Above all, mercy

Homily for Year C Proper 5: I Kings 17.(8-16) 17-24; Galatians 1.11-end; Luke 7.7-11

Today’s gospel reading falls into the assembly with a mighty plop and we watch its ripples radiating and multiplying. The burden of it -its central call and announcement- is that compassion for those in need is the crown of all things, stronger even than the demands of a faith tradition and its purity laws.

This going beyond the bounds of our expectations is seen in the Old Testament reading, in which Elijah is sent by God to a widow in Zarephath, Sidon: abroad; he goes to her in the midst of a crippling drought inflicted in consequence of the faithlessness of the King of Israel and his wife, the merciless and opportunist double act of Ahab and Jezebel. Through a eucharistic sharing of the little food that remains, Elijah and the widow enable the miracle of the never-ending meal and oil – symbols of God’s perpetually-merciful provision. But this is mere prelude: when the widow’s son later dies, Elijah is called again to travel beyond the known boundaries of God’s power, showing God to be almighty even in the land of death and darkness by retrieving the son from Sheol and restoring him to his mother’s love. She had thought his death a punishment for her sinfulness: in his resuscitation, she discovers (like the widow of Nain) that the heart of the story has always been the divine compassion.

This story of Elijah (and the comparable story of Elisha’s healing of Naaman the Syrian) are used by Jesus to indicate to the people of Nazareth that prophets are often driven far beyond their own land before they find an audience worthy of their message. It is an unwelcome observation that the real children of God are not the casual inheritors of the tradition, but the thoughtful and deliberate disciples of no matter what background ever. It is this sort of talk that will get you thrown off a cliff if the town’s religiously impeccable manage to get their way (Luke 4).

And, as if the Nain story’s prioritising of mercy over righteousness were not challenge enough, Luke presents it as one of a pair, whose other half sees the prioritising of foreigners over the pure-bred: in healing the centurion’s slave, Jesus remarks that in all of Israel he has not seen faith like that of the Gentile soldier. As they say in another place: go figure.

These then are the ripples that make clear what God is up to, and what God’s children must be up to if we are to be worthy of the name. It is this catalogue of proclamation, healing and raising from the dead that is presented to John’s disciples as the compelling evidence that Jesus truly is the one who has been waited for and longed for (Luke 7.18ff).

But his activity, of course, will continue to cross boundaries of time and place. It is to this that Paul attests in the epistle: the gospel and charge that he receives is from Christ himself and none other. His is the word Paul takes into all the world, starting in Arabia, and ending up in one’s own parish and way beyond. The gospel reading’s final ripples are those that have encircled us at our own baptism, and that now break upon the shore where we stand to make our daily decision of faith.

In a moment, we will stagger to our feet and recite the Creed without too much trouble. But that’s not really the tricky bit, or the necessary bit, or the truly faithful bit. This won’t start till later, when we’re out in the world: a world often too afraid to be generous; a world where the culture of entitlement can silence any voices of grace and compassion; and where some would foster the crazed illusion that the pure-bred can huddle together with their fingers in their ears going la la la in the face of a world of divinely-ordained diversity and immensely challenging complexity.

It is in this world that our discipleship of Jesus is hidden or revealed. Today’s gospel is clear that if we would follow him, it is by a compassionate crossing of the borders of tribe and tradition that he and we will be made known.