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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Persisting in Prayer

October 17, 2010

(Proper 23. Year C. Genesis 32, 22-31; Luke 18, 1-8)

Noel Coward wrote in one of his plays: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. I think many of us know the truth of that. A line from a popular song can take us back instantly to our childhood or adolescence, or remind us of a particular event. But it works the other way too; something we see or read brings a song into our mind, and we struggle to get rid of it.

I’ve had a particular song on the brain this week, as I’ve been preparing to preach on the parable of The Judge and the Widow. It’s not a proper pop song, but a take off by the Two Ronnies of a Status Quo hit ‘I’m a Wanderer’. They turned it into a song about a nagging wife, with lines like “She nags at me in public so I feel a proper berk. She likes to nag me lunchtimes, so she rings me up at work” and the chorus goes “I’m fond of her, so very fond of her, but she goes on and on, and on, and on, and on and on and on”.

You can see why a story about a woman who nagged at a judge until he gave her justice brought that song back into my mind!

This parable has parallels with a passage in the Book of Ben Sirach in the Apocrypha, or Ecclesiasticus as it is often known.(35, 15-19).There the writer speaks of a widow who cries for justice, and affirms that the prayers of the righteous will be heard by God, and the prayer of the humble will be answered. Ben Sirach also promises that God will come without delay and describes the punishment the Almighty will inflict on the unmerciful and the Gentiles. But although Jesus may have had this passage in mind when he told this parable, his version concentrates on the petitioner, and lacks any description of vengeance or punishment for the unrighteous.

This is another of the parables with very strange central characters. There is the judge who has the reputation (and admits it himself) of having no fear of God or respect for man.  He had no fear of God, although judges were supposed to be administering justice on behalf of God, because he did not keep the tradition which said in Israel a judge should always hear the cases of orphans first and widows next, because they had no family to plead their case for them. He had no respect for people (the adjective used says he felt no shame before people) because like so many judges at the time, he was corrupt. A  contemporary of Jesus wrote that the judges in Jerusalem were known as Dayyaney Gezeloth, which means robber judges, instead of Dayyaney Gezeroth, the proper name, which means judges of prohibition. This judge could be bribed, and gave justice to the person who paid him most, rather than administering the law fairly.

On the other hand, there is a widow, who nags at the judge until she gets the judgement she wants. She would not have been a respected figure in Bible times, since she did not behave as a woman was supposed to. In the first place, women did not go to courts or take any part in public life. Ordinarily, there would have been a male relative to plead her case for her, a son or brother or cousin, but obviously in this case she was totally alone.

But even so, she should have found someone to act for her, or quietly accepted her fate. A woman who spoke loudly, and especially one who nagged, was often criticised in the Scriptures. Proverbs 21.9 says “It is better to live on the roof top than share a house with a nagging wife” and 27.15 “a nagging woman is as annoying as the constant dripping on a wet day”. But this widow was destitute and alone: not only did she have no-one to plead her cause, she obviously had no money with which to bribe the judge. It is likely that the case concerned money or inheritance, since that was the only sort of case which one judge could hear alone. This widow had nothing but her voice to make her case known and get justice for herself. Like the judge, she had no shame, and was prepared to suffer social disapproval to achieve her ends.

And, eventually, her nagging wore the judge down. He did not fear violence from her, but her persistence convinced him that she would never give up – so in order to get himself some peace and go back to his comfortable life, he gives her justice. Although at the beginning of the parable the widow’s situation seemed hopeless, because she never gave up she got what she wanted.

The introduction to the parable tells us that is  about persistence in prayer. The message is, if this poor and powerless woman’s needs are met because of her persistence, so also will the appeals of the faithful believers, if they continue to pray to God.

But the parable is still puzzling. Are we meant to conclude that God is an unjust judge, who will only hear our prayers if we bribe him or nag him continually about what we want him to do for us? That is clearly not the picture Jesus gave us of God, our heavenly Father.

Sometimes in parables there is a direct parallel between the earthly and the heavenly. These are often introduced with the formula “The kingdom of Heaven is like”. But other parables draw a contrast between the two, as in this case. If even an unjust judge will eventually give a persistent petitioner what she needs, the parable says, how can we doubt that God, who is a loving and merciful judge, will act in the best interests of those who believe in him, if they continue to have faith and pray.

The last two verses of the passage expand on this. ‘Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones?” “Of course he will” the faithful need to answer. “Will God delay in coming to help”. “No, he won’t” is the answer of faith.

But then comes the usual sting in the tail. The parable is meant to bring comfort and encouragement to those who have faith in God – but it also challenges them: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”.

So we come back again to the question of faith, as we do so often in the Jerusalem document, (the teaching which Luke places during the final journey of the disciples with Jesus to the Holy City where he will suffer and die). And now it is coupled with a  question about prayer.

Many of us have problems with prayer. For many, perhaps, the picture we get from the Old Testament reading, of Jacob struggling with God all night, and ending up battered and wounded, is a fairly accurate picture of our experience of prayer.  For some it is a struggle with no obvious beneficial outcome, so in the end they give up.

Prayer,  and particularly intercessory prayer, is an enormous topic, and it would be impossible to cover it adequately in this address.  But in the light of the parable, perhaps I can share some thoughts  about what intercessory prayer is, and is not.

It is not a shopping list of demands that we present to God. So often, we never get beyond the concept of prayer that sees it as a heavenly version of a child’s letter to Father Christmas, or an Amazon wish-list. Persistent prayer is not nagging at a reluctant relative till they eventually give in. It is sharing our needs with a loving parent, who knows already what they are, and is more than ready to help us.

It is not an emergency phone call. Many people only turn to prayer when they have exhausted everything else. Persistent prayer is something that we practise all the time, not something we save for when we are in dire straits.

It is not a one-way conversation. Jacob is pictured as struggling with God, because the reality of prayer is that there are two wills involved – God’s will and ours. But often prayer only seems to involve us trying to influence God’s will. We pray as if God is like the unjust judge, and we need to offer bribes (“if you will only let me pass this exam. I’ll go to church every Sunday”) or make as much noise as we can (“if only we can get everyone in your church/town/country joining us in this day of prayer, God will hear us”) for our prayer to succeed.

Prayer is a two way conversation. We share with God our needs and anxieties and those of others; and we listen to God speaking to us about the divine perspective on these concerns, and what he expects us to do to help resolve it. We will hear God speaking to us through Scripture, through the words of other people of faith – and through the silence when when we allow ourselves to encounter the Divine in the deepest and darkest parts of our being. And all of those channels through which God speaks to us may involve us in intellectual and emotional struggles, and we will need to persist in praying, even when it seems barren and pointless, if we are ultimately to hear God speaking to us through them.

Prayer is not ultimately about us and what we want. It is about hearing God, and what God wants, and aligning our will to that. it is about training ourselves to trust God, and the ultimate triumph of the divine purpose for the world, even when there seems to be little hope of it ever being realised. That is what Jesus did, and why he is able to be ‘God for us’. We need to persist in prayer, in imitation of Christ, until  what we want is at one with what God wants for us and for the world, so that we may be ready to recognise and welcome the Kingdom of Heaven when it comes.