become more established. Yet, each later letter, written beyond the span of Paul’s possible lifetime, claims the authority of his personal authorship. The later the writing, the more it appears Paul supports slavery, the subjection of women to male authority, and an increasingly ferocious attitude to the Jews as others.

Despite both Elijah and Paul being men of their time and culture, their stature as prophet and apostle rests on their startling encounters with God. These encounters take them completely beyond the cultural imaginary of their time and place. They are both mystics in whom a deep personal encounter with the divine stimulates a leap of imagination that propels them beyond the familiar, opening them and us to new vistas and new directions of travel for the human experience of God. To borrow Karl Popper’s scientific concept of threshold experience, God is revealed in a moment when the known gives way to the yet-to-become-known, changing all that we know in the process.


Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence

After his latest bruising encounter with Ahab in 1 Kings 21, Elijah flees from Jezebel’s threats. He journeys into the desert and he is on a knife edge between life and death. He shelters under a tree and waits for death to arrive through thirst and hunger. God sustains him with necessary food and water and Elijah sets out on the highly symbolic journey to Horeb, the mountain of God, the place of Moses’ encounter with God. He spends the night in a cave where he tells God of his sense of failure, loneliness, and isolation. God tells him to stand on the mountain and wait.

imagesWhat happens next is a threshold moment; Elijah’s startling leap of imagination to behold God, not in the dramatic events of nature: wind, earthquake and fire, but: in the sound of sheer silence. God speaking through the sheer silence is not a culturally conditioned expectation for Elijah and his time; a time when God was expected to grandly display his power employing as much noise and pyrotechnics as possible. So it’s a leap of imagination for Elijah to perceive God speaking through the sheer silence. This is a huge leap forward in the Hebrew imaginary of God.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence

God again asks him: what are you doing here? Poor Elijah simply repeats his mantra of woe and God tells him: Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.  And he goes. 


In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp

When my eyes were stabbed
By the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

Paul displays a similar capacity to be open to a threshold experience in the Popper sense of meaning. Much of Paul’s letter to the Galatians rehearses complex arguments that zoom way above my pay grade. Paul does not hold back. At times in this letter, he gives way to words of fierce denunciation as he tries to map out what it means to be clothed in Christ. Paul has to find ways to write about this that are both culturally familiar enough to the Galatians to be heard and understood by them. Yet, at the same time he is also opening up a completely new direction of understanding for them. In his denunciations, we hear Paul the Pharisee, whose old cultural traits are being put to new use in his incarnation as a follower of Christ.

Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road is a threshold experience, not only for him but also for the development and direction of the Christian message. Nothing is the same Conversion_Paulafter, yet, at many levels, Paul continues to be who he is, a Hellenic, Pharisee Jew, now a clothed in Christ. Yet, the consequences of his threshold experience suddenly make themselves known.

In the midst of his complex argument, Paul’s eyes are stabbed by the flash of a neon light. He writes: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Here, we see a profound leap of imagination from what is known and familiar to the yet to-become-known of God, crashing into Paul’s imagination.

From somewhere deep inside Paul, from the place of sheer silence, he articulates a revolutionary vision of God. It’s revolutionary in that it focuses not on delineating difference – a common religious activity, but in asserting and affirming commonality. He is diffusing the key binary polarities that divide people in his world and at his time.

For us to truly appreciate the revolution in Paul’s cultural imaginary that takes him well beyond the boundaried imagination of his time and place we might translate these as follows:

  • no longer Jew or Greek – no longer us or them
  • no longer slave or free – no longer exploiter and exploited
  • no longer male and female – no longer divide by gender specifics but embracing the complementariness of masculine and feminine into a variety of combinations within the spectrum of what it means to be human

A curious aside

It’s worth noting that two of the binary polarities Paul separates with the conjunction or. In the last binary polarity – male/female he uses the conjunction and. Why? Jew or Greek, slave or free are polar alternatives. In contrast, male and female are complements. In Genesis, God does not say: let us make male or female, but let us make male and female.  You can’t have men without women or women without men. They are one entity; they both constitute what it means to be human. Translated into our developmental understanding of human nature, to be human is to comprise the principles of both the masculine and feminine.


As I write, my imagination signals a connection to the Simon and Garfunkel song The Sound of Silence. The words of this song could so easily be those of Elijah’s standing upon Horeb, the mountain of God, or Paul’s mind-meld with God the issues in his immemorial-timeless statement in Galatians 3.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

These two verses direct my attention to the sound of sheer silence out of which, the message of the prophets is written on subway walls and tenement halls, i.e. in unlooked for places.

In the paradox of the sound of sheer silence, we encounter God in the depth of the divine mystery. We too are shaped and bounded by our experience of culture, a culture within which the Simon and Garfunkel lyrics stimulate a leap in our contemporary imaginary.


And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
And the words that it was forming

And the sign said,
“The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls.”
And whispered in the sound of silence

Contemporary culture invites us to seek God in the slick soundbites of our lives, where our commitment is circumscribed by the daunting prospect of an hour a week given to the worship of God. Where we long for an experience of community that we are too overscheduled to commit to building.

For many, God is believable only to the extent to which the divine can be explained or explained away. In our noisy and stridently over-stimulated world; a world in which competing voices clamor, shout, threaten, and cajole for our attention, I wonder what might await us if we were to enter into the God of mystery, here in the pregnant spaces of imagination that open uninitiated within us to behold God in the sound of sheer silence?

The Sound of Silence Simon and Garfunkel






Reflection on an early memory

I remember as a child, long before I could read, gazing at the pictures in an illustrated Bible that I think probably belonged to my grandparents. This is the first book I can remember. I used to carry it around with me and long before I could read the words in it I understood the stories conveyed through my imagining of the pictures.

There’s a name so very rich in associations from my childhood encounter with the illustrated Bible. Although, not knowing the story at the time, I still remember my horrid The_Death_of_Jezebelfascination at gazing at a black and white drawing of a woman being thrown out of a window to an awaiting crowd of men and excited-looking dogs. I must have asked someone, probably my grandmother, who was this woman being thrown from the upstairs window? I learned her name was Jezebel. To this day, the very mention of her name brings back with vivid accuracy this simple pen and ink drawing.

Early memories are the strongest. The vinyl disc is a great analogy for the way that early childhood impressions of the world form deep grooves in the earliest anatomical part of the brain connected with the function of memory. Here is the seat of instinctual responses alongside which our earliest sense and internal fantasy experiences of the world are etched. This heady cocktail of instinct and early sense experience etched in deep grooves of early memory, exercise often unconsciously, an influence over the rest of our lives.

A further reflection from childhood

The social and cultural world of my family was not one in which Churchgoing was a regular practice. Nevertheless, all the adults I knew assumed themselves to be Christian simply because they never imagined one could be anything else. This was a world of nominal Christianity, which while not shaped by actual belief or practice, was nevertheless peopled with Biblical character types. Jezebel was a popular Biblical character type frequently used to refer to any woman whose behavior raised a sense of moral indignation. To be called a Jezebel was an insult drawn from the cultural embedding of the story from 1 Kings 21. The utterance of the name is inseparable from associations and memories of it being used by both my grandmothers and to a lesser extent, my mother.

Reflection on the text

Ahab is a sorry excuse for a king. He is a very sorry excuse for a man. He is depicted as a man suffering from what we today recognize as narcissistic personality disorder, a condition that much afflicts those with a drive for power. Narcissism is an essential element for each of us in our emotional makeup. Personality disorder is a way of talking about someone with a severe character defect that impairs their capacity for mutuality – the give and take of relating that happens when two people give each other space to be themselves.

There are two main types of this condition, which I will refer to as dependent or aggressive. Both kinds of narcissistic disturbance make it difficult to tolerate the frustration of experiencing another’s separateness. The aggressive narcissist experiences other’s independence of mind and action as a deeply threatening personal affront or even attack. They respond viciously, going for the jugular. We recognize that this is often a characteristic of those who seek power because power blurs the distinction between self and others – others become simply extensions of our ability to impose our will. The other person is merely an extension or a pawn in the pursuit of one’s own desires. The character Frank Underwood from Netflix’s House of Cards demonstrates this personality type, well. There are others from real life politics that could also be mentioned here.

In this story from 1 Kings – Jezebel conveys an aggressive narcissist profile while Ahab seems to be of the more dependent type. Faced with Naboth’s refusal to sell his land to him, Ahab withdraws into depressed isolation. Ahab’s type needs the ruthless aggression of a Jezebel and in this instance, she does not disappoint him.

Naboth’s refusal to sell his patrimony reflects an understanding among Israelites that the land is only on lease from God, and that what we might call the freehold of land is vested in God’s ownership. God gave the Israelites their land in trust, to care and be responsible for. Part of that spirit of responsibility was neither to sell one’s own land nor confiscate unjustly, the land of another. Ahab is king in Israel, and as the king, he is simply God’s husbandman for just and good government. Alas, probably spurred on by his Sidonian (read non-Jewish) wife, Ahab seems to take his cue from the playbook of the Canaanite kings whose lands surround his. In short, he is weak and so needs his ruthless wife to do his dirty work for him.

Enter Elijah, the man of God. In the preceding chapters of 1 King’s Elijah is continually on the move in remote regions in an attempt to elude the long arm of the king and his wife. He has hidden in caves, sought temporary shelter and sustenance with an impoverished widow. He feels rejected, isolated and alone, exclaiming earlier in chapter 18 that he alone is the only one left as a prophet in Israel. Yet, God does not let him hide away. The word of 1280px-Jezabel-and-Ahab-Meeting-Elijah-in-Naboth-s-Vineyardthe Lord comes to him telling him to go down to meet King Ahab and say to him: Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood. Elijah suddenly appears on the road Ahab is taking from his winter place to Naboth’s vineyard. His appearance on the road surprises the king who exclaims: Have you found me, O my enemy? And Elijah simply replies: I have found you. He then proceeds to proclaim God’s judgment upon Ahab and his house. For in Elijah’s words, Ahab has: sold [himself] to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.

Reflection from the here and now

In the parish, I encourage Lectio Divina as a group spiritual practice. In short, Lectio Divina is a way of reflecting on a passage of scripture in the belief that through it God is seeking to draw our attention to something we need to address in the present moment of time – say five to seven days. As I meditated on this passage from 1 Kings 21 the words sold yourself lept from the page, penetrating deep into my imagination. Sold yourself – I began to wonder what have I sold myself to do as a justification for an action or attitude? This is an uncomfortable question.

I continually find that the thing I sell myself to repeatedly is fear. Fear convinces me that:

  • Scarcity is the only reality, and so I become risk adverse to acts and attitudes of generosity and hospitality that lead me to an encounter with the reality of abundance.
  • That difference is an attack upon my personal integrity – my freedom of conscience, my own self-interest, and so I become intolerant and through intolerance, I collude with justifications for discrimination.
  • That no good deed goes unpunished and so I shrink back from concerned involvement and solidarity with those who need my help.
  • I sell myself to fear and I become timid and afraid and pull back from action and attitudes requiring courage and commitment to hope – a lack of faith in that which is still in the process of becoming known in the future.

I sell myself to a hundred and one different fears in every moment of my day and night. If this is true for me individually, then what does it mean when as a community, as a society, as a culture we sell ourselves to fear? This results in:

  • The degeneration of the quality and capacity for civic engagement.
  • The impossibility of informed debate.
  • The economic exploitation of ordinary people in the face of enormous wealth confiscation by the few.
  • The resurgence of racist, misogynist, and discriminatory phobias of many kinds, once again rising to stalk our streets and corridors of power.
  • The passive acceptance of disordered narcissism as a quality to be admired at best and tolerated at worst in our politicians, who pander to and stoke our fear, ensuring that our rage remains misdirected, aimed not at inequalities in work, housing, education, and healthcare, the legitimate sources of our rage, but at Latino’s, Muslims, foreigners, immigrants, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Blacks, Women, Men, Gays and the Transgendered; all neatly stereotyped and scapegoated. 

Soon, only a few brave voices are left to cry out against the doing of what is evil in the sight of the Lord.

In ancient Israel, all sections of society were bound by a covenant with God. The social justice aspects of the covenant were spelled out clearly in terms of mutual responsibility. This was a world in which wealth and power could not be severed from responsibility. Attempts to do so brought God’s judgment articulated through the voice of the prophet. I am left wondering what his equivalent might be today?

We live in a more democratic age when it’s not the voice of an individual, but the consensus of the community that speaks truth to power -Elijah as the voice of community conscience. David Brooks wrote this last week:

The larger culture itself needs to be revived in four distinct ways: We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.

Brooks argues for a reinjection of soul into our physical and social lives so that: 

We’d understand that citizenship is a covenant, too, and we have a duty to feel connected to those who disagree with us.

That’s the nub of the rub between Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah. Brook’s conclusion is that we are more than utility-maximising individuals, we are love and connection seeking individuals who find in community the possibilities for loving and being loved.

A core task of communities is to arouse and educate the loves, to widen and deepen the opportunities for love and to appraise people by how well and what they love.

Jesus is our guide on what and how to love well. He loves and accepts the love of the woman – (a Jezebel, not in the personality disordered sense, but in the sense of the word as my grandmothers would have used it), who crashes the dinner party to express her unfettered love for him as told to us by Luke in the Gospel reading.

Long before I knew how to read the words in my illustrated Bible, I knew how to imagine the pictures. I wish I had seen the picture of the exchange between the woman and Jesus at the dinner party at the home of Simon the Pharisee reported in Luke in 7:36-8:3. If I had, maybe this too, alongside the imagining of Jezebel being thrown to her death would have given me, at this crucially formative stage, a more rounded picture of the world.

Two Men, One God – Semon for Pentcost 3


A sermon from the Rev, Linda Mackie Griggs. A user-friendly warning, because of a recording error the audio on this sermon includes the whole of the Eucharist service.Due to an error in recording, there is no accompanying audio for this sermon.


…Jesus gave him to his mother.

These six words describe a simple gesture; made the more so because it is in such contrast with the ones before—Jesus touches a ritually impure bier, or coffin, of a dead man, and then brings him back to life. But these six words are Luke’s emphatic punctuation—a mic drop of sorts, to the entire episode, sealing a connection between Jesus and the prophet Elijah, who healed the widow’s son at Zarephath and then “gave him to his mother.”

This thread of connection between Jesus and the period of salvation history that Luke called “The Law and the Prophets” was crucial to his account of Jesus’ life, and identity as Messiah. Luke shows how the Jewish community in Jesus’ time came to understand him in the context of their own scriptures—their own Story of who they were. Those who would become followers of Jesus would do so as they perceived that his actions and words fulfilled a narrative of their identity as God’s Chosen. Those who would not follow him would find these connections to be dubious, and even blasphemous.

A major part of Luke’s Gospel project is to radically expand the definition of God’s Chosen beyond the boundaries of Israel and the Jewish community, but first, he needs to root Jesus in the rich tradition of Hebrew scripture.

Reading the Luke account of Jesus’ healing of the widow’s son together with the Elijah story in First Kings has led me to ponder how we read the Old Testament in our Christian context. Actually, the term “Old Testament” is symptomatic of a biblical perspective that has been common since the second century. It’s the point of view that holds that the sole purpose of the Old Testament was to foreshadow the New Testament, period. According to this perspective, without the New, the Old is not worth the time it takes to read it.

This is a potentially risky proposition because it effectively sidelines the Hebrew Bible’s role in Christian canon of scripture. For example, what if we see the story of the Passover and the origin of the celebratory Seder meal, not as the great story of God’s prodigious compassion for his people in freeing them from bondage in Egypt, but as simply the foreshadowing the Last Supper? Look at what we miss–we miss out on the full 3-D perspective of what it has been to be God’s people from the very beginning. And from such a narrow perspective it is a slippery slope to sidelining the Jewish household altogether. When we are seduced by the idea that Hebrew Scriptures have been superseded, even rendered obsolete, by the Gospel, it’s not too difficult to conceive of how the Jewish people may come to be seen as obsolete as well—and you can see where that has led us.

I talked about this with Rabbi Howard VVoss-Altmana couple of months ago. We discussed the fact that we as Christians often miss an opportunity to mine the riches of Hebrew Scriptures if we don’t take some time to try to see them from the point of view of the people by and for whom they were first written. If we’re not careful it’s as though our laser focus on Jesus blurs and diminishes the earlier tradition that nourished him in the first place. Thus we tend to see Elijah’s stories simply as the wild and wooly adventures of a wonder worker—to see him as more of an action hero than a prophet of the Most High God. So what if we look more deeply—to try to imagine what the Jewish community of Jesus’ time might have seen in the accounts of Elijah’s escapades—not just a charismatic miracle worker but also one who brings the powerful, healing and sustaining word of the One God to His people?

Elijah is woven deep into Jewish culture and worship—evoked regularly in Sabbath, Seder and circumcision rituals. He was a prophet to the Northern Kingdom of Isreal-Samaria in the time of his nemesis Ahab, a king “…who did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.” Elijah was traditionally thought to be the precursor of the Messiah, which is why Jesus compares John the Baptist to Elijah in Luke’s Gospel. In the series of Elijah stories that we are hearing in First Kings during the first weeks of the Pentecost season, Elijah rails against Ahab and the peoples’ worship of Baal, even entering into a contest with the priests of Baal in a dramatic episode that we heard about last week. (You may remember; the bulls, the fire, the taunting… 1 Kings 18:20-39) Later God speaks through Elijah to Ahab, declaring a drought through the land (fitting since Baal was reputed to be the god of thunder and rain.)

So just prior to the story that we hear today Elijah flees to the wilderness, where he is miraculously fed by ravens, and then God sends him to a poor widow in Zarephath, in the region of Sidon. Sidon is significant for two reasons; first because Ahab’s wife, Jezebel was a Sidonian, and also because it is outside of Judea. The prophet has been sent to the margins; to an outsider of another tribe, and not one with which he is friendly.

Elijah is the prophetic word in the form of a wild man from beyond the borders—demanding hospitality from a desperately hungry widow and her son. She is vulnerable, with virtually nothing to offer, yet she shares her meager fare, and a generous God feeds all three of them “for many days.”

Yet God is not finished. Elijah abides for a time with the little family, and the son falls ill unto death. The widow feels that she is being punished somehow—has she courted danger by hosting the prophet under her roof? Elijah fiercely confronts God on her behalf, demanding justice for his host who has offered him hospitality and kindness. Elijah demands that God show mercy on this woman who has taken the risk of welcoming the divine word into her home.

God hears Elijah and responds with compassion. The boy lives.

And Elijah …gave him to his mother.

The God that Elijah declares to God’s people, not only to the stiff-necked people of Israel, but to the people beyond her borders, is a God of deep generosity and compassion—a God who hears the cries of the hungry and the grieving, who abides with the widow and orphan and shows mercy on them. This is a life-affirming God for whom love can defeat death.

Once we can begin to understand more about Elijah and what he represented, we can have an even more vivid sense of the impact that Jesus’ evocation of Elijah through a simple gesture would have on people. When Luke compares Jesus’ actions to those of Elijah he isn’t evoking the image of an action-hero. He’s reminding us of nothing less than the very identity of the God of Israel—and of all people. A God of love, compassion and sustaining grace.

…Jesus gave him to his mother.

The Hebrew Scriptures stand on their own, and the Gospel is rooted, and nourished by them even as they nourish their own tradition into full bloom right alongside ours. The relationship between the Elijah stories and the Gospel shows us, not a God and a people superseded by the Incarnation but an even richer, deeper view of the Gospel’s power to transform. We have a deeper, richer view of God’s radical witness and invitation from the beginning of creation—seeing the firmly-rooted prophetic word that has always, not just since the birth of Jesus, abided on the margins and called all of God’s people to lives of compassion and mercy. This is the tradition that Jesus claimed as he gave the young man to his mother. This is the tradition that shocked the people around him, not just a thread of connection but an electric current of recognition:

Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

Blog at

Up ↑