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AUGUST 12, 2012: NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

I Kings 19:4-8
Ephesians 4:30-5:2
John 6:41-51

Today's first reading can be completely misinterpreted if one reads just the liturgical selection and doesn't know what came before and what will happen later. Especially in the context of John 6 in which Jesus is speaking about feeding us with his body, the bread of life, it appears that Yahweh feeding Elijah on his journey simply prefigures Jesus feeding us in the Eucharist. But it's not quite that simple.

Elijah has just won a duel with the prophets of Ba'al on Mt. Carmel, in Israel's far north. According to the rules of the encounter, he executed the defeated prophets, something which didn't go over well with Queen Jezebel who basically paid their salaries. When she notifies Elijah that he doesn't have long to live, he does what any sane man would do in the face of an angry woman: he runs.
 
Traveling the length of the country, he ends up in Beersheba, on the Sinai border, as far south as one can travel and still be in the Holy Land. Today's first reading kicks in at this point.
 
Ignoring the prophet's wish, Yahweh doesn't let him die. Instead, an angel twice supplies him with food and water, eventually enabling him to walk "forty days and forty nights to the mountain of Cod, Horeb (Sinai)."
 
The story certainly brings out God's care of God's prophets. There's just one problem: when Elijah finally arrives at Mt. Sinai, Yahweh tells him he shouldn't be there! God sends him back north with the mission to rid the country of Jezebel. With Yahweh's help, Elijah's walked hundreds of miles out of his way.
 
The great Hans Walter Wolff once pointed out that many of God's disciples yearn for death. Like Elijah, they eventually get fed up with all the opposition they face. "Sometimes," the famous Scripture scholar mentioned, "the death they seek simply revolves around giving up the struggle their ministry entails. Though they still seem to go through the externals, they've already given up the fight."
 
The irony of today's first reading is that God still strengthens God's followers to continue to fight, even when they're going in the wrong direction.
 
The author of Ephesians is convinced no one imitates God in a vacuum. As God's disciples, we're constantly dealing with real flesh and blood people and situations. Naturally there should be no "bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, or reviling" in our relationships. But when it comes to being "kind, compassionate and forgiving" to those around us, how do we know we're always doing what God expects us to do? There's no one action that always, everywhere, shows love to everyone. I presume, with the help of God, we often go in the wrong direction. No wonder some of us want to give up the struggle.
 
Perhaps John's Jesus provides us with the best insight in the midst of this confusion. "Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life."
 
We're not in the faith business because we're confident of achieving good results. Our failures are often more rewarding than our successes, especially if in those failures we've faithfully tried to go where we think God wanted us to go. If we really believe each of us is being "taught by God," we have to presume there's going to be lots of hit and miss. How can any human completely know God's will?
 
That's why I'm grateful God gave us biblical people like Elijah to reflect on and not catechism questions and answers to memorize. Somehow the certainty which catechisms are supposed to supply just doesn't correspond to the real life situations in which we struggle to live our faith.