The background: Elijah had just come from a dangerous showdown with 450 prophets of a god called Baal, in the land ruled by Jezebel. The God of Israel had easily won this encounter, but Elijah had gone ahead and done great violence against the surviving prophets anyway. Queen Jezebel, understandably enraged, sent a message that she would do the same thing to Elijah and more within that same day.*
In our First Reading Elijah was frightened, exhausted and dispirited. He had come back to find the Israelites being unfaithful to the one true God. So he became miserable—in spite of his great triumph. He prayed to God to give immediate death to his worthless self. As despondent people will sometimes do, he went to sleep. He lay himself under a broom tree (a tall hedge that desert people used to shield themselves from the sun in the day and the wind at night).
God could have been harsh to Elijah as a result of this depressed prayer. But instead, a quiet touch from God’s angel awakened the man. The angel whispered, “get up and eat.” And, lo and behold, “there at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water.”
Elijah did eat and drink, but then settled right back to sleep again. The angel whispered tenderly, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!” Elijah did and was strengthened.
We are witnessing a mother’s care, giving food to the discouraged child (First Reading).
The other readings too are all about God’s kindness, his goodness even in small things. The Responsorial Psalm invites us to share in it: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. … I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.”
In the Gospel, Jesus offers nourishment, and this time the provisions are for a very long journey indeed, the one to eternal life. The people listening (called by John “the Jews,” but really just “the sensible people”) will not have a bit of it. They argue among themselves, ridiculing his silly offer of miraculous food. They “murmur” that they knew his parents, which made him just a local boy acting crazy. Jesus ordered them to stop grousing and listen. He made the same comparison that we saw last week, between manna that came down from heaven in the desert, and himself, who was “the living bread that came down from heaven.”
Just concentrate on the deliberate kindness of God: feeding the people, giving them drink, pursuing them again and again in order to offer the greatest gift of all, God’s sacrificial love for us.
God follows us quietly, gently.
How might we respond? To start with, how about receiving the living bread in Communion? Another way could be to pray on the mellowness of God. Also, simply slowing down, stopping the running away and instead letting the Lord find us. God’s kindhearted love, which is also tough, proves to be quite worth the struggle.
Here is how Paul puts it in the Second Reading.
Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.
* Elijah himself had arranged a contest between the god of Ahab, called Baal, and the one true God. He had the Baal prophets arrange a sacrifice for the burning of a young bull, but he would not allow them to light the fire. Baal himself should do this.
They agreed and for much of the day they carried on with incantations, calling out to their god, hopping around, and even slashing themselves with swords, but nothing at all happened. “There was not a sound; no one answered, and no one was listening” (I Kings 18:29). Elijah taunted them with the famous lines, “Call louder, for he is a god and may be meditating, or may have retired, or may be on a journey. Perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (Or as elsewhere in the bible, maybe he has “turned aside” to relieve himself!)
Elijah then arranged an exactly similar sacrifice, this time to the God of Israel, He was so sure of God that he doused the wood with jar after jar of water. Then, after his short prayer, the wood burst into flames (I Kings 18:21-40). The Baalite people threw themselves to the ground and worshipped the God of Israel.
Nevertheless, Elijah had their prophets killed.