‘truly a table for all’…
February 3, 2019
Scriptures: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 4:21-30
As I read through the scriptures and then returned to the gospel reading from Luke, I tried to imagine myself as being there in the crowd that day and listening to Jesus. And in particular, I tried to hear whatever it was, that partway through what seemed like a love-fest suddenly changed the whole tone of the conversation…what happened that moved that crowd of admirers so profoundly in another direction? It was one of those ‘why’ moments you come across in scripture from time to time…one of those when you know there must be more moments, there must be something that is not immediately obvious, that is not explicitly clear in the text…at least not until we look again very closely.
And that is when I saw a connection to last week’s Third Sunday message that dealt with the difficulties that can arise when we decide to hold up the gospels and the teachings of Jesus in particular as a source of truth and guidance for our lives in our own day. That is where I saw that truth can sometimes be something other than popular or welcome words…that ‘truth’ may not always line up with what we believe or want to hear. That is where it was affirmed for me once again, that going along to get along can be a slippery slope towards chaos and confusion, at least as far as guiding principals for the emergence and celebration of life in community is concerned. That is where I was reminded that the truth can incite strong feelings and, as we saw in Jesus’ case that day even murderous rage. Which of course caused me to look closely at what exactly Jesus said…what caused such a profound change?
And I think that the crowd may have become so enraged because Jesus was hinting at, or trying to share with them that God, their God-Yahweh, was in some ways bigger and more inclusive than they were prepared to accept…that their views of God and their self-identity as an exclusive ‘chosen people’ to the exclusion of others, was being closely examined and perhaps threatened by Jesus.
So, it was not just their understanding of the nature of God but rather the way in which they structured their own reality and the way they looked at the world around them as a result of that understanding that was being brought into question by Jesus.
That said, just who was this widow from Zarephath? And why were the actions of the prophet Elijah seemingly so out of line with the behavior expected of him as one of the greatest prophets of Hebrew history? Why did that crowd move from admiration to hatred of Jesus within the space of just a few words? Something seemed to be off…
To answer that and to understand better why Jesus’ words were so inflammatory, I think it would be helpful to review this ancient story of Elijah as it is found in 1 Kings and Chapter 17…to look at it a little more carefully.
So, with those scriptures as our guide, along with a touch of imagination and a sprinkle of poetic license, here is that tale…
Elijah and Donatiya – the widow of Sidon…
It had to be challenging times for the Hebrew people during the reign of King Ahab of Israel. But no more so than for the prophets of the Lord and in particular for the Prophet Elijah. Elijah had watched with increasing concern as the Israelite King had married Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon. And although Ahab had presumably done so for sound economic and political reasons, his marriage to Jezebel also meant that her worship of Ba’al had to become a part of the accepted and practiced religion of the Israelite kingdom. And although Ahab did not seem to mind, this intrusion of beliefs that were wholly opposed to those of the Hebrew worship of the Lord Yahweh caused great consternation in the hearts and minds, and indeed of the prophetic message of those such as Elijah. For Queen Jezebel had designs on elevating the worship of Ba’al to primacy in the Kingdom of Ahab and Elijah felt compelled to go to the king and to warn him that his ways had departed too far from those of the Hebrew God.
Boldly he went and proclaimed to King Ahab that the Lord had instructed him to tell the King that the whole region would now enter into a season of protracted drought due to the King’s unfaithfulness to the God of the Hebrews. Immediately the skies closed up and neither rain nor dew fell upon the land from that moment forward.
For his part, Elijah, who as a prophet of Yahweh was despised by Jezebel, followed the Lord’s instructions and went to hide by the river Cherith some distance away. Here the Lord continued to provide for the prophet as ravens brought him scraps of bread and meat to eat each morning, and as he was able to drink from the waters of the river.
But as the lack of rain dragged on and the land began to suffer from the drought, the river itself dried up as well. The Lord again came to Elijah and told him to go over to Zarephath in Sidon and to seek out a widow there named Donatiya whom the Lord said would feed and take care of him. Surely surprised that the Lord was sending him to the land that was a hotbed of Ba’al worship and the original home of Jezebel, Elijah may have paused for a moment…however the lack of any water in the river drove him to follow the Lord’s instructions and so off he went towards the territory of Sidon.
Upon reaching the outer gates of the small town of Zarephath, Elijah spied a woman there gathering sticks. Presuming her to be the one to whom he had been sent he called out to her saying, ‘Excuse me, but might it be possible for you to bring me a drink of water? I have been journeying through this hot and dry land and have a great thirst.’ Without saying a word, the woman turned to go and do as Elijah had asked. As she drew away, Elijah called out again to her asking, ‘Please, could you bring me some bread to eat as well, for I am quite famished?’
Turning back to Elijah the woman answered, ‘As your God Yahweh lives, I swear I have nothing baked, but only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil remaining in a jug. I was out here gathering sticks to build a fire that my young son and I might prepare one last meal before we perish from lack of food due to the drought.’
Elijah replied, ‘Do not be afraid Donatiya. Go, and do as you have said, but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and then afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For my God tells you that the jar of flour will not be empty and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the rains once again fall upon the earth.’
Surely puzzled that this stranger knew her name, but I imagine also sensing that Elijah was a man greatly blessed by God, the woman went and did as she was told. Following her back to her house, they and all the widow’s household ate and were fed for many days from the miraculous jar of flour and jug of oil that would not fail to provide. For his part, Elijah became a respected and honored member of the household as he shared with them stories of his faith and the challenging life of a prophet of the Most High God.
Then one morning, soon after Elijah awoke, there was a knock on the doorway to his room and Donatiya burst in. She had a wild-eyed and disheveled look as she began to berate Elijah saying, ‘What have you against us? Did not we welcome you into our home and feed and care for you lo’ these many months? How is it that your God has chosen to curse me by bringing such calamity upon my house? My son is severely ill and lies motionless in his bed barely breathing. Is his death the reward I get for caring for a messenger of your God?’
Shaken by her outburst, but strengthened by his resolve to set things right and to somehow assure the poor widow that this would not be the ending she so feared, Elijah followed the widow downstairs to the bedroom of the small boy where he saw that in fact the young boy had passed on while Donatiya was upstairs speaking with him. Donatiya immediately went over to her son and picking up the limp little figure began to weep uncontrollably.
Gently, but with a strange conviction Elijah said to her, ‘Donatiya, give me your son, bring him here to me.’ Looking up, Donatiya obeyed and gave her now lifeless son into the strong arms of Elijah. Turning and going back upstairs alone to his own room, Elijah laid the boy down upon his own bed. After closing the door to the room Elijah fell down upon his knees and began to implore the Lord, crying out, ‘Why Lord, why have you brought such deep distress upon this house and upon those who have been so kind to me. How could you have allowed this boy to die? He is all she has left.’
Seemingly hearing nothing in reply Elijah was desperate. Stretching himself across the young boy’s body three times he continued to cry out again to the Lord, ‘Oh Lord my God, let this child’s life come back into him again.’ Suddenly the boy stirred and seemed to miraculously revive. Looking up at Elijah and around the room he began to cry asking for his mother. Overjoyed, Elijah picked up the young boy and quickly carried him back downstairs. And as he reached the landing, he was met by Donatiya, for she had heard the cries of her son and had rushed to meet them.
Handing the boy over to his mother Elijah said to her, ‘Here is your son. My God has blessed him with life once again. Rejoice and fear not.’ Looking up at Elijah, Donatiya could barely speak, so overcome with emotion was she. ‘Elijah, now I truly know that you are a man of God, and that your God Yahweh truly is Lord of all powers, even of life and death itself.’ Then setting her son down to stand next to her she went over to the side of the room where the shrine to the Storm God Ba’al was located. Picking up the leonine figurine that was supposed to represent this primary God of the Sidonians, she broke off the head and threw the pieces into the fire. ‘This is what we do when we no longer serve a God’, she said. ‘From this day forward, me and my house shall serve the God of the Hebrews. For my son was dead and is now alive by the power of your God! Elijah, I now know that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the word of truth!’
…may this story from the ancient writings of our faith serve to bless, encourage…and challenge us…amen
So…this is one of the stories which Jesus brought back to mind for those gathered there that day. This memory, not only of Queen Jezebel and the deep harm she would ultimately inflict upon the followers of the Hebrew faith, but also the fact that the holy and revered Elijah would be sent to the place of her origin and be cared for by one who did not even know their God, much less worship him deeply disturbed them all. This story which Jesus referred to drove his listeners from admiration…to a desire to throw him off of a cliff.
And yet, Jesus was only reminding his listeners of the common history of their faith…these were stories found within the annals of their own scriptures. It appears that those gathered there that day just did not want to hear or to be reminded that those stories did not always line up so well with their self-understanding. They did not want to hear tell of a God so very different than the one they felt they needed.
You see, in some way Jesus was seeking to convey that the only real and enduring truth was that the love of God was for all, and that God, our God, was free to use whatever means or whatever people were needed to accomplish the divine will. I believe Jesus was sharing that the table of grace which will be set in the kingdom to come will have room for all people…for those of the faith…as well as for those still seeking…for those who believe just as we do, as well as for those who may still possess a graven image as their current god, be that ‘god’ a ‘storm-god’, or one of privilege, wealth, prejudice, or even greed. Jesus was telling his followers that they needed to let God be God, and to follow the command to love first and foremost, regardless of what external circumstances may seem to be indicating.
And so, as we prepare to share a common table ourselves, let us remember all who may feel left out…
…all who feel left out of community, for the truth is that there are none who we may reject as unworthy from the table of our Lord…
… all who may feel left out of a circle of close friends, for the truth is that we are each called to be friends with all whom the Lord places on the pathway before us…
… and finally, all who may feel left out in the darkness of confusion, or of an unsteady and seeming unreliable faith…for the truth is that only as we seek to share the grace of our God do we in fact find the words that can heal or lead another into that same grace.
Therefore…let us welcome every heart that still seeks, let us share only compassion…
…and in all truth and faithfulness let us gather around a table at which there truly is room for all…