When St. Paul wanted to make his case to the Christian community in Galatia, he felt the need to introduce himself, to talk about his background, and to make the case for his authority in terms of how he came to be an apostle. The same was true for many of the Old Testament prophets – but not, it seems, for the prophet Elijah. One of the most famous and important prophets in all of Israel’s history, Elijah just appeared on the scene with no such introduction, to reprimand the wicked King Ahab. His arrival coincided with a severe drought, which led him to seek the hospitality of a certain poor widow. For a year Elijah’s presence had been a blessing for the widow and her only son. Then suddenly the son got sick and died. Not much repayment for her hospitality!
Nowadays it is divorce, which is more often the ticket to poverty for women and children. In the ancient world, it was being left a widow without a man to provide for her that often led to poverty and destitution – as it often still did in our own society before Social Security and Medicare. So no wonder the widow was angry at Elijah and Elijah’s God! Even Elijah seemed to take her side. He called out to the Lord, “will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?” But then the Lord heard his prayer, and Elijah was able to return the boy alive to his mother.
Elijah is remembered for many things. One of them is this story of his compassion for this widow. Jesus himself mentioned it in his hometown synagogue in one of the early episodes of his public life. Unlike the story of Elijah and the widow, we don’t know what in particular may have brought Jesus to a city called Nain, where he was greeted at the city gate by yet another grieving widow, mourning her only son. It was (to borrow St. Augustine’s famous phrase) a case of misery meeting up with mercy. As far as we know, Jesus had no prior connection with the widow. Unlike Elijah, had not benefited from her hospitality. In that sense, he didn’t really owe her anything. But that didn’t block his compassion. And it was that compassion, in fact, which created a connection between them. Moved with pity for her, he touched the coffin, and said, “Young man, I tell you arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
Both these events were revelations of God. In Elijah’s case, the widow declared: “The word of God comes truly from your mouth.” At Nain, the crowd exclaimed “A great prophet has arisen in our midst” and “God has visited his people.” These incredibly miraculous events identified Elijah and Jesus as true prophets, great prophets, who embodied God’s word, and revealed God’s power. But more than power, they revealed God’s presence, his nearness. “God has visited his people.”
In those otherwise unimportant places, God visited his people – unimportant people, poor people, widows with no source of support, sons whose lives were being cut short way ahead of time (as happens violently to so many in our own society today). God didn’t just visit. He connected with them in a personal way. Elijah and Jesus did so directly by touching the dead bodies, which, of course, risked ritual impurity from contact with a corpse. Elijah and Jesus didn’t just speak God’s word, they acted it out, by touching the dead, and thus bonding with all grieving and suffering people there and everywhere.
Both Elijah (in anticipation) and Jesus (in fulfillment) were revealing the kingdom of God – not just talking about it as an abstract idea, but making it happen in people’s messed up lives by bonding with them. And, like the widow’s son, our own response to the surge of new life within us must be to get up and speak. Like the grieving widows and the people in the crowd, we too must recognize God’s word at work in our world, God visiting his people.
And not just visiting, but staying with us! Our human lives are created by the power of God, but they are maintained and sustained by his incredible compassion in not just visiting but being with us in Jesus – and in his Church. As beneficiaries of Christ’s compassionate presence in our lives, we are called upon to be its witnesses - to continue to express it and share it in our ordinary (and hence not so ordinary) lives together, embodying God’s new kingdom with one another in our world.
Homily for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 5, 2016