Serious students of Scripture notice once the Chosen People leave Mt Sinai during their trek through the wilderness, only one person ever returns to that sacred place. And when he does, Yahweh tells him to leave.
Today’s I Kings passage only makes sense when we understand it’s just a small part of a whole narrative. We’re missing the beginning and end. Elijah had recently executed Queen Jezebel’s prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel, causing her to put out a contract on his life. The prophet does what any man would do in the face of an irate woman: he runs – all the way from the north of Israel to the south. When he reaches the Sinai border, he pleads with Yahweh to take his life; he’s had it. But Yahweh instead sends an angel with food and water enabling Elijah to walk “forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb (Sinai.)”
It’s here that today’s liturgical selection kicks in. Yahweh eventually communicates with the prophet “in a tiny whispering sound.” Though the means of communication might be consoling, God’s message certainly wasn’t. The meeting ends with Yahweh telling Elijah to leave this sacred place, and go up to Damascus to start a process which will terminate Jezebel’s reign. By detouring to Sinai, instead of going directly to Damascus, the prophet had walked hundreds of miles out of his way - with Yahweh’s help! No wonder this is one of the most interesting passages in all of Scripture.
It’s clear that biblical Israelites didn’t feel compelled to conduct yearly pilgrimages to Mt. Sinai. Though wonderful things had once taken place at that specific geographical location, the Chosen People were convinced Yahweh was still doing wonderful things no matter where they were located. If they insisted on returning to Sinai, they might overlook what was transpiring in downtown Jerusalem.
Yet that God-given food and water still bothers me. Why did Yahweh help Elijah to go someplace he shouldn’t have gone? Perhaps we only understand this when we reflect on some of the direction changes we’ve been called upon to make during our lives of faith – changes from paths we had once presumed God wanted, and helped us to walk.
We hear Paul reflecting on this topic in today’s Romans pericope. Why do so many of his fellow Jews refuse to go down the path he’s now on? With all the privileges they’ve received through the centuries, why can’t they see the turn in the road through which Jesus is leading them? I presume thoughts like these are frequently keeping the Apostle awake at night.
Matthew might be providing us a way to understand such changes in direction. Peter begins to sink only because he breaks his concentration on Jesus. “When he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened, and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” Jesus immediately takes his hand and says the passage’s most important words, “Of you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Just as Elijah’s faith basically revolved around his relationship with Yahweh, so our faith revolves around our relationship with the risen Jesus. Anyone committed to a relationship with another human being can testify that changes in direction are frequently an essential part of maintaining and building that relationship. Though the relationship began with a commitment to do things one way, that way eventually changed.
Those of us who experienced the church before and after Vatican II certainly understand the necessity to change directions in our life of faith. We can only join Paul in lamenting the fact that so many of our fellow Catholics have found that change so difficult to achieve. Perhaps some have broken their concentration on the risen Jesus among us.