Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I Kings 17:17-24
The readings for this Sunday invite us to think about death. I think about death quite a bit as it is, so I am wary of my tendency to read death into texts when it is clearly not the dominant theme, but I am pretty sure this week’s readings about the two widows’ sons being risen from the dead invite us to think about death.
It is somewhat disquieting to the modern quasi-gnostic mind how God confronts death in these two readings. Elijah and Jesus do not have a very impressive bedside manner, as it were. They are abrupt and bossy, and make absolutely no attempt to acknowledge and affirm the feelings of the women who are grieving for their dead. (I can’t imagine any counseling professor being very pleased with their technique here.) Conspicuously absent is any attempt to bring the two widows to that ever-desired destination of the modern process of grief: acceptance. In fact, Elijah seems to go in quite the opposite direction: “O LORD, my God, will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?” What a decidedly non-accepting stance to take to the misfortune of death! There is no attempt to tell the women that their loved ones are “in a better place” or that death is simply the culmination of life. To the contrary, Elijah and Jesus seem to accentuate and confirm the deeply disruptive and traumatic nature of the deaths, which is only appropriate given the fact that these are children (who are not supposed to die before their parents) and that these are the sons of widows, who represent the women’s last hope of familial legitimacy and security. The point is that there is absolutely nothing of the stoic acceptance of death as natural here, no trace of the tepid approval of death as part of a never-ending “circle of life.”
To modern eyes, what these men of God do is deeply unnatural. One of my colleagues once had a student begin his term paper on the resurrection with this line: “When I think of rising from the dead, I think of two things: zombies and Jesus Christ. Since this course obviously has nothing to do with zombies, I will write this paper about the resurrection of Jesus.” It is an inauspicious beginning to an assigned essay, but the smartass has a point: rising from the dead is not something that usually happens, and when it does happen, we would probably not immediately start celebrating as if we are fully aware of what is going on and what it means. In these two cases, though, the miracle is met with profound joy and praise. “The woman replied to Elijah, ‘Now indeed I know that you are a man of God.’” The response of the crowds surrounding the widow of Nain is even more telling: “A great prophet has arisen in our midst,” and “God has visited his people.”
Isn’t it interesting that in today’s parlance, to let someone die of natural causes rather than attempting some intervention to save them is described as “letting God decide” or “letting nature take its course”? We often throw around the phrase “playing God” precisely when referring to attempts to prolong life beyond the limits set by circumstance, but the people in these stories see in the raising of their beloved children—an act as “unnatural” as it gets—God’s presence among them. Isn’t that remarkable? By implication, they would have seen the misfortune of death as something that indicates God’s absence. Yet that is quite the scriptually sound conclusion to make!
Notice the psalm for today: “O LORD, you brought me up from the nether world; you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.” For the people of Israel, Yahweh is the Creator of all things and thus the ongoing source of all life. To have life (l’chaim) is to participate in God, to be close to Him, to share in his being. Likewise, to lose life—to be sick or to die—is an indication of distance from the God who is life itself. The idea that death is precisely that which brings us close to God is one that is very foreign to the ancient (and modern) Hebrew mind. That is why the resurrection of the body is so important: it points to the Christian conviction that our final end is one that will gather up all that is good and real about this life and exceed it in perfection and wholeness.
This good news of resurrection, if we are to take it seriously, is bound to be disruptive, even jarring, to our normal mode of thought and life. It is not something that we could have thought up by simply contemplating nature; its transmission depends upon a revelatory encounter in which God comes to his people and makes himself present by acting on our behalf to create something new. That is why St. Paul, in the epistle for today, stresses the fact that the gospel which he preaches is not something revealed to him “by flesh and blood.” It is not a part of the natural history of his experience as a human being, nor as a faithful Jew. It came to him violently, and (literally?) knocked him off his horse.
We see in the readings for this Sunday the Christian attitude toward death displayed in all its shocking novelty: when God comes among his people, the dead will not stay dead nor will they be relegated to some ethereal shadow-existence in other people’s minds. Rather, like the widows’ sons and like Jesus himself, they will be raised: they will be brought to the fullness of life—life so concrete and complete that they (or we) could never have imagined it.