If our mission is to be/make disciples (it is), we must examine carefully those things that may impede our mission and get in the way of extending help and hospitality. One of those things is fear. Sometimes we fear the angry responses that we may receive from hurting people. But sometimes we also fear our own inadequacy and inability, worrying that we may only make matters worse if we try to help. Because we do not know and cannot know always the full impact of our attempts to help, we may be tempted to avoid those people who are hurting. Instead, we must focus first on meeting the needs of the people whom God sends our way; putting them first--before our fear--is akin to putting Christ first. We must overcome any negative (-) response in ourselves and any fear of a negative response from those whom we would help, so that God's help and grace can triumph (+) over our fear and over the bitterness of hurting people.
I Kings 17:8-24
Crying Bitter Tears
The bitter question that a grieving widow and mother asks Elijah is the sort of response we sometimes fear from those in pain whom we would like to help. The woman is understandably bitter and angry. She had been prepared to lose her son to famine when the prophet of God (the man of God, 'ish ha'elohim) had first appeared (I Kings 17:12). The prophet--without invitation--had offered her help and a promise: "thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth." (NRSV, I Kings 17:14) That promise must have seemed like salvation to her, especially when the jar of meal and the jug of oil did not run out after the first day and the second and the third. Her confidence, hope, and faith grew. She began to trust the Word of the Lord and the words of the prophet (I Kings 17:16). Now a fate worse than dying with her son suddenly confronts her. The widow's son has died; she must live on alone, so she lashes out at the prophet: "What did I ever do to you, that you come here and expose my sin to kill my son?" (I Kings 17:18) Elijah, instead of taking offense or meeting her bitterness with his own bitterness, takes her son compassionately into his arms and calls out to God on her behalf. Life reenters the boy and new life animates the widow, who says "now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth ['emet, trustworthy]." (NRSV, I Kings 17:24)
Resisting Grace, Hissing and Scratching at Jesus
We read again, now from Galatians instead of Acts (9:1-20, Third Sunday of Easter), about Saul's persecution of the followers of the Way and his remarkable conversion. One of my favorite images of Saul the Persecutor is from Fred B. Craddock's sermon, "Praying Through Clenched Teeth" (Twentieth Century Pulpit, Vol. II; also available in Eugene Lowry's How to Preach a Parable).
(Image source, http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_SqirN5cE9sg/SGSmvtRmXtI/AAAAAAAAA18/FZFZa4mD9KM/s400/angry_cat.jpg)
The image of Saul (or Paul) presented there is of a wounded animal hissing and striking out at the hand that would save it. Craddock concludes his sermon like this:
Not too long ago God reached out his hand to bless me and my family. When he did, I looked at his hand; it was covered with scratches. Such is the hand of love, extended to those who are bitter.
(Image, "Crucified Hands," © Copyright 2005 by Debbie Rockey. All rights reserved.)
The "revelation of Jesus Christ" (apokalypsis, Galatians 1:12) of which Paul speaks in Galatians is the means by which he received the gospel (euangelion, good news, Galatians 1:11) that he now preaches. As Paul puts it, the new thing that happened on the Damascus road was that God revealed "his Son to [or in] me." (Galatians 1:16) Jesus is now the source and the content of Paul's preaching. But at the precise moment of that revelation, Jesus was unwelcome to Saul. The good news was resisted. Saul was still hissing and scratching and striking out against Jesus (persecuting [kath' hyperbalen 'ediokon] and trying to destroy ['eporthoun] the church; Galatians 1:13, 1:23). Craddock suggests that Paul's overreaction (kath' hyperbalen) to the good news of Jesus was a result of the threat Paul perceived to the-world-as-he-knew-it (Judaism), including his understanding of who God is and what God requires. The gospel threatened Saul's sense of self, his core identity, because it showed that the things in life that Saul most avidly pursued were in truth non-essentials (Galatians 1:14). For that reason, Saul struck out. But God persisted for Paul's own sake, and for the sake of the revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and for the sake of creating a church among the gentiles (Galatians 1:16).
Showing Mercy with Courage and with Gracious Abandon
As Jesus nears the gates of Nain, he encounters a burial detail removing a corpse from town. It is not just any corpse, but a widow's "only begotten" (monogenes; see Luke 8:42 and 9:38) son who has died. All children are unique, special, and irreplaceable. The loss of an only child to a parent whose childbearing years are over simply underscores and emphasizes the bitterness of such a loss with terrible loneliness and finality. It is right to concentrate on Luke's concatenation of specific descriptors, especially the pairing of a "widow's (kai 'auten en chera) only begotten." It is to this situation in which a woman is left without both husband and son (e.g., Naomi; Ruth 1:5) that Jesus responds with deep compassion (splagchnizomai, like Pharaoh's daughter does as she rescues a crying baby Moses from the Nile basket, Exodus 2:6). In Proverbs 17:5, the LXX adds a contrasting line after the two negative statements that are in the Hebrew text: "Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished" (NRSV, following the Hebrew) "and the one who shows compassion (episplagchnizomai) will receive mercy" (LXX). Compassion and mercy go together. That is why compassion is forbidden at the destruction of the temple in Ezekiel 24:15-24; until chastisement is over, there is no mercy (and also, therefore, no compassion). Compassion includes the promise of concrete help (e.g., by the Ziphites to Saul when he is chasing David, 1 Samuel 23:21; ironically not shown by Saul at any time to David). This verb for compassion is only used by Luke again at 10:33 (the Good Samaritan) and 15:20 (the father for his Prodigal Son). This should not come as a great shock to those who are familiar with the Lukan narrative.
Jesus tells the widow not to weep (me klaie), an imperative repeated in the NT only at Revelation 5:5 to John, who had begun to despair that the scroll could not be opened. The root occurs, of course, in the Sermon on the Plain. (Luke 6:21, "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.") It occurs twice more in Luke 7, in the enigmatic saying at 7:32 and in 7:38 with the sinner woman who stood behind Jesus weeping, washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair.
At issue throughout this chapter is the identity of Jesus as a Great Prophet (Luke 7:16, 7:22, 7:39). His response to the widow from Nain and the sinner woman are woven of the same cloth: forgiveness and healing, resurrection and salvation.