AUGUST 12TH, 2018: NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Elijah went a day's journey into the desert,
until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it.
He prayed for death saying:
"This is enough, O LORD!
Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers."
He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree,
but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat.
Elijah looked and there at his head was a hearth cake
and a jug of water.
After he ate and drank, he lay down again,
but the angel of the LORD came back a second time,
touched him, and ordered,
"Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!"
He got up, ate, and drank;
then strengthened by that food,
he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.
Brothers and sisters:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,
with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.
All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling
must be removed from you, along with all malice.
And be kind to one another, compassionate,
forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.
So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love,
as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us
as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.
The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said,
"I am the bread that came down from heaven, "
and they said,
"Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?
Do we not know his father and mother?
Then how can he say,
'I have come down from heaven'?"
Jesus answered and said to them,
"Stop murmuring among yourselves.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him,
and I will raise him on the last day.
It is written in the prophets:
They shall all be taught by God.
Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.
Not that anyone has seen the Father
except the one who is from God;
he has seen the Father.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever believes has eternal life.
I am the bread of life.
Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died;
this is the bread that comes down from heaven
so that one may eat it and not die.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world."
Glad to read in today’s gospel pericope that Jesus “is the one who is from God” and “has seen the Father.” Much of what we Christians know about God comes through Jesus, who according to John is one with God.
People, like the Pauline disciple responsible for Ephesians, can also look at the risen Jesus and come up with some important divine characteristics we’re expected to imitate. He/she’s kind, compassionate, forgiving. “All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling (and) malice” are verboten. If we accept the challenge to be other Christs, we have no choice but to work on developing these aspects of our own personality.
Yet there’s one aspect of God with which many of us have problems, something Elijah eventually discovered in today’s first reading. But to appreciate this characteristic, we have to know what comes immediately before our I Kings passage, and what comes immediately after it.
The actual narrative begins with Elijah executing the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel, in Israel’s far north. The prophets’ patroness, Queen Jezebel, when told about their demise, immediately puts a contract out on Elijah. Fearing for his life, he runs south, the length of the country, down to Beer-sheba (about 130 miles) where our liturgical reading kicks in. Encountering the “angel of Yahweh,” he twice receives enough food and water to go at least another 250 miles south to Mt. Horeb (Mt. Sinai). His whole trip – on foot - from Mt. Carmel to Mt. Sinai is about 400 miles.
The difficulty comes when the prophet eventually reaches Mt. Sinai and Yahweh appears to him in the cool breeze to inform him he doesn’t want him there! God unbelievably expects Elijah to backtrack to Damascus – more than 40 miles north of Mt. Carmel – and carry on his ministry there.
Instead of originally leaving Mt. Carmel and walking directly to Damascus, Elijah takes an 800-mile detour. Anyone can take a wrong turn on their own. But Yahweh actually helped Elijah go to Mt. Sinai. That angel didn’t give him food and drink at Beer-sheba on his own; Yahweh sent him. No wonder the powers that be who pick out our liturgical readings never give us this whole story at one time. If they did, most homilists wouldn’t know what to do with it.
The theology conveyed by the sacred author in this passage is more than disturbing. Besides being expected to follow a God who’s compassionate and forgiving, we’re asked to follow a God who, at times, actually helps us travel in the wrong direction in life. Once we hear this whole pericope, nothing could be clearer.
Applying Elijah’s misdirection to our own lives will take us far beyond geography. How about all the wrong psychological directions we’ve taken in our lifetime? The wrong relationships we’ve formed? Most of the time we didn’t think we’d gone astray. We presumed we were where God wanted us to be.
It’s important to note the gospel Jesus begins his ministry by demanding his followers go through a “metanoia” in their lives; that they change their basic value systems, that they change their directions. Considering their repentance is an outward sign they’ve become other Christs, is it possible the historical Jesus also had to change the direction of his life?
Doesn’t it bother you that Jesus waited for at least 30 years to begin his public ministry? As God, why didn’t he start the ball rolling in Bethlehem? What took him so long? If he hadn’t somehow changed over the years, why were his fellow townsfolk so surprised by his behavior in Mark 6 or his family think he was crazy in Mark 3?
No wonder metanoia is the heart of Christianity. Jesus isn’t asking us to do anything he hasn’t done.