Saturday, June 8, 2013

Reflection on 1 Kings 17:8-24- The Widow of Zeraphath

1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24)      The Widow of Zarephath

The word of the LORD came to Elijah, saying, 9"Go now to Zarephath*, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink." 11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." 12But she said, "As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die." 13Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth." 15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.

[17After this, the son of the woman, the mistress of the house at Zarephath, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!" 19But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. 20He cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" 21Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this child's life come into him again." 22The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive." 24So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth."]

*-Zarephath was in modern Lebanon, along the Mediterranean coast, at the location of the modern town of Sarafand.

Background: In 1 Kings 16, machinations over the throne caused all kinds of evil deeds (part of the protest by prophets that Israel didn’t need a king since they were ruled by God as God’s chosen people, and that instituting a king would simply lead to exactly this kind of problem). King Elah was made drunk and killed by his chariot officer Zimri, who named himself king and killed everyone else in the royal house to prevent another claimant competing with him for the throne (and this was supposedly God’s will for the sins of Elah’s father Baasha). Promptly the people of Israel made another military commander, Omri, their king. Omri besieged Zimri, who then set his palace on fire with himself inside rather than to be captured. Another man, Tibni, had some support to be king instead of Omri, and the two sides fought and Omri’s side won, with Tibni “dying.” Omri then ruled but also worshipped idols, and after he died his son Ahab became king. Ahab’s wife was Jezebel, who encouraged him to worship Baal.  And that’s all in just one chapter! In chapter 17, Elijah warns Ahab that because of his abandonment of God, there was to be a great drought. Elijah then fled from the wrath of Ahab and was sent on orders from God to the Wadi Cherith (a wadi is a dry valley or riverbed that fills with rain in the rainy season) east of the Jordan in what is now Jordan. It was even promised that the ravens would bring him meat and bread there. However, due to the drought, eventually even the wadi ran dry. God then told him to go the Zarephath, which is where our pericope begins.

There are two miracles in just this short reading: the flour and the oil lasting many days, and the bringing the widow’s son back to life, and if you count the miracle of the ravens feeding Elijah in the wilderness near the wadi, there are three. 

Once again, we see a Gentile having faith and acting upon that faith in a risky way. This widow takes in Elijah even thought the drought has affected her too, and she and her son are on the verge of starvation, and her lack of a husband and breadwinner only makes her situation more desperate. She has given up hope. Elijah asks the woman to get him a drink (remember Jesus had asked the Samaritan woman to get him a drink in John 4). Can you imagine what he must have looked like after being out in the wilderness for all that time? He’s not just a stranger, he’s probably filthy and unshaven. And the widow still does not turn him away. She takes an enormous leap of faith—and is a model of being willing to trust.

The expectations of hospitality at that time require that she do as he asks, but when he asks for a bit of bread, she has to confess that she has too little to share, and has resigned herself to the death of herself and her child. When Elijah still asks that she feed him (based on Elijah’s faith on a God that is not her own) she DOES it. That’s pretty amazing. A miracle is then given to her: she and her son are saved from starvation. Her meal and her oil do not run out—it feeds Elijah, the widow, and her “household”—which seems to be a pretty grand word to express a woman who is depicted as being by herself with just her child.

But just when it seems that there is nothing but a happy ending here, the additional part of this pericope plunges us back into a tragic situation. The widow’s little boy dies—her only prop for her old age in a patriarchal society in which women were dependent upon fathers, husbands, and/or sons to support them. She reflects an understanding of causation common in the Bible—her son’s deep illness and possibly death (is he dead? It says there is no breath left in his body…) is caused by God, at the very least by indifference to her plight after she has just evinced great, blind trust by taking in this strange man and feeding him at a time of severe deprivation. Her blame challenges Elijah to do something. He takes the boy from the mother, carries him up to a room, and prays to God to intervene. His charge in verse 20 agrees with the woman’s take on the situation: has God brought this calamity as a response to one who has given everything she has? He doesn’t argue against the woman’s charge, but lays it against God himself. He then stretches out over the boy and intercedes with God three times, and God restores the boy to life. I have always wondered what tone of voice Elijah used when he said “See, your son is alive.” Nonetheless, this is the first time in the Bible that someone is brought back to life. This miracle then proves the existence of God and the power of God to the woman, and that Elijah is truly a prophet, although this is not something she had ever doubted—even in her anger she had called Elijah “man of God.” This ties in beautifully with our gospel reading for today.

Notice also that twice in this pericope, the death of the widow's son was countenanced.  The widow was resigned to her child dying when she thought that they both would die, but when only her child is dying, she reacts not with resignation but with anger and grief.  I often tell my students that my generation is the first that did not regularly experience the death of a sibling in childhood. Both of my parents experienced at least one sibling dying. But the death of a child was actually very common throughout the vast majority of human history. This did not make such events any less tragic than they are today-- just less common.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Gift of Self-Reliance

Now that I have relaxed a bit from the end-of-the-school-year crush, I am spending more time with my own children and it is a very good thing. They are all teenagers now.

Yes, I am crazy.

I am also squeezing in some time to ride my bike as much as I can in the mornings, which has been pretty difficult since the weather has been so very rainy for the past two months. This morning, as I dodged numerous places on the bike path that were flooded by the recent rainfalls, and marveled over all of the downed tree limbs from the three tornadoes that swept through the area last week, I was listening, as I often do, to a Mary Chapin Carpenter song from one of her best albums, Stones in the Road.

The first verse goes like this:

When we were young, we pledged allegiance 
every morning of our lives
The classroom rang with children's voices 

under teacher's watchful eye
We learned about the world around us 

at our desks and at dinnertime
Reminded of the starving children, 

we cleaned our plates with guilty minds
And the stones in the road shone like diamonds in the dust
And then a voice called to us to make our way back home....

And here I was, riding my bike and watching out for stones in the road, since unlike my younger self, if I was to get thrown from my bike today, there would probably be several broken bones. I am only a few years younger than Mary Chapin Carpenter, but I imagine a lot of you remember being outside to play all the summer long and even into the autumn, if you grew up in a relatively warm place like I did.

We would be gone for hours in the morning, playing with the neighborhood kids. We'd come home at lunch, and then back out we would go until suppertime. Those times together with our friends from the neighborhood taught us lots of things. We learned how to organize games by ourselves-- football, baseball, war, HORSE, whatever-- and we called the rules and their infractions ourselves, kind of like in that movie The Sandlot. If anyone disputed a call, we worked it out, or they stopped playing until they could cool off. We sang goofy, disgusting songs about bodily functions. But we were in the ultimate kid-centered world. If someone really got mad at someone, the LAST THING in the WORLD we would have done would be to go to our parents, for a variety of reasons:

1) If you woke my dad up from a nap, or my mother from her housework, for any reason than an approaching wildfire, you would regret it.
2) Adults had other things to do than to listen to our foolishness. And we didn't want to look like babies.
3) We probably wouldn't like the decision that an adult would hand down.
4) If we didn't act independent, we would lose our right to play independently.

There were limits, and we mostly respected them. We couldn't cross 21st Street on our bikes-- it was too dangerous. If we left hearing distance, we would tell our parents the direction we were going. But once we were there, there was no recourse to adults as supervisors. We played outside until we heard that voice calling us home-- and usually at about dark, there would be a chorus of mothers' voices calling various kids home. We went. or that was the end of our freedom.

Yes, we were relatively free. And don't think that there weren't bad things that happened back then. I was almost kidnapped when I was five. There was a group of older boys in the neighborhood who bullied or behaved inappropriately toward us younger kids. There was an old couple at the end of the street who were grumpy and had a grandson who was a peeping tom. But still we had long hours to fill on our own, and we did it. Besides, if we had stayed inside and watched TV, we would have been put to work cleaning or cooking or doing some other task.

None of my students have had experiences like this. When I first showed the Sandlot to a class one time to help them understand the childhood experiences of the later baby boomers, they couldn't understand kids being left alone for untold hours like that. Instead, for most of our kids today, every single minute is filled with some activity supervised by adults. Or, they spend untold hours glued in their rooms which come equipped with cell phones, computers, game consoles, and satellite TV. Ironically, this is the one place where they SHOULD probably be supervised, but they aren't. Earlier this year, a mom in Texas was arrested for letting her kids play in the cul-de-sac on their scooters as she watched them from a lawn chair in her yard. (Now personally, I would not let my kids on a motorized scooter at that age, but-- arrested? in TEXAS? I mean, that's just crazy.)

The gift of this childhood independence was teaching us to be self-reliant. We also understood that our parents had other things to do than to entertain us, and respected the fact that they worked hard throughout the day, month, and year to provide for us. Our parents did not derive their identities from us, but instead we derived our identities from them.

I was once screamed at by a woman who drove by my house for allowing two of my kids to climb a tree in out front yard. She told me what a horrible mother I was for allowing them to do something so dangerous. My kids had worked out their climbing patterns all morning long and then asked me to come watch them-- and they were so proud of their achievement, which, by the way, no adult had to micromanage. Ironically no more than five minutes later the gym teacher down the street stopped and PRAISED me for encouraging my kids to climb trees. 

I myself climbed trees for a large part of my life (later on for necessity rather than for fun, per se, and also to show that I could still do it). We built tree forts. We went to the skating rink and stayed for five hours. My grades were MY GRADES-- although I might get punished if they were low, my parents would never EVER have gone to school to argue that I should not be held accountable for missing work, or some such other gambit. 

I wish more parents would allow their kids to develop their personal senses of competency and self-reliance and not rush to the rescue any time something doesn't go their kids' way (and as a teacher, I second myself wholeheartedly for other reasons which are not just entirely selfish). We learned to be responsible. We learned to take care of ourselves. We thought twice before doing something that would undercut our ability to claim that freedom we enjoyed.

It was a great blessing. And I bet I and many of my friends my age would agree that we are grateful for the trust our parents placed in us.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Reflections on Luke 7:1-10, the Healing of the Centurion's Slave

Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,' and he goes, and to another, `Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,' and the slave does it." 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

This centurion was truly a remarkable man. He was a powerful man, yet cared for his slaves so much he was willing to appeal to a wandering Jewish healer for help. He cares for those under his power and under his command. He demonstrates a spirit of humility rather than lording it over the Jews as a member of the Roman occupying force. As an officer in the Roman legion based at Capernaum, he commanded 100 men (hence the name “centurion”), yet nonetheless was an admirer of the Jewish God. He had even built the Jews there a synagogue, thus he could even be considered a friend of the Jews. In verses 3-5. knowing the Jewish prohibitions that were rigidly interpreted by the Pharisees as strictly limiting fraternization with Gentiles, he does not presume to approach Jesus himself, but sends some elders, who vouch for his good intentions and his “love” for the Jewish people—high praise indeed!

The centurion’s faith, humility and thoughtfulness are further demonstrated in verses  6-7. He rethinks, and decides he is not worthy to have Jesus actually come under his roof. He sends friends to Jesus while Jesus is approaching the centurion’s home, and reveals a remarkable understanding of Jesus’ power, using analogies of his experience as a commander of troops and master of servants to demonstrate his understanding that Jesus has the power of healing even from a distance—no illness could withstand the command of Jesus. Jesus’ power exceeds the need for proximity. His military analogy implies that his soldiers obey him through both his power and his trustworthiness.

Jesus’s fame has now spread far and wide. There is a crowd following him even on his way to this centurion’s house, and he marvels and commends the faith of this centurion to them. This centurion has never been in Jesus’s presence, and yet he believes that Jesus commands amazing powers. Jesus is received and acknowledged by this Gentile in ways that even the people of Israel have not demonstrated—including his apostles, his disciples, the elders from Capernaum, and the crowd that follows him around. And the centurion is right—Jesus can heal from a distance, for when the centurion’s friends return back to the centurion’s home, the slave is not just cured but is in “good health.” This gives us hope, we who live in another time and another place and culture, because we know that Jesus still lives, and can heal our brokenness in body and spirit as well.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Reflections on 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. 23He said, "O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart.

41"Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name 42-- for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm-- when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built."

In 2 Samuel 7, once David was firmly established as king, he had the impulse to build a Temple for God in place of the tent that had been used since the Exodus, but was told by God that this was not to be his task, but that of his son’s. Now Solomon is king, and he has built God a marvelous Temple. In 1 King 6:11-13, God had promised to live in the Temple so long as the king and the people were faithful to God. In 1 Kings 8, he is dedicating the Temple. The ark of the covenant was brought from the tent and placed in the Temple, and sacrifices were made before the ark until it was set in place. Once this was accomplished a cloud filled the Temple, and Solomon, in his role as both king and priest, blessed the people, and recounted the story of how Solomon has fulfilled the promise made to David and built this Temple. He then turns to the altar and makes the statement found in verses 22-23 of this pericope. The first part of his prayer addresses the people who are gathered to help consecrate the Temple; now Solomon turns to address God by entreaty to hear the prayers with which this Temple will be filled. In verses 24-26, which was omitted in this reading, Solomon reminds God of covenants made between God and David:
24the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. 25Therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, “There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.” 26Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.

In verse 27, Solomon had noted that God could not dwell on earth, but this Temple is a conduit for people to pray and worship, and Solomon asks God to listen especially to the prayers addressed through the Temple as a focal point. Furthermore, the Temple itself was built with the help of Gentiles—King Hiram, the Phoenician king of Tyre, had cut the cedars of Lebanon that was used in the construction and sent workmen to Solomon to help. In verses 28-30, Solomon asks God to hallow the Temple with God’s presence and by giving ear to the prayers prayed there:
27 ‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! 28Have regard to your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; 29that your eyes may be open night and day towards this house, the place of which you said, “My name shall be there”, that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays towards this place. 30Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling-place; heed and forgive.

In verses 31-40 Solomon lists other signs of the singularity of the Temple: it can provide asylum for those who stand accused of crimes; a place the people pray for help if they are attacked by enemies (which would indicate that they have sinned against God and thus need to repent); it can be a place the people can pray for rain. He then continues in verse 41 to ask God to hear the prayers of the people of Israel when addressed toward the Temple. Then we pick up again in verse 41, where Solomon prays that prayers prayed by Gentiles using the Temple as focal point should also be heard by God to help spread the greatness of God’s name beyond Israel to other peoples. As in the Book of Deuteronomy, Solomon is asking God to make a covenantal relationship with humanity through the use of the Temple, and to fulfill the promises of the covenantal relationship.

Thus the Temple is the place where God can be approached and addressed by all people. It is a focal point on the Earth, a “thin place,” as the Irish say, where heaven and earth meet. It is the place where everyone, Gentile and Jew alike, can encounter God. This was very unusual thinking for the time that it was written, where different people had their own national gods. And indeed, the people of Israel were not usually proselytizers: even today, the Jewish faith does not really seek out converts. Yet it is logical for Solomon to anticipate that eventually, the favor God promised to Israel would attract the attention of those in the outside world, and there are examples of non-Jews throughout scripture acknowledging the power of God. One of my personal favorites was Ruth, who gets an entire book in the Bible to tell her story—and yet, she was not born a Jew but was a Moabite from what is now Jordan. Rahab helped the Israelites under Joshua capture Jericho when she herself was from Jericho (Joshua 2.3); she goes on to marry an Israelite, it seems, since she is listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1.5).