Retelling the Story.

June 9, 2013

Widow of Nain(1 Kings 17, 17-24; Luke 7, 11-17)

Those of you who like stage musicals will know that many of them are based on classical plays or stories: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ is based around Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’, ‘My Fair Lady’ on Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Les Miserables’ on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name.

Sometimes the original story is updated, to a contemporary setting, as in ‘West Side Story’ where the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ become the Puerto Rican Jets and working class white Sharks of 1950s New York. Now matter what the setting, the impact of a good story remains.

In our two Bible readings this morning, we see something of the same process at work.  There are obvious parallels between the story of the raising of the dead son of the widow of Zarapheth by the prophet Elijah and the raising of the dead son of the widow of Nain by Jesus. The stories describe the same scenario, and even some of the details and language are identical in the two accounts. As so often, the Gospel writers use a story from one of the great figures from Israel’s past and rewrite it to convey a message about Jesus, his person and his mission.

The widow of Zarapheth was not a Jew. She was a Gentile, from the coastal region of Sidon. Elijah was told by God to seek refuge with her from the anger of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, after he had asked God to send a drought on Israel as a punishment for their wickedness. He met the widow by the town gate and asked her for water and food. Although she had barely enough for one last meal for herself and her son, the widow gave it up to feed Elijah, and in return God provided enough meal and oil to keep the three of them fed during the time the drought lasted.

Having taken the risk and trusted Israel’s God to look after her, the loss of her son was all the more bitter. His death was not just the loss of a family member, it was the loss of her economic security and  her personal safety. As a widow, she had no place in society, no one to defend her and no financial security apart from him. She saw God as a cruel judge, who was punishing her for her sins by his death.

When Elijah restores her son to her, he also restores her faith in Israel’s God as a god of love and mercy.

The writer of Luke’s Gospel appears to have had a particular interest in the prophet Elijah. A number of incidents that are unique to his gospel recall incidents from Elijah’s ministry. Another significant parallel is that Elijah was taken up into heaven and had no earthly tomb, and that his spirit then descended upon his disciple Elisha;  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to heaven after his death and resurrection and then sends down the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.

All the Gospel writers feature the ministry of John the Baptist, and see him as the prophet whose coming would herald the messianic age. Some seem to see John  as Elijah. But Luke has passages which seem to identify not John but Jesus with Elijah, especially in chapter 4, when, after Jesus is rejected by the people of Nazareth, he refers to Elijah’s stay with the widow of Zarapheth, implying that his ministry will be welcomed by the Gentiles like her and rejected by his fellow Jews.

The story of the widow of Nain and the resurrection of her son is found only in Luke’s Gospel. The story comes immediately after Jesus has healed the Roman centurion’s servant. The centurion, a rich Gentile, who is sympathetic to the Jewish faith and has built a synagogue for them, expresses faith in Jesus, and his servant is healed from a distance. Jesus emphasises the contrast between him and the lack of faith from the Jewish people by saying “I have never found faith like this, not even in Israel”.

Now Jesus turns to help a member of the ‘anawim’  the faithful Jewish poor who feature so often in Luke’s Gospel as the true believers.  He meets the funeral procession at the town gate (a direct parallel with Elijah). After the miracle, he gives the son back to his mother – another direct parallel.

But there are differences between the two stories, and these are intended to demonstrate that Jesus is not just a great prophet (as the crowd proclaims) but something much greater.

There is no request from the widow of Nain for help. Jesus  interrupts the funeral procession, drawn to help by simple human sympathy, sympathy not just for the human tragedy, but, as so often in Luke’s Gospel, for those in facing economic desperation.  He touches the coffin to stop the procession – thereby rendering himself ceremonially unclean. He shows himself to be above human laws of purity. Whereas Elijah throws himself on the dead boy three times, and cries to God to heal him, Jesus revives him with a simple  command “Young man, get up”.  His healing power comes from within himself, not from outside. To those who believe, he is so obviously much more than a great prophet; he is, as Luke calls him, the Lord.

Immediately after this, Luke tells us that messengers came from John the Baptist, asking whether Jesus was the person John said was coming. His answer was that the blind and deaf had been healed, the lame walked, and the dead has been raised to life. The miracles of the preceding verses are thus an illustration of this ministry. Then he tells his disciples that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven will be greater than John.

The miracles in which people are raised from the dead are probably the most difficult for modern Christians to deal with. I trawled the internet and couldn’t find a single modern example of a ‘resurrection’ without medical procedures which had been independently verified.  But, as the Dean of St Albans reminds us in his book ‘Meaning in the Miracles’ the question of what did or did not happen is an unanswerable, and and, therefore, fruitless question. The real and useful question is what the stories are intended to tell us.

In re-telling a story about Elijah, Luke is reminding us that God was at work through Elijah, as he was through all of Israel’s history. He is reminding us that God is a god of mercy and compassion, with a special care for the poor and defenceless. In retelling the story of the raising of a Gentile widow’s son, Luke is reminding us that greater faith is sometimes found outside the faith community than inside it.

In showing Jesus performing the same miracle by a simple  word of command, he is telling us that Jesus is a far greater miracle worker even than Elijah. In restoring her son to the widow Jesus gives her back her future – as he gives back the future to everyone who believes in him.

All the resurrection miracles in the New Testament look forward to the greatest resurrection miracle of all, that of Jesus himself. The widow’s son is raised to physical life, but he will die again. What the resurrection of Jesus promises is resurrection to eternal life – to a future not just in this world, but for all eternity.

In the Bible, physical death, like physical handicap,  can be a symbol for spiritual malaise. We are spiritually dead when we are in the power of sin, or in thrall to the material things of life. It is only through true faith that we can be raised from spiritual death to eternal life and that is the most important resurrection of all.

The stories in the New Testament of Jesus performing miracles were told to strengthen the faith of those who heard them. They showed Jesus as not just a prophet of words, but as a prophet of actions – and as he told the messengers from John the Baptist, the Kingdom of God was being ushered in by those actions.

Our job, as the present day disciples of Jesus, is to inspire and strengthen faith in those to whom we speak. We can do that by re-telling the stories of God at work in the world, just as the gospel writers did; but  particularly by telling our own stories of the difference our faith makes to our lives. We probably won’t have tales of people being raised from physical death to share, but many of us will have stories of individuals and communities whose lives have been redeemed from economic, moral and spiritual death, and who have been given back their future by people working with them in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the service of the Kingdom of God.

And those are stories which are worth re-telling again and again.

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Outside In!

June 2, 2013

Icon, centurion

Ordinary 9. Proper 4C

1 Kings 8,22-23 & 41-43; Galatians 1,1-12; Luke 7, 1-10

Last weekend there were a number of demonstrations against Islamic extremism in reaction to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich the previous Wednesday. There was a march through the centre of London on Bank Holiday Monday organised by the English Defence League and also in Newcastle on Saturday and York on Sunday. These came after 10 mosques around the country had been subject to arson or graffiti attacks and there had been a further 193 anti-Muslim incidents reported to the police.

In Newcastle , a prominent Muslim political and social commentator, Mo Ansar, confronted the EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, but at the end of their discussion was photographed with a smile on his face, being hugged by the person whose policies he opposes. For this he was criticised by many Muslims and anti-fascists, for compromising with the promotors of prejudice and evil. When they learnt that the EDL march was targeting their mosque in York, its leaders decided to have an open day. Helped by members of other faith communities, they served tea and cakes to the marchers, invited them into the mosque for discussion, and played an impromptu game of football with some of them. The Archbishop of York praised them for meeting anger and hatred with peace and warmth.

In each of these incidents, those who followed a faith refused to treat a non-believer, and those who oppressed and harassed them as ‘outsiders’. They opened themselves up to them and invited them to become, in some sense, ‘insiders’.

This is the message that we are meant to hear from our Bible readings today.

The passage from 1 Kings is part of the description of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. Unlike the later Temple, built after the exile and expanded by Herod the Great, the first Temple did not have different courts and barriers to keep Gentiles and women away from the central sanctuary. Solomon’s speech showed that he hoped his magnificent Temple would become a place of prayer to the one true God for people of every nation. Its magnificence would draw people to become insiders.

In the reading from the letter to the Galatians, we hear one half of a correspondence between Paul and the church he established in Galatia, which consisted largely of Gentiles.

After he had left, it seems, Jewish Christians visited the churches, and insisted that, before they could truly become Christians, the pagan converts had to subject themselves to Jewish ceremonial law, including, in the case of male converts, circumcision. This appalled Paul, who taught that everyone was equally welcome as a Christian through the grace of God in Christ, regardless of their previous background, and that no action was needed apart from an acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord.

The challenge to treat all people as insiders in the name of Jesus is brought out most strongly in the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, which we heard in today’s Gospel. This was clearly an important story to the early Christian community; there are slightly different versions of it in three of the four gospels (Matthew, John and Luke).

The centurion was in more than one way an outsider for Jesus and his companions. He was a Gentile; entering his house, eating with him, having any physical contact with him or his possessions would have rendered an observant Jew ceremonially unclean. He would not have been allowed to approach the holiest part of the Jerusalem temple; he would have been confined to the outer Court of the the Gentiles.

Then, he was a Roman soldier, a representative of the hated enemy that was occupying the sacred land of the Jews. There had been a large military presence in Galilee since the uprising that followed the death of Herod the Great in Jesus’s early childhood; an uprising that led to savage reprisals and multiple crucifixions, events that were still raw in the memory of many of Jesus’s fellow Galileans. The rebellion centred on Sepphoris, four miles north of Jesus’s home town of Nazareth. After the rebellion was crushed, Sepphoris was razed to the ground and its inhabitants taken into slavery. Roman legions remained in the area to deter any further rebellion, and the centurion was part of this army of occupation; it is possible the slave was a Jewish child, taken into slavery after the rebellion.

Any Zealot would have taken the first opportunity to kill the centurion. Religious Jews would have seen him as a representative of the ‘principalities and powers’ against which the faithful believers should struggle.

Third, the anxiety and effort which the centurion expended over the healing of his slave implies that the relationship between them was more than that of master/servant. This was something that was quite accepted in Roman society; but the Jews saw such homosexual relationships  as evidence of the depravity of Roman society and further proof of its alliance with evil.

Yet the centurion did not act like an outsider. He did not keep the usual distance between occupier and occupied. He did not automatically treat every member of the subject people as a potential terrorist. It is possible that he was a “God-fearer’, a Gentile who was attracted to the ethical teaching of Judaism, but who would not go the whole way and become a convert. Luke reports he had paid for the construction of the synagogue, and he was friendly enough with the elders to ask them to approach Jesus on his behalf. He was sensitive to Jewish religious beliefs – although he wrapped it up in comparisons between his own authority and that of Jesus, his second message was designed to avoid placing Jesus in the position of becoming unclean by entering a Gentile house.

And although he was a member of the occupying power, he asked for help from a Jewish holy man. He treated him with respect, using the honourable title ‘Lord’. This was an amazing act of humility – equivalent to a member of the British Raj asking for help from a Hindu Sadhu or a colonial official in Africa approaching a witch doctor.

The Roman centurion didn’t act like an outsider – and Jesus didn’t treat him like one. He responded immediately to his request, seems to have been prepared, as on other occasions to risk making himself ritually unclean to help, and commended his faith as being greater than that of any insider.

This story anticipates the inclusion of Gentiles inside the community of the redeemed that we read about in Paul’s letters and the book of Acts.  It highlights the irony, that the Jewish leaders failed to recognise the authority of Jesus – but  a Gentile outsider did, and was commended for it. In the end, the healing of the servant was not important. The important thing is the greater healing proclaimed in this miracle – the healing of the barriers against a hated and excluded group, who are now included.

The Roman centurion would still be considered an outsider by some in our society today: the wrong religion, the wrong nationality, the wrong sexuality.

Our world today seems to revel in dividing itself into hostile groups based on many different characteristics. We love to label people according to their race, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, country of origin, location within the country, political affiliation, and so on and so on; and give that as a reason to justify competition, conflict and exclusion. Even locally, even within one faith, we can separate ourselves from others on the basis of differences of interpretation of faith and churchmanship.

Today the scriptures challenge us to reject the worldly way of building up our own ‘insider’ identity by hostility to those we label ‘outsiders’. It tells us that, to the God revealed in Jesus, there are no outsiders. God is the God of all people and all creation, both those who worship as we do, and those who don’t, those who identify themselves as believers and those who don’t. Our Spirit inspired mission is to invite the turn the world outside in, to invite the outsider in and offer acceptance and healing, knowing that in the all encompassing love of God, there are no outsiders.