In our Old Testament lesson from 1st Kings, the great prophet Elijah has been sent by God into enemy territory – the homeland of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, who desire Elijah’s death. Prior to this portion of the lesson we read, there is drought in the land for which Elijah as a representative of God is blamed. Elijah, near death from starvation himself, seeks out the widow of Zarephath to share the tiny bit of food she has left. In faith and profound hospitality, the widow shares with the stranger Elijah and finds that her jar of meal and jug of oil are miraculously continuously refilled.
Yet, sadly, as the story plays out, the son of the widow of Zarepath dies; this son is the widow’s only hope for provision in this harsh landscape; again Elijah is blamed. But, through Elijah’s obedience to God coupled with his unquestionable trust, the life of the widow’s son is restored.
The two scenes illustrate the cooperative efforts of two unlikely companions in faith – a man of God whose life is under siege by ruthless enemies and physical scarcity; and a widow, unable to provide for herself in this ancient society, her fate held in the hands of neighbors who may or may not have the compassion to reach out to her. For Elijah, the widow is the “other,” and for the widow, Elijah is the “other.” Yet, in the acceptance of each one for the other, God makes his presence known in miraculous ways. The jar of meal and the jug of oil do not fail to provide.
Similarly, Jesus reaches out to a widow, restoring the life of her only son. As in the time of Elijah, a widow in first century Israel was among the most disadvantaged socially and economically. The death of her only son further compromised her ability to survive as a marginalized member of society.
Jesus had nothing to gain by acting on the widow’s behalf, in fact he subjected himself to the disapproval of the religious leaders who would condemn him for reaching beneath his societal status and declare him ritually unclean for coming in contact with the dead body of this young man. Jesus’ actions demonstrated a new understanding of God’s mercy – mercy that extended beyond the boundaries of the old law and societal norms – mercy based on the greater good of compassion – mercy that was intended for all – mercy intended for the “other.” Jesus died on the Cross because he took his mission to the “other”; Jesus is vindicated in the Resurrection, which is the confirmation of God’s mercy for “the other.”
And, it is a situation of complications with the “other” that has riled the Apostle Paul as illustrated in his letter addressed to the people of Galatia. The majority of Paul’s letters begin with thanksgiving and expressions of joy for the faith expressed by his previous companions on his journeys. Not so, in this letter to the Galatians; Paul is abrupt, obviously angry, even rude.
Paul journeyed through the area of Galatia on the first three of his missionary journeys. By the time of his letter, the house churches he had inspired have begun to spring up and thrive within communities of Gentile believers. Interestingly, Paul’s anger is likely directed toward the Judaizers – Paul’s fellow Jews – Jews who insisted that non-Jews first convert to the strict religious requirements of Judaism before they could be accepted among the believers and followers of Jesus Christ. Apparently, these Judaizers had traveled the areas of Galatia intervening and disrupting the spiritual health. Perhaps they were putting their own spin on the Good News brought previously to Galatia by Paul as he was guided by God through the communities of this region. We don’t doubt their faith and sincerity; perhaps they feared that Paul had set the standards too low, receiving those on the fringes, making acceptance into the Church too easy.
The Judaizers preached the requirement of human initiation rites as prerequisite for inclusion in the Body of Christ; Paul preached salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ as the sole requirement for inclusion in the Body of Christ. The Judizers sought to enforce standards that separated them from the “other” – those they considered to be outsiders dependent upon them to find their way as God’s people.
Paul, on the other hand, emphasized God’s gift of salvation free to all who believe – free to all, free even to those outside the previously established earthly norms and barriers. Paul argued that he did not receive a gospel that was reconfigured to suit human earthly desires; Paul affirmed that the gospel he proclaimed was revealed to him by Jesus Christ himself.
The Apostle Paul, through his mission and ministry of Christ, reminds us that the Church is intended to be stretched to the margins. The Church is intended to be constantly going to the edges; we, the Church, are to make known the Word of Christ to those who make us uncomfortable with our selves. Here, we find our fullness in Jesus Christ.
How appropriate that we are reminded of the intention that we be stretched to receive those on the edge during this seemingly endless political season. Somehow we have always been quite crafty at compartmentalizing our political activities. We can throw eggs and hurl nasty insults and verbally attack our neighbor’s character, feeling quite justified and remorseless.
Jesus’ only criticism was of those groups who felt justified in raising themselves up while seeking to exclude others from God’s gift of eternal grace. As people of God we share the common ground of Jesus Christ; this is where we begin; this is where we return; again and again, we come together to the common ground of Jesus Christ. With lowered voices and open hearts, embracing the “other,” we come to the fullness of Jesus Christ.
In the fullness of Jesus Christ, embracing the “other,” our jar of meal will not be emptied and our jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord reigns on the earth.