Tenth Sunday of the Year, June 5, 2016
The Books of Kings tell of faithful prophets, of only somewhat faithful kings, and of the consequences of their choices. Several stories are about the prophet Elijah and what God accomplishes through him. In this story, Elijah is lodging with a poor widow and her only child. God has already provided miraculous food for them, but the situation now worsens.
Some Jewish Christians were insisting that Gentile converts to Christ observe ancient Jewish laws. Preparing to argue against them, Saint Paul asserts his credentials and the sources of his authority to preach a more liberating gospel.
In Jesus' time, childless widows were socially very disadvantaged. Saint Luke stresses Jesus compassion toward such a woman. He reverses her misfortune by restoring her dead son to her.
The Historical Situation and Theological Background: The Books of Kings were written well after the events they describe by an author who had this intent: His main interest is in keeping his audience faithful to the Lord. So he tells the story of each of Israel's kings, with emphasis on how the king was or was not faithful. "The faithful prosper; the unfaithful pay for their defections," as the Introduction to 1 Kings in The New American Bible explains. And when the author compares prophets to kings, the prophets are always the more faithful. Our particular passage today is from a collection of stories of miracles wrought by the prophet Elijah, who famously went up against King Ahab and his pagan Queen Jezebel over the worship of the false god Baal.
The immediate context of this passage is this: Elijah has been relying on the Lord, following abrupt and somewhat unlikely directives, but the Lord has kept him well. Elijah begins staying in the home of a poor widow and her son, and the Lord provides for them, though just barely. Now the stakes become higher. In this culture, a widow without a son to take care of her is dangerously vulnerable and likely disgraced.
Proclaiming It: Read the first sentence slowly, emphasizing "son" and "his", so that your listeners know who exactly is in danger of death.
Why, in the next sentence, is the widow so indignant, and how should the lector faithfully proclaim that? The answer is in the text of the prior paragraph and elucidated in Lector's Notes on that passage. The widow's tone of voice (and the lector's) expresses the apparent limits of what might endure while trying to entrust everything to God. So make her sound desperate and angry.
Do the same for Elijah's cry to the Lord. His faith, too, is being put to the test by these events.
At the end, give the widow a confident, even amazed tone of voice, as she announces the truth that has won her over.
The Historical Background: Among the Galatian Christians were a group who insisted that all Christians should observe Jewish laws (circumcision of males, kosher food preparation, sabbath rest, etc.). The Apostle Paul had done those things (he was a Jew, after all), but he knew they were not part of God's plan for sharing life and grace outside of historical Judaism. The Judaizers, as we call these other partisans, claimed that their version of the gospel was closer than Paul's to the gospel preached and believed by the earliest Christians in Jerusalem.
So Paul had to prove his credentials to the Galatian Christians.
Proclaiming It: Were Paul stating this himself, he would sound authoritative and emphatic. It is not just his reputation at stake here, though. As we'll see in further readings from the Letter to Galatians in the near future, his zeal was for the liberty of the people who had heard the saving gospel. He did not want their conversion to be to a warmed-over Judaism, nor did he want Christ's self-gift for them to yield just a bland, minor change. So as lector you should sound convinced, confident and caring.
Square Leon-Serpollet, Paris (detail), watercolor on paper, 2016, by the American artist Martha Kelly, used with permission. See the complete work here (scroll to mid-page), and visit her website here.
Martha charmed me with a painting of her own church, a fine neo-Gothic structure on a pretty campus in Memphis, Tennessee. But she painted it from an alley. Prominent in the foreground are dumpsters, a delivery truck and telephone poles. "Ah," I said, "the church in the midst of the gritty city, right where we belong. This person gets it." When I design my next website, about hearing the Sunday scriptures as a community, I'll ask Martha to let me put the image on the masthead.
Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.
This page updated May 12, 2016