Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 5th June 2016
1 Kings 17:17-24
It is often said that out of the three Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – known as the Synoptic Gospels, Luke’s Gospel was written with the outsider particularly in mind. Luke was himself almost certainly a Gentile and most probably one of that group of Gentiles – the God-fearers – who, though greatly honouring the Jewish faith, shrank from circumcision, and therefore remained excluded, an outsider.
In Christ he found that inclusiveness which had previously been denied him and this underpins, frames his own picture of God’s redemption revealed in Jesus. So it was, and is, that Luke’s Gospel seems to speak in a very particular way to the very people who found themselves excluded, outsiders, on the edges of society.
Women would have fallen in to that group, even devout and faithful Jewish women, who counted for very little in the culture and mores of the time. But Luke makes them far more visible than would have been normal. On more than 20 occasions Luke pairs stories of men and women, illustrating them in similar circumstances. The first of these was the angel appearing Zechariah and then to Mary. There are the stories of Simeon and Anna.
So it is this morning that Luke gives us the story of the widow’s son following immediately after the story of the centurions slave considered last week. This is radical stuff for Luke is making it absolutely clear to his readers that what Jesus did for a man, he also does for a woman; what he taught about a man, he taught about a woman. All are equal in the eyes of God! There is no partiality.
Luke models his telling of this story on that of Elijah and the widow. At the centre of both stories, two young men have died, both the only sons of widowed mothers. This would be a deeply tragic situation in any setting, in any culture; but in the culture of the day it would have had devastating consequences; the death of an only son would condemn the widow to a life of deprivation and poverty.
It is these people, people on the edge, for whom Jesus has unerring love and compassion.
In the Old Testament we hear the story of a widow, who, by definition in the patriarchal society of the ancient world, would have had no means of supporting herself, but lived with the hope of some sort of future normality that her son gave her. The story is set in the context of a severe famine brought about as a result of King Ahab’s disobedience and sinfulness; three people are surviving – the widow, her son and Elijah – only thanks to God’s miraculous provision, when suddenly the widow’s son dies.
We then listen in on two very human responses to tragedy: utterly devastated, the woman is angry with God but can’t get at him directly so rails at Elijah, the man of God. Faced with unimaginable and totally unexpected loss, pain and sadness, people rage, and needed on occasions to rage at God. It is so very human, and so very normal. For his part, Elijah too is filled with rage at the seeming injustice of it all and, while holding the woman’s son, questions God, demanding to know what on earth he is doing while at the same time praying that all may be well. The child revives and the widow rejoices at the presence of this man of God in her midst – ‘Now I know you are a man of God!’
Throughout scripture, prophets are the people who speak Gods word, speaking truth to power, announcing God’s own critique of social, political and economic injustices that bring about death, despair and hopelessness. When they offer an alternative view of life as God intends it, prophets bring hope to the hopeless, life to those shadowed by death and disaster.
Elijah, who has nothing at all in the worldview of King Ahab, Queen Jezebel and all the priests of the pagan gods who are turning the lives of God’s people into a desert, brings through his faithful obedience to God unimagined and unimaginable hope into the parched lands and lives of the people. We need to hear that prophetic voice of God speaking to us afresh in every generation, for there are people in our world today whose lives are lived out in lands parched by war, whose lives are parched through persecution and injustice, whose lives are parched by great inequality and hunger in a world of plenty.
Back to Luke. Jesus acts out of sheer and utter compassion. Travelling with his disciples he comes across the funeral procession, perhaps hearing the weeping and the wailing of the mourners, long before they came in to view. Something touches him deeply as he looks at the widow and now a grieving mother. He would have been only too well aware of the hardships that awaited her and is moved with deep compassion, compassion that drives him to do three totally unexpected and quite extraordinary things.
First, he approaches the woman directly – unthinkable in the culture and mores of the day – and speaks to her words of tenderness. Then he courts ritual defilement by touching the bier – a faithful Jew would never touch a dead body, the bier or indeed anyone else who has done so for to do so would render you ritually unclean. Finally, and most astonishingly for all around him, in commanding the young man to rise, he has refused the final power of death. Luke shows us Jesus embracing the suffering of people on the edge of social fabric, on the margins of power structures, identifying with the hopelessness of a widow. And the glory of God is seen at work, yet again amongst the ordinary, poor people of an insignificant village. The woman is given hope once more; her son and her social standing in the community are returned to her. Compassion and love return to her all that she had lost.
The mourners initial and very appropriate response is fear, only later being followed by joy. For here they have seen the activity of God in their midst, but everything they have witnessed has defied social convention! They echo the words of the woman in the story with Elijah – ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ And then we hear echoes of the words spoken by Zechariah – ‘God has looked favourably on his people’. If this is what happens here, there is no limit to God’s glory and what his power and love can achieve.
With Elijah and Jesus alike, the hope that blazes forth is God’s life-giving and life’ bearing presence, transforming the dark places of human experience into visions of life as God intends. These stories remind us that God delights in acting with unprovoked compassion, startling us with the unlikely recipients of his mercy! We do well to remember than before making judgements about who is worthy and who is not.
Each one of us has been called to serve and live out the gospel of love and hope revealed in Christ. Strengthened by God’s grace and empowered by the Holy Spirit we are called to be prophets in our own time, speaking truth to power and challenging injustice in all its forms. We are called to live transformative lives, bearing compassion in what we do as well as what we say, bringing the light of Christ’s love and hope in the dark places of peoples experiences and lives so that all may join those words of rejoicing:
‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ Amen.