Title: Waiting for Elijah
Text: 1 Kgs 21
Author: Chris Gooding
The ministry of the prophet Elijah only takes up five and a half chapters of 1st and 2nd Kings. Six and a half in the entire Bible, if you include the nasty letter that he writes to king Jehoram in 2 Chronicles 21. That’s it. Six and a half chapters. If the people who appear in the Bible were ranked in level of importance by the length of the narratives about their lives, Elijah would only register as a fairly minor figure. And in much of Christian history, he has registered as a fairly minor figure. In my own upbringing, Elijah was one of those characters that we learned cool stories about in Sunday school, but never really came away with a good understanding of why he might be of any significance beyond the entertainment value of those stories. In Jewish history, however, these six and a half short chapters have really captured the Jewish imagination.
The thing about Elijah that seems to have really grabbed the Rabbis’ imagination is not the fact that he raised a widow’s son, or that Elijah encountered the voice of God in a whisper at Horeb, or the fact that he could call down fire from heaven hot enough to consume sacrifices and evaporate moats instantaneously. What really seems to have enamored the Rabbis about Elijah is the fact that Elijah’s career as prophet never ended. Remember, Elijah is distinct among figures mentioned in the Bible in that he never died: instead he rode the fiery whirlwind straight up into heaven. This led to the conception that Elijah is still out there somewhere, roaming the earth and dispensing his collective wisdom do all who have ears to hear. This is why, at a traditional Passover Seder, you leave a chair empty at the table, just in case Elijah shows up and wants to eat with you. In the Talmud, the Rabbis consult Elijah for advice all the time, and the fact that they are speaking to the prophet is often treated by the Talmud as though such a meeting is really no big deal—it seems as common as having a casual conversation with a friend over lunch. But they consult Elijah because he knows the answers to all the tough questions. He can tell you where to find the Messiah. He can tell you how God felt when the Rabbis told him that he couldn’t weigh in on debates about the Law anymore. And he can tell you what to do about that troublesome hermit who lives in a cave on the edge of town and has started shooting lightning bolts out of his eyes and melting people at random.
This fascination with the prophet Elijah seems to have been in full force in Jesus’ day, too. He is mentioned by name in all four Gospels, Romans and James. In the Gospel of Luke, upon finding that being near their teacher has given them the power to wield all sorts of miracles, it isn’t long before James and John want to imitate one of Elijah’s more famous miracles by calling fire down on Samaria. It is quite possible that people in Jesus’ day also believed that Elijah was still wandering the earth somewhere, as Jesus is told by his disciples “some say you are Elijah.” Certainly, Jesus denies that he is Elijah, but he goes on to claim that John the Baptist is Elijah, and that his own ministry is in continuity with this Elijah. When Jesus is hung on a cross, and cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” bystanders assume that he is calling Elijah for assistance.
Why is everyone waiting for Elijah? When your entire career is almost summed up in the OT part of the lexionary for the month of June (we read four out of those six and a half chapters this month), what could possibly have been so eventful about it that it would merit this much expectation? Is it simply because he didn’t die, and everyone expected him to have acquired quite a bit of knowledge wandering the earth? Or was there something more to it?
Further, what might it mean that Jesus reminds everyone of Elijah? I took a class last semester that was about various images of Jesus in the Church through the centuries. We covered everything from monastic conceptions of Jesus as “the monk who rules the world,” to the “manly, scrappy Jesus” of Christian men’s movements (a Jesus even hyper-masculine pastor Mark Driscoll would love), from the “Jesus the CEO” of 1980s corporate America to the “Jesus the Black Moses” of 1960s black liberation movements. At times, the class was quite disturbing. Looking at some of the quite terrible images of Jesus that the Church has produced throughout its history is enough to wonder if we should add one more. Worse yet, the image of Jesus has been especially co-opted by many American ideologies. Stephen Prothero has even called him a “national icon.” You simply cannot be American and not have to deal with Jesus—even American Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists have had to find some way of dealing with him, of molding him into an image that fits their beliefs. This results in Jesus the bodhisattva, Jesus the avatar of Vishnu, and Jesus the enlightened humanist. While one suspects that distortion has occurred within these conceptions, these are often less heinous than the images produced by some Christian sub-groups. I mentioned Jesus the CEO before—that Jesus is actually worshipped as God by men and women who carry out cutthroat corporate takeovers and give themselves large bonuses in a faltering economy. Is it wise to consider adding Elijah into this mix, or would more distortion result? Would Elijah make for a good image of Jesus?
I can’t help but think that our passage for today helps us to understand Elijah’s significance, and why he has captivated the imaginations of so many Jews over the centuries, despite receiving short mention in the Bible. In our passage for today, the evil king Ahab (whom the book of Kings credits with doing more evil in Israel than all the kings that came before him) wants to make a simple business transaction. He wishes to acquire Naboth’s vineyard, but Naboth resists all of Ahab’s offers to buy or trade for the land. Naboth does this because the land is his ancestral home—his family has worked that land for generations. Like a sullen child who finds his desire to acquire a new toy thwarted, Ahab returns home, lies on his bed, and pouts. His wife Jezebel then decides to take action on his behalf, and makes plans to acquire the vineyard by force. She gets two witnesses (the same number required to apply a death sentence in Jewish trial law) to falsely testify against Naboth. His crime? He’s accused of being a blasphemer and a political traitor. He curses God and curses the king. He lacks the necessary piety and patriotism. So he is put to death. Jezebel then tells Ahab to go and take possession of the vineyard. Into this situation, God calls Elijah. The message Elijah is to deliver? That Ahab’s fate will be like Naboth’s. That Ahab and Jezebel’s violence will only beget more violence.
I believe Elijah became so significant to many Jews because of the circumstances of his term as prophet. Elijah was the prophet who opposed what was perhaps Israel’s most evil king. Under Ahab’s watch, not only did the king lead people astray by officially instituting Baal worship, but Jezebel even initiated a full-scale purge against the prophets of YHWH. YHWH worshipers were persecuted by their fellow Israelites. Ahab led Israel to sin, and made life difficult to the faithful. Into this situation, when Israel was at its lowest, God called Elijah. Elijah came not only bringing grandiose miracles such as droughts and fire from heaven, announcing God’s judgment against the nation, but also to announce to Ahab that his days are numbered. Elijah is a reminder that all bad regimes come to an end, and that no government, no nation, and no governmental office are above accountability. Elijah also does not remain above the fray of the regime’s oppression of the poor and the faithful. Elijah lives as a homeless wanderer, taking up residency with widows, and being fed by ravens. Elijah is quite a natural person for the hungry, the homeless, the refugee and the exile to wait expectantly for. And so an empty chair can become a sign of hope. In exchange for a small act of hospitality, the prophet might come and announce the immanent end to the regime that causes your suffering. Since the Jews have been wanderers throughout their history, Elijah is a very natural figure to choose as their symbol of hope.
My friend Christina recently returned from a trip from Israel. Christina was a Mennonite at one point in her life, and she has seen quite a number of MCC presentations on what it is like to live in the conditions beyond the checkpoints in the Palestinian territories. She was quite far from being a supporter of the policies of the Israeli military. In speaking to her this week about her experience there, she said that seeing the conditions that many Palestinians face on a day to day basis did not do much to change her opinion of the Israeli government. But she did say that she became a little more sympathetic to the Zionists when she walked through the Holocaust museum there. To see such detailed documentation of Jewish persecution, much of which coming from the anti-Semitism of Christian thinkers such as Martin Luther, and to see the reactions of 18-year-old Israeli military cadets as they were ushered through the museum as a part of their training, she could understand why these young men would go to such lengths to assure that such things never again happened to their people. This did not make her think that it was any less ridiculous when the military raided aid flotillas during her stay in Israel, but it did leave an impression on her. “It’s such a complicated situation,” she finally concluded.
Rereading the text for today after talking with Christina, I couldn’t help but think that Christina is looking for an Elijah. Our story for today seems oddly similar the situation she observed. It includes a land dispute where one party claims ancestral inheritance, and the other claims the divine right of the one who sits enthroned as the enforcer of God’s Law. The owner is finally executed when his piety and his nationalism are questioned, as many courageous Jews who publicly oppose Israeli policies toward Palestinians find their own faith and their own loyalty to their country questioned. Into this situation, Elijah, a faithful Jew, announces that violence only begets more violence. He reminds us that no government that uses the courts to kill and defraud people of their land can ever build a lasting legacy. The alternative response to this cycle of violence that Elijah invites us into as he enters the scene is one of repentance and hospitality—one that leaves a chair open so that wanderers might sit at your table. Such hospitality may require some sacrifice and courage. In our reading for last week, the widow of Zarephath was not well off, and taking in boarders is an act of faith, but she extended her hospitality to the homeless prophet nonetheless.
Elijah is also the perfect person to wait for when we find that the villain is “one of us.” Christina mentioned that she felt constantly aware in the Holocaust museum that Christians had contributed to the current situation by building anti-Semitic regimes, and that the American government had contributed to the current situation by blindly supporting all Israeli military policies. As an American Christian traveling in this land, she felt doubly condemned. Elijah helps us to see that even when the greatest contributors to a conflict are found among our ranks—Ahab was, after all, was an Israelite—they still need to be called to account, and sacrifice and hospitality is still the required response. Elijah shows us that even the political offices and institutions that we hold dear are not above correction when they avoid that call.
All that, of course, is to oversimplify a situation that Christina rightly called “complex.” What hospitality looks like in that situation is hard to grasp. But it does help to show us why Elijah would have been so compelling a person to wait for among a people that find themselves perpetually homeless. Elijah may not be a very compelling figure to wait for to an 18-year-old military cadet who looks upon the history of his people and swears “never again” between clenched teeth, and he may not be a compelling figure to wait for to the American senator who looks upon that same history and wishes to erase the guilt of their own complicity by writing blank checks for military support. And that might be the reason why I think Elijah does make a good image of Jesus: because he appeals to the right contingency. More than this, however, Jesus confirms that Elijah is a good image for him when he tells the disciples that he is not Elijah, but John the Baptist is, and John’s work is a preparation for Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus is about the same sort of things that Elijah was. He appeals to the same constituency.
This realization may help us to approach the sometimes perplexing story that we encounter in the Gospel lesson for today—the story of the woman who anoints Jesus and washes his feet with her tears. Several months back, Matt preached on one of the parallel accounts of this incident in one of the other Gospels (whether that Gospel was Matthew or Mark, I can’t remember). He expressed some frustration at this passage, and mentioned that he often finds himself empathizing with the disciple who complains about the other uses the money could have been put to—such as feeding the poor. I shared Matt’s frustrations, and upon finding that this passage fell on a Sunday that I was going to preach, I groaned and vowed to avoid it. But upon closer inspection, I realized that this passage from Luke is quite different from its parallels. Here, the thing that evokes the disgust of Simon the Pharisee is not the extravagance and wastefulness of the gift, but rather, the person who is giving it. “If this man were a prophet,” he says to himself, “he would have known what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” If Jesus is really a prophet, then he is the wrong sort of person for this woman to be touching, and she is the wrong sort of person for him to allow in his presence. Jesus responds to Simon’s objection by giving a message that complements Elijah’s. Just as violence begets violence, so forgiveness begets forgiveness, and not only forgiveness, but also gratitude. The answer to the cycle of violence is the cycle of forgiveness. Jesus informs us that the way that people will know that we are his is that we will live out of forgiveness, and because we are forgiven, we will shower others with extravagant hospitality. We will shower it upon others embarrassingly. We will shower it upon others wastefully. We will shower it upon others foolishly. We will shower it upon those who are entirely the wrong sort of people—the people that we are told we shouldn’t be able to forgive.
This is exactly the sort of hospitality that it is difficult for the vengeful Israeli soldier and the guilty American politician to exercise. This is because they are blocking off such generosity at its source (namely, forgiveness), albeit in different ways. If we are to be the sort of people who are able to wait for the Prophet (and Simon the Pharisee reminds us that Jesus is a prophet), and to shower him with the requisite hospitality when he comes, then we must live out of the forgiveness we have received. We must realize the gravity the debt that has been cancelled for us.
The image of Elijah the wandering prophet is just the sort of thing we need to combat the image of Jesus the manly scrapper, Jesus the Crusader, and Jesus the CEO, because those images undermine the politics of forgiveness that Jesus came preaching. Those images try to co-opt Jesus in order to justify the jealous protection of something that we perceive others are trying to take from us—whether it be masculinity, the truth of our beliefs, or the right to consume. The image of Elijah the wandering prophet combats these images by calling for us to give even when we are poor. But even this poverty is illusory, once we consider the great riches that we have in the forgiveness we have been given through Jesus Christ. So I have left an empty chair here as a symbol of hope, and a symbol of peace. To remind us that no evil regime will last forever. To remind us of the hospitality that our forgiveness calls for. And so that we might wait expectantly for the Prophet until he comes again.