1 Kings 17:1-24 (NRSV)

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’ The word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Go from here and turn eastwards, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.’ So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

            The Berkeley philosopher, Judith Butler, tells a story in one of her recent books of a U.S. congressman giving a speech a few years ago to a large crowd in which he “suggested that those who have serious illness and cannot pay for health insurance, or ‘choose’ not to pay, as he would put it, would simply have to die.” Butler says that according to published reports on the speech, “A shout of joy rippled through the crowd.” She goes on, “It was, I conjecture, the kind of joyous shout that usually accompanies going to war or forms of nationalist fervor.” Butler continues,

“But if this was for some a joyous occasion, it must have been fueled by a belief that those who do not make sufficient wages or who are not in secure enough employment do not deserve to be covered by health care, and a belief that none of the rest of us are responsible for those people. The implication was clearly that those who are not able to achieve jobs with health care belong to a population that deserves to die and that is finally responsible for their own death.”[1]

            This scene took place a few years ago but, here in the midst of an election season beginning to heat up fast, it’s not hard to imagine this same scene repeating itself over and over again across the country: crowds cheering for politicians admonishing the most vulnerable for their own vulnerability, suggesting that they should suffer the consequences of their plight and that no one else should concern themselves with anyone’s wellbeing but their own. It’s stock-in-trade in our political milieu.   

            In our scripture text this morning, the Kingdom of Israel was divided, north and south. King Ahab ruled the northern Kingdom of Israel and, as the previous chapter tells us, was worse than all the kings who came before him (16:30). He had married the daughter of a neighboring King, Jezebel, and led the kingdom into the worship of the god Baal. When the prophet Elijah enters the scene at the outset of this text in 1 Kings, he delivers to King Ahab this prophetic word: “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”

            The story dramatizes the failure of King Ahab in ways that would be clear to ancient ears but may not be so clear to our own. Walter Brueggemann says that, just as modern presidents and political leaders are judged based on their ability to strengthen the economy of a country, “The measure of an effective king [in the Ancient Near East] is rain that produces crops.” In Elijah’s word from Yahweh, drought is imminent; “the capacity to administer rain and therefore life is taken from the king. [King Ahab] is made a political irrelevance, void of any critical function for society.”[2]

            As is often the case with prophets, Elijah is sent feeling for his life, living in exile. But the text turns quickly from the public political scene of prophetic enunciation against the defunct King and toward a more intimate scene. As with any prophetic injunction uttered against unjust political situations, there is an important systemic level of critique against oppressive political figures and corrupt institutions and unjust laws, and there’s the level at which life is lived by folks in the day-to-day: the place where the political becomes deeply personal.

            The river dried up and the ravens stopped bringing bread and Yahweh told the prophet, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So Elijah set out and went and when he came to the gate of the town – that ancient place of liminality, the in-betweenness of coming and going, some embarking on journeys and others returning home – at the gates of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks.

Having lost her husband and her source of economic survival, the widow is in a state of her own liminality and precarity. Should we doubt it, the text makes clear that she doesn’t even have enough food to sustain life for she and her child. To put it clearly: when Elijah encounters them, the widow and her son are actively starving to death.

            Elijah asks her for water and she hurriedly goes to retrieve it for the weary traveler at the town gate. He asks her for bread and she falters: “I..I have nothing. In fact, all I do have is one last morsel of bread for my son and I. We’re going to eat it together tonight. After that, we’ll starve to death. There’s a drought, you know. Where was it you said you’re coming from? You may not know, it hasn’t rained here in months.”

            And Elijah said, “Do not be afraid.”

            “Do not be afraid. Just go ahead and do what you’ve said, but first make me a little piece of bread, then afterwards make something for yourself and your son.

Because, while your ol’ corrupt King of Israel can’t guarantee rain and crops for your wellbeing, this is what the God of Israel says: ‘The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Yahweh sends rain on the earth.’”

“Do not be afraid,” Elijah said to the widow and her son who were one meager meal away from starving to death. “Do not be afraid” – the prophets of the Hebrew Bible all the way through Jesus spoke this characteristic salvation oracle. Brueggemann says of the oracle, “It is spoken against death in order to assure life. It is spoken against exile to assure homecoming. It is spoken against despair in order to assure hope. The speech mobilizes the life-giving power of Yahweh.”

Brueggeman, the Hebrew Bible scholar and theologian recently joined forces with organizational development gurus, Peter Block and John McKnight, to write a short book on “departing the consumer culture” titled, An Other Kingdom. In it, they say that the pervasive message that surrounds us today in the market culture is, “You do not have enough, therefore you are not enough.” It is the belief sustaining the market, they say. They go on to say that faith communities must believe and teach the alternative, claiming, “You are enough, and therefore you have enough.”[3]

It is the prophet’s work, Brueggemann says, “to enact the reality of abundance in a world seemingly governed by scarcity.”[4] In a society in which an elected leader would say that those who have serious illness and cannot pay for health insurance will simply have to die and he is met with raucous applause from joyful crowds, we see the governing power of scarcity at work. When our foreign policy discussions are too full of rhetoric about building walls and dropping bombs and deporting minorities, scarcity and fear have need of being met by prophetic voices proclaiming abundance.

Brueggemann, Block, and McKnight say, “To believe in abundance is to believe that we have enough…Even in the wilderness of an uncertain future. This thinking is a stretch of the imagination.”[5] For the prophets then and now, the invocation of the Divine presence among us – the claim of God – “stands as a limit against the reduction of reality to commodity.”[6] Whatever other good it serves, talk of the Divine should serve to stretch our imaginations enough so that in a wilderness of an uncertain future, we can still believe that we can have enough – that we are enough.

A woman who could not count on the provision of her daily bread – governed by scarcity – heard something that stretched her own imagination in ways that led her to bake for the prophet before she baked for herself and her own son. And the meal and the oil became enough to sustain them.

            But it’s not just the provision of enough food to endure the drought that is the miracle here. It is the widow’s internalization of that old salvation oracle – “Do not be afraid” – that is truly miraculous here. After the prophet returned to the home of the widow, her son became sick with an illness “so severe that there was no breath left in him.” And the woman turned to the prophet and said, “What have you done?” Juliana Claassens notes the extreme irony in this text, saying,

“The mother who only a couple of verses earlier was too tired to continue making a living in a very precarious situation, who expressed a death wish and was ready to give up, now is adamant that she will not let her son die. Something has happened to this woman. Transformed by her encounter with Elijah, as well as strengthened by the steady supply of food provided by God, this widow has found once more the will to live not only for herself but also for her son.”[7]

“You do not have enough, therefore you are not enough and you might as well just give up and die” is met with that ancient salvation oracle, “Do not be afraid,” and the woman’s spirit is vivified, her resolve to live is strengthened, and her commitment to the wellbeing of her son is animated such that even the prophet of God won’t get off the hook if he let’s her child die.

            And the prophet mounted no defense for himself or for God. In a moment of unparalleled tenderness, said to the weeping, insistent mother, “Give me your child.” Taking him from her bosom, Elijah carried the boy up to the prophet’s own bedroom where he was staying and laid him on his own bed. The prophet cried out to God, seeming to believe that his presence there may very well be behind the boy’s death. He put his own body against the boy’s and prayed for a revival: “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.”

And “the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.”

There were no witnesses to this miracle. No fanfare. No crowds with wide-eyes, amazed at the sight of resuscitation. The boy’s mother didn’t ask “How?,” or “Why?” The old prophet just comes downstairs and hands the child back to his mother and says, “See, your son is alive.”

Brueggemann says, “It is important in making the move from Elijah to Jesus that the miracles of raising the dead not be taken as isolated miracles, nor simply as dazzling acts of transcendence. They are rather engagement with the powers of death who seek to rob the vulnerable of life and well-being.”[8]

            “We have no food, we’re going to die.”

            “Do not be afraid. You’ll have enough. You are enough.”

            “My son is dying! What did you do?”

            “Give me the boy.”

            Flesh pressed against flesh, a prayer for revival: “God, let this child live again.”

            “See your son is alive.”

“Do not be afraid.”

OCBC has been a prophetic community for ages now: speaking against unjust laws and institutions, advocating for those whose voices have been drowned out by the loud workings of the systems of oppression. And there’s no end in sight for that work.

But there’s only one verse in this entire story where that type of work takes place: the very first verse, “Elijah said to King Ahab, ‘Now listen here…this is what God says about it!”

The rest of the story, though, is the rest of the story for prophetic communities like this one.

Speaking the salvation oracle into a culture profuse with fear, saying from a place of deep centeredness in the Divine, “Do not be afraid.”

Putting down our defenses when accused of conspiring with the abusers of the vulnerable, never entirely certain whether or not we’re complicit in the detriment of our neighbor. Non-defensive. Non-reactionary. Ever-present.

The flesh and bone body of prophets pressed right up against the nearly broken bodies of those whose fate has been nearly sealed by the death-dealing politics of scarcity – in the protest line, in the prison visitation room, in the corridors of power prophetically appealing for change. Crying out to God, “Let life come into them again.”  

Cultivating a community where those who have been told, “You don’t have enough and therefore you aren’t enough,” hear a prophetic reprisal of society’s death-dealing word, “You are enough and, if we join together rather that dividing one against the other, we can have enough.” Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.

[1] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge: Harvard, 2015), 12.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. R. Scott Nash (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwis, 2000), 209.

[3] Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann, and John McKnight, An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture (Hoboken: Wiley, 2016), 47.

[4] Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, 215.

[5] Block, Brueggemann, and McKnight, An Other Kingdom, 9.

[6] Block, Brueggemann, and McKnight, An Other Kingdom, 13.

[7] Juliana Claassens, “Commentary on 1 Kings 17:17-24,” Working Preacher, online: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2860

[8] Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, 217.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • June 4, 2016