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2nd Sunday after Trinity

26 May 2016

Proper 5: 1 Kings 17.17-end; Psalm 30; Galatians 1.11-end; Luke 7.11-17

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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, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

PROPHETS are uncomfortable people. They turn up at inconvenient times, expecting to be fed (1 Kings 17.8-14) or intruding on a family’s grief (Luke 7.11-15). The full stories of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 8-24) and the widow of Nain (Luke 7.11-17) have happy endings, but the uncomfortable element persists.

Elijah has shown, by mysteriously eking out the widow’s supplies of oil and meal while the famine lasts, and by the much more remarkable act of restoring her son to life, that the systems depriving widows of legal rights are no match for the power of God. He will confront the oppressive rule of Ahab and Jezebel again, both over large issues of warfare and true religion, and on behalf of someone else who cannot defend himself against a corrupt regime — the small landowner, Naboth (1 Kings 21.17-26).

Jesus is also aware that a widow’s situation is precarious. Brendan Byrne observes that his primary concern in this episode is the mother, as his wrenching agony at her predicament testifies (Luke 7.13; The Hospitality of God, Liturgical Press, 2000). He understood that this death deprived someone who was already without inheritance rights of a beloved child and the family breadwinner. Her future would depend on charity (Deuteronomy 26.12, 27.19).

The local and immediate response is what gives this narrative its emotional and dramatic impact. Perhaps there is a hint of the personal cost of Jesus’s ministry to his own mother at work here (Luke 2.28-28), but there are larger reverberations.

Eric Franklin points out that the miracle is foreshadowed earlier in the Gospel in a way that establishes it as a sign of a prophetic ministry announcing God’s salvation. He even describes Jesus as the “eschatological prophet” (“Luke” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, 2001).

Luke also links the event to Zechariah’s celebration of the approaching time when God would “look favourably” on his people (Luke 1.68), by putting the same words into the mouths of the villagers (Luke 7.16). In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus confirms his identity in a darker way, as the prophet who will take God’s promises first to people on the fringes, because his own community will reject him (Luke 4.21, 25-26).

The response of the mourners who suddenly find themselves playing a different part is appropriately fear, before joy (Luke 7.16). They have seen God act in their midst, and yet everything about the episode has disrupted convention. Jesus has paid special attention to a woman; he has courted ritual defilement by touching the bier (Luke 7.14); and he has refused the final power of death.

If this is the glory of God at work on a domestic scale in an insignificant village, there is potentially no limit to what it might achieve in future. Having once named it, however, there is no going back. The villagers have accepted their place in a process that reaches far beyond their experience and their lifetimes (Luke 7.16).

As last Sunday’s introduction to the Letter to the Galatians continues, Paul adds more detail to his sense of responsibility for a prophetic ministry. What did it take to turn a rigorously observant and well-educated Jew into a proclaimer of Christ?

The answer that he gives lies in personal encounter, although whether this was the violent event on the Damascus road (Acts 9.1-9) or some further revelation granted by God is not quite clear.

Without seeking any mandate from the Jerusalem church, he set off immediately, convinced of the authority of what had been disclosed to him, ready to witness to Jesus without the endorsements of established and prominent believers. It almost appears that Paul deliberately avoided such contacts, except for a short stay with Peter and a meeting with James the Lord’s brother (Galatians 1.18-19).

One way to interpret this is to see it as a mixture of impetuousness and rank arrogance, the over-excitement of the new convert who rushes off to start his own church. But that is not what Paul is claiming. He knows exactly how unlikely he is as an emissary of Jesus Christ, because his reputation as a persecutor of Jesus’s followers has preceded him (Galatians 1.13, 23). The risk of being dismissed or actively driven out of town as he toured Arabia must have been a lively one.

Most remarkable in this piece of autobiography is the reception of Paul’s hearers, who trusted his conversion and, instead of rejecting him, found his message more compelling because of his history. Once again, glory emerges most boldly from what is ambiguous and difficult.

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