Nineteenth Sunday: The Still, Small Voice

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

1 KNGS  19:9a, 11-13a; PS 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14; ROM 9:1-5; MT 14:22-33

This week we again have a deceptively simple Gospel story. Again, like the parables, there is more than meets the eye.

“Jesus made the disciples get into a boat . . . . The wind was against it. . . . ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’ . . . ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ . . . ‘Lord, save me!’ . . . ‘Why did you doubt?’ ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”

Again, the story is rich and beautiful and stirring even on its surface level. Jesus is Lord of Creation – “consubstantial with” the “maker of heaven and earth.” He can save us, but we must trust him. Good!

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But the liturgy takes us deeper into the riches of this he story by setting it against Elijah and Romans.

The story from First Kings is the “still small voice.” Elijah knows God, and God speaks to him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.”

There follows “a strong and heavy wind . . . crushing rocks before the LORD” (pretty impressive!), an earthquake, and a fire – “but the LORD was not in the wind.”

Our translation says there was finally a “tiny whispering sound.” Now, there’s an insight in that translation. God is not just in the excitement – not just in the walking on waves and calming of storms, but also in the tiniest details. And though destruction is impressive, and may go “before the LORD,” God is not in destruction. The real presense of God is more subtle than that.

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But I think in another way our translation is unfortunate. The old King James has “a still small voice,” and so far as I can tell from my concordance (I am not a Hebrew scholar, but have some good tools), the tiny whispering is not just a “sound” but a “voice.” The Hebrew word seems to be about calling, beckoning, and Elijah’s response is to go out to meet it.

He not only hears a sound. He is called. And indeed, what follows (after what we will hear at Mass) is instructions.

God is Lord of nature, yes. He can walk on the sea and still the waves, and that is important. But more important is that he calls to us, speaks to us, converses with us, and tells us the way we should go. God is more intimate than just impressive miracles.

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Our reading from Romans is a little obscure. It begins the very difficult chapters 9-11, in which Paul discusses the plight of the Jews. Paul is a Jew, and loves the Jews: “I could wish that I myself were accursed . . . for the sake of my people.” And Paul insists on the truth of the Jewish faith: “theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” Christ does not annul Judaism, he fulfills it.

The connections to our other readings are subtle. Paul begins, “my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart,” yearning for the salvation of his people.

This is a very fine statement, close to the heart of Paul’s teaching. “My conscience joins with the Holy Spirit.” It is the still small voice. God speaks to us interiorly. He enlightens us, illumines us – and so sets Paul afire, with “great sorrow and constant anguish.”

God doesn’t just do miracles. He speaks, and his word is life.

Paul works throughout to explain the continuity of this with “the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” All of that speaking in the Old Testament is the same God who speaks to Paul – and to Elijah, and to Peter. He is a God who shows us the way to him, and tells us about himself.

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Let us return, briefly, to the Gospel. The reading begins strangely: “Jesus made the disciples get into a boat . . . while he dismissed the crowds.” He sets them up. Their obedience to his word prepares them to receive his miracle.

And at the heart of that miracle is a dialogue:

“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

“Lord, save me!”

“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

It isn’t about walking on water. It’s about hearing his words of peace, calling out to him, and learning to trust.

How could we find more opportunities to heed his promises to us?

eric.m.johnston

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