Last Sunday our readings talked about prophets and healing. The connection goes deeper than it first appears.
We are at last back to Ordinary Time. In this third year of the cycle, we are reading through Luke’s Gospel in order. In this section of the year, we are also reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians; since we are reading both of these things in order, the connections are somewhat coincidental, typically rich but subtle. But the Old Testament reading is chosen for its explicit connection to the Gospel.
The Gospel for this tenth week is the widow of Nain; the Old Testament widow of Zarephath is an obvious parallel. In both cases, a widow has lost her only son. There are immediate emotional resonances. These resonances are powerful, but they go deeper.
In both cases, the man of God–Elijah and Jesus–accomplishes one of his greatest miracles by bringing the young man to life. Elijah is thus a “type,” a pre-figurement, of Jesus. The Old Testament is like a prism, separating the intense light that is Jesus into myriad lesser lights. The prism makes a rainbow – and all those colors are contained in the white light that enters the prism. Jesus contains the greatness of Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, David, Elijah, and all the rest. The stories of Elijah bring out certain parts of the greatness of Jesus.
But it is deeper than it seems.
In each case, the response is not just about the emotional experience of receiving the dead son. The widow of Zarephath says to Elijah, “Now indeed I know that you are a man of God.” The miracle points beyond the gift it gives, to the power from which that gift is given. It testifies beyond itself, to Elijah’s message. She adds something deeper and more specific: “The word of God comes truly from your mouth.”
So too, the people who surround the widow of Nain say to Jesus, “A great prophet has arisen in our midst” and “God has visited his people.” This is the essence of a miracle: not only that something remarkable is done, but that it points beyond itself, to God’s deeper gifts of presence to his people.
In both cases, they note that the wonder worker is a prophet, a speaker. “The word of God comes truly from your mouth.”
The prophet speaks to God and for God. “Elijah called out to the Lord.” He remonstrated: “O Lord, my God, will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son.” And he pleads with God: “O Lord, my God, let the life breath return to the body of this child.” And “The Lord heard the prayer of Elijah.”
Elijah is a prophet – one from whom we hear God’s word – because he is first a man of prayer, someone who speaks to God and is heard. Yes, the miracle testifies to God’s favor in him. But it goes deeper. There is something deeper here, about speaking with the Lord.
It goes even deeper. Elijah’s prayer emphasizes the breath of the young man. (I am on vacation and don’t have my Bible software, but I think there are important Hebrew words here about the Spirit and the Word.) “Let the life breath return to the body of this child.” “The life breath returned to the body of the child.” It is not just life that comes to the young man, but the power of speech.
In the Gospel, the same thing is explicit. “The dead man sat up and began to speak.” The gift of God, the gift of life, is the gift of speech.
These prophets, these men who speak God’s word, are men who speak to God and give the power of speech. God’s spirit, his own power of speech, empowers them to prayer, it empowers them to speak his word, it empowers them to put the word into others. God’s word that made the world gives life and speech to us.
There is more going on than we realize when God gives us his word in Scripture. The Bible itself is this power of life-giving speech, God’s word become ours.
And this is the theme at the beginning of Galatians. Galatians 1 is the central discussion of what it means to be an Apostle. Paul is confirming the authority of his preaching.
Here, the first authority is a different kind of healing. Whereas Elijah is proved a prophet by giving breath to the young man, Paul is proved a prophet by the changing of his speech, from persecution of the Church to proclamation. Elijah and Jesus gave speech to the young men whom they raised from the dead; Paul was dead not in body but in speech, and Jesus restored him by giving him new speech.
Paul emphasizes that he didn’t need to learn the Gospel. This is a strange theme: Paul did not become an apostle because he read it in a book or learned from tradition, but because God’s spirit, God’s breath, was in him inspiring his speech.
And yet for this reason, Paul himself becomes a font of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium. And so the central act of his conversion is to go spend fifteen days “conferring” – that is, speaking – with Peter and James, the leaders of the Apostles.
Their words are inspired.
How can you let yourself be filled with God’s speech?