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Readings: 2nd Sunday after Trinity

31 May 2013

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Proper 5: 1 Kings 17.17-end; Galatians 1.11-end; Luke 7.11-17

Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth: send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

LUKE makes women far more visible than was normal in his culture, where they counted for little. More than 25 times, Luke pairs stories of men and women, showing them in similar circumstances, beginning with the angel who appeared to Zechariah, and then to Mary. So he pairs the story of the centurion's slave (Faith, 31 May) with the widow's son. Radically, what Jesus did for a man, he did for a woman; how he taught about a man, he taught about a woman.

Luke models his telling of this story on that of Elijah and the widow. Two young men had died, both the only sons of widowed mothers. A situation tragic in any setting, this was devastating in the cultures of their day, since the death of an only son condemned a widowed mother to poverty and privation. Miraculously, however, both stories culminate with "He gave him back to his mother." Incidentally, Shumen and Nain may have been in similar locations.

In the Old Testament, the context was a severe famine, in which the three people were surviving only thanks to God's miraculous provision. In the Gospel, Jesus turned up just as a funeral procession was leaving town. Motivated purely by compassion for the widow's plight, he interrupted the mourning, made himself ritually unclean by touching the bier, and told the young man to get up.

As far as we know, Jesus was a complete stranger, who had not introduced himself or offered his condolences; he simply brought the dead man back to life. Imagine this happening at a funeral today, and we understand why fear gripped the people, and word spread fast.

These two stories embody God's compassion for people in need, particularly vulnerable people. They ask us to explore what it means to embody God's compassion for the world, even when, as in Elijah's case, our own survival is precarious, or, in Jesus's case, we sacrifice our religious good standing for the sake of a social nobody.

Serendipitously, given that the epistle is a course reading and not specially chosen, the lectionary places these two stories alongside the story of another young man whose life was transformed instantaneously, this time through a revelation that overturned his whole way of life.

Paul had seen it as his religious duty to persecute Christians, not flinching even when watching Stephen, the first martyr, being stoned to death. While Acts records what happened to him, what we have in the epistle is Paul's admission to his history, and his theological understanding of its extraordinary events. He ascribed it all to God's grace, which called him to proclaim the gospel among the Gentiles, the very people whom he had once despised in his fanatical religion.

The people who observed these three events responded in similar ways, realising that God was at work in the unlikely context of their own situations. So the woman recognised Elijah as a man of God; the people around Jesus recognised that a prophet had arisen among them; the churches that heard about Paul glorified God that he was proclaiming the faith that he had tried to destroy.

This has to raise questions about our response, when we see signs of God at work in the familiarity of our lives. These stories challenge us to allow space for the possibility that God will act, and will breathe new life into situations that seem hopeless. They remind us that God up-ends situations and ways of life that feel immutable.

The famine was cruel and long, and (maps show us) Elijah had previously walked more than 100 miles through countryside devastated by it, enough to sap anyone's faith. Yet God not only provided food: he restored life.

The widow faced the brutal loneliness of being on her own, in a culture where family was vital for support, when suddenly Jesus acted as her son to provide for her - in this case, by restoring her own son.

The Church faced persecution and death from Saul, and God broke in audaciously, and commissioned him to proclaim the gospel that he had once despised.

These stories remind us that God delights in acting with unprovoked compassion, bringing life in situations locked into death, startling us with unlikely recipients of his mercy.

 

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