Proper 5 • 1 Kings 17:17–24 • June 6, 2010
By Dr. Timothy Saleska
A question I want to ask you: Does it matter to you if this story is true or not? I don’t mean the question as a test of your orthodoxy. It is not a, Do you believe the Bible is true or a bunch of fables? type question. I don’t mean it as the kind of question you can answer right or wrong and go your way … unchanged.
When I ask, Does it matter to you? it is a Does it matter to you what the doctor tells you after she looks at the x-rays type question? Does it matter to you what the woman you love will answer you? type question. It is a Is my son or daughter going to be okay? kind of matter … A churning stomach matter ! A sweaty palms matter! Does the truth of the story matter in that way to you?
For most of you, probably not. (And some of you may be thinking—smugly—“what do you mean by ‘true’? ‘True’ in what way?”) But that’s only because you aren’t holding a dead child in your arms like this widow from Zarapheth. In the story, truth came down from its lofty abstractions and fell into the widow’s arms. Truth bore into her heart as killing guilt—condemning her as an accomplice in his death.
Now, that might not matter to you. (It’s just a story, right?) But that’s because you are able (for now) to deny the truth that this woman could not.
It is the most brutal of truths that rarely shows its face. To look full in the face all the time at the terror would consume us, and so we push it into the background and by and large remain oblivious to it in our daily lives. Psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg says it this way: “A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die some day, but he does not really care. He is having a good time with living and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it—but this is purely intellectual, verbal admission. The affect of fear is repressed.”1
William James says the same thing: “Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of and the skull will grin in at the banquet ” (italics added).2
In the story, the grinning skull demanded a seat at the widow’s table. She no longer could live the illusion of immortality. The terrifying truth had shattered it. If you have been given ears to hear, Death as your truth shows its face in this story.
If the story matters to you, notice that Elijah does not minister to this woman by repressing the truth, or by telling her that everything will be okay, i.e. “God is watching over you” and so on. He said: “Give me your son.” And he stretched himself three times over the body and asked God to raise him. AND GOD LISTENED! Then Elijah gave the boy back to his mother and said: “Look, your son’s alive.” Just like that!
Can God do that? Will God do that? Is there another Elijah—a prophet who has God’s ear? Can I find him? Can he do that for me? Can it happen again? When the truth has shattered your illusions, when the skull hangs there grinning at you, then the truth of this story matters. We all know deep down that the only solution for the ever-present fear of death is resurrection.
Therapy, psychoanalysis, ignoring, forgetting, won’t really get you anywhere. The only rescue from death is being raised from it. The only true comfort for this widow was just what Elijah did—he gave her dead son back alive!
One reason we keep repeating this story and others like it is to bring the possibility to your imagination. We tell it, so that in our grief and longing we imagine what it would be like for such a thing to happen! Just imagine it! Our liturgy and hymns and prayers, music and art and architecture all serve the same purpose—to confront the terror of death with the hope—the beautiful dream—of resurrection. The ultimate balm against Death’s mortal wound!
In with and under it all, of course, stands the Resurrection Story: the death of God’s own Son. And then … just when all seemed lost … his resurrection! God did a resurrection for this widow! God did a resurrection for his own Son. Is it true? Will it be true for you? Instead of the skull grinning in on the banquet, is Jesus doing the smiling, the laughing at your banquet? At THIS banquet [Holy Communion]? The questions matter like nothing else!
At the end of the story, the widow says kind of an odd thing. She says to Elijah: “Now I know that you are a man of God and the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” It’s that phrase, “the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” The woman knew truth when she saw it! Her son was dead, but now he was alive. Yea, she knew truth!
And her witness calls out to us through the ages: The Word of the Lord in your mouth is truth. It’s the Word of the Lord you hear in your Baptism: you are buried and raised with Christ. It’s the Word of the Lord you have at his Banquet: this is my body and blood given for you for the forgiveness of your sins! You hear it in the Absolution: your sins are forgiven.
Get it? The Word of the Lord is in your story too! The Lord has spoken to you as well. And with it is the truth of the resurrection. Amen.
1 Quoted in Ernest Becker. The Denial of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973), 17.
2 Ibid., 16.