A pair of prophets

May 5th, 2016
Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644)

1 Kings 17:17-24; Luke 7:11-17

These two readings naturally pair. Two widows. Two sons. Two widowed mothers faced with the prospect of losing their children too. Luke apparently thought these two readings dance well together, too, for in 7:16 of his Gospel, the terrified onlookers take the words right out of the mouth of the widow in 1 Kings 17 when they exclaim concerning Jesus that “A great prophet has appeared among us!” Almost everyone knows Elijah’s prophetic exploits, and Luke is more likely than any other New Testament writer to describe Jesus as a prophet. Elijah raises one son from the dead by praying to God. Jesus raises a son from the dead by speaking to him. And so we have two prophets and two boys raised from the dead. Indeed, these passages anticipate and echo one another in many ways. We would do well to read them several times over if we wish to mine their meaning.

Eliljah could not keep the boy alive. The widow is desperate. Yet Israel’s God, who actively controls rain in the enemy’s territory, also controls life. The physical nature of the healing ritual has been the subject of speculation and its exact meaning remains unclear, but it does seem that Elijah seeks to transmit in the act some of his own life to the dead boy. Beyond stretching his own body over the boy’s, Elijah implores God to restore the boy to life. The final stage of the miracle is God’s response: God listens to Elijah. There is no sense here that Elijah’s physical act or his prayer account for the return of the boy’s life. This is no efficacious human ritual on its own; it is the insertion of the life of God into a dying world.

There is yet another, deeper aspect to this miraculous situation. The mother, who originally accused Elijah of killing her son, is now the mother who confesses faith in the God of Israel. God is at work, even in Zarephath, turning people toward life and truth and a future. And Elijah, who himself blamed God for the situation, is affirmed as God’s prophet in preparation for the upcoming competition with the prophets of Baal. Elijah, this mercurial conundrum of a prophet, stands tall in Israel’s history. His successor, Elisha, watched him fly away in a chariot of fire, and the Old Testament closes with the expectation that Elijah will return and usher in the “day of the LORD” (Malachi 4:5-6).

That Elijah visits with Jesus at the transfiguration is one sign, among others, that Jesus himself is the day of the Lord for which God’s people have been longing. Whereas Elijah’s plea for help is laced with some measure of frustration, Jesus’ response in Luke’s story is filled with compassion and pity. Humanity’s great need greets Jesus at the city gate. The bearer of life is welcomed to this place by a corpse, an image of the limited and fleeting nature of our bodily existence. Jesus, extending the hands and voice of life, is literally able to speak life out of death. The young man, too, speaks with life as Jesus presents him as a gift to his widowed mother.

Upon witnessing death’s reversal, the crowd, like the widow in 1 Kings 17, is compelled to confess faith in God and acknowledge that divine favor has indeed visited them in Jesus. In fact, Jesus notices and has compassion on a widow, a member of a vulnerable group for whom survival and sustenance was ever dependent upon the favor and protective care of others. Moreover, Jesus’ compassionate act returns a means of income and stability for this widow’s future. Jesus has come that we may have life and that we may live abundantly.

These stories of restoration and return speak to the delicacy of life and the power of God. We are reminded that God’s creation is far from static; rather, it is flexible, open to possibility, and capable of being reborn and used at God’s pleasure. These passages also beckon God’s people to challenge the givenness of the world’s suffering. How can Christians be more like Elijah in seeking ways to stretch their own bodies over a world in need of life and hope? How can Christians follow Jesus in embracing the world’s great need with hands of compassion and a confession that divine favor has been extended to all in the person of Jesus. May this pair of prophets make prophets of us all! Amen.

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