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Scripture In Depth

10th Sunday of Ordinary Time
June 5, 2016
Reginald H. Fuller

Reading I: 1 Kings 17:17-24

This reading is from the cycle of Elijah stories, which present various exploits of the prophet, all of them miraculous. Tempting though it may be, it would be misleading to try to rationalize the miracles by giving them some purely naturalistic explanation. We should not, for instance, say that the child in our reading was not really dead but only in a coma. Such miraculous features belong essentially to the genre. Truth (God is Lord over death) is being conveyed by means of story rather than by means of history. It is the exegete's and homilist's task to bring out the truth rather than to retell the story as a historical report.

In 1 Kings 17:18 the woman complains that the prophet has come to “bring my sin to remembrance.” This very important statement offers a clue to the biblical conception of remembrance (anamnesis). The late Gregory Dix, a well-known Anglican patristic scholar and liturgiologist, cited this passage as part of his evidence for the biblical idea of remembrance: “In the scriptures both of the Old and New Testaments, anamnesis and the cognate verb have the sense of 'recalling' or 'representing' before God an event in the past, so that it becomes operative here and now by its effects [italics Dix's … So the widow of Sarepta (1 Kgs 17:18) complains that Elijah has come 'to recall to (God's) remembrance (anamnesis) my iniquity' and therefore her son has died.”

The woman, of course, expresses the popular conviction that any calamity was a direct punishment for sin, a belief that Jesus seems to repudiate in the Fourth Gospel (Jn 9:3). But more important, she learns that the word of the Lord in the mouth of the prophet is “truth,” that is, it does what it says. Note the biblical meaning of the word “truth.” It is not just factual accuracy, nor is it truth in a philosophical sense. It means fidelity—here the fidelity of Yahweh to his promises, a fidelity shown by his acts. So the climax of the story—and here lies its theological point—is that the woman discerns that Elijah is indeed a man of God, and that the word of God is effective in deed.

Responsorial Psalm: 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12, 13

Originally this Psalm was the thanksgiving of an individual for deliverance from death (first stanza and refrain). Already in Israel, when it was taken up into the hymnbook of the temple, this psalm would have acquired a more corporate meaning. It is a psalm that might well have been sung by the woman of Zarephath when she received her son back alive, for it speaks of the transition from depression to joy.

Reading II: Galatians 1:11-14a, 15ac, 16a, 17, 19

Paul's Judaizing opponents in Galatia, who accused him of encouraging the Gentile converts to abandon circumcision and the keeping of the law, sought to undermine his authority by impugning his apostleship and his version of the gospel. They said that his gospel was secondhand, merely of human origin, and not firsthand from Christ, like that of the real apostles.

Here Paul takes up and elaborates the defense he had already adumbrated in the prescript of the letter (see last Sunday's second reading). Paul insists that his gospel came by a direct revelation from God in a resurrection appearance (cf. 1 Cor 15:8). This leads him to an autobiographical account of that call, a precious source of firsthand historical information. Of course, we must allow for a certain one-sidedness in Paul's account. In 1 Cor 15:1-8 he is more ready to admit that at least part of his gospel was transmitted to him through tradition. The fact of the matter is that Paul, not having been a witness of the earlier part of the Christ-event (Jesus' earthly life and death) and yet having received a resurrection appearance, was in a uniquely ambivalent position. In Galatians he emphasizes only one side of the facts, whereas in 1 Cor 15 he is more balanced.

As he usually does when reflecting on his call, Paul starts with his persecution of the Church. As he sees it, there was no gradual psychological preparation for that call. God intervened by sheer miracle, cutting right across Paul's previous behavior and turning him right around. Thus, his call involved a conversion. But the resurrection appearance is not to be equated with that conversion, as Edward Schillebeeckx seems to suggest in his book Jesus. Paul, in his pre-Christian, Pharisaic period, saw perhaps more clearly than anyone else that the gospel, as means of salvation, was antithetically opposed to the law: salvation comes either through the keeping of the law or through Christ. As a Pharisee, he was convinced that it came through the law. Therefore the gospel of Christ was the ultimate blasphemy, and the Christians had to be rooted out. Paul's conversion, therefore, came to him as a reversal of his previous position, and this colored his whole attitude in Galatians toward the Judaizers' demands for the circumcision of the Gentiles. If circumcision were a matter of ethnic custom, Paul would have no objection (according to Acts, he circumcised Timothy, who had a Jewish mother). But when it was imposed on Gentiles as a precondition for salvation, he found himself in statu confessionis.

Continuing his autobiographical account, Paul says that after his conversion he avoided all human contact and went straight into Arabia. We do not know what he was doing there—whether it was to think things out or to begin preaching the Gospel. Acts presents his post-conversion behavior very differently by telling of his visit to, and his baptism by, Ananias in Damascus. Perhaps the resurrection appearance and his call, coming as it did directly from Christ, needed no supplementation by baptism.

Paul says that he “returned” to Damascus after that and did missionary work, and Acts agrees. His visit to Jerusalem three years later (probably two years according to inclusive reckoning) was for a visit to Peter and James, the Lord's brother (about A.D. 35). It is probable that here Paul received at least some of the traditions he mentions in 1 Cor 15, including the tradition of the two post-resurrection appearances to Peter and James. But Paul is silent on this point in Galatians, an indication of the onesidedness of this account.

Gospel: Luke 7:11-17

Much of the detail of this story is borrowed from the Zarephath story (first reading), which shows why that passage was chosen for today. Jesus goes to the town where a widow has lost her son. He resuscitates the dead man and gives him back to his mother. The crowd's response (Lk 7:17) is reminiscent of the response of the widow of Zarephath. One or two other features are reminiscent of pagan stories of resuscitations: the miracle takes place on the road to the burial, and a great concourse of people witness it. Remove these borrowed features from the story and very little is left, except for the statement that Jesus was going to Nain.

The French Canadian Roman Catholic scholar Roché has analyzed the tradition of this story and concludes that it is a construction based partly on the story in 1 Kings and partly on pagan stories. He even questions one possible historical detail, the visit of Jesus to Nain. Whatever the origin of the tradition, it is a story intended to portray Jesus as the eschatological prophet, of greater power than the Old Testament prophets and the pagan miracle-workers. The Greek version of the narrative has a marked Semitic coloring, which, when coupled with the pagan contacts, suggests a milieu like, Syria as its origin.

Reginald H. Fuller

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Preaching the Lectionary:
The Word of God for the Church Today

Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition), pp. 472-475.

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