life at the end of the tether

Jun 6, 2013

Earlier this week I read the readings of this Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time a few times. Both the first reading and the gospel begin by painting pretty gloomy pictures in which anxiety, suffering and death abound. It is not difficult for citizens of the twenty-first century to relate to these experiences.

Let’s start with a look at the Old Testament reading from the first Book of Kings. We pick up chapter 17 at verse 17. Earlier we have met the ninth-century (BC) prophet Elijah. One of the scripture commentaries calls him the “loftiest and most wonderful prophet of the Old Testament.”  Many of those who encountered Elijah in his lifetime would not have been so effusive in their praise of him. In fact he was known by many as the “troubler of Israel”.

The chapter opens with Elijah bringing news of an immanent drought: “there will be neither dew nor rain for the next few years…”(v.1). This message is a guaranteed way for a new preacher to get offside with farmers.

However this first verse continues with the hopeful heart of Elijah’s message: “…except at the command of the Lord.” Ah, the Lord, God has power over all things, even the weather. And this encouragement is at the heart both of today’s readings, and the heart of the life of faith.

Just before today’s first reading selection begins, Elijah (led by God) arrives at the home of a starving widow and her son. The widow (who lost all means of support on the death of her husband), has only enough food for one more meal for herself and her son “and then we will die.” 

Both the woman and Elijah are living in such intimate harmony with God, that when the Lord prompts Elijah to ask the woman for food (an extraordinary request given her situation), the Lord also nudges the woman to feed her visitor.  There is a great moment of relief when she realises that after finishing the meal, the original ingredients are restored to their jars.

And then, just as things are looking a bit brighter, the widow’s son falls ill and dies. The woman is understandably distraught and blames Elijah. Elijah is confused and complains to God. Once again Elijah follows the promptings of his Lord and turns to God in passionate prayer: “O Lord, my God, let the life breath return to the body of this child.” God responds by raising the child to life. Now we see the faith-filled response of the rejoicing widow: “Now indeed I know that you are a man of God. The word of the Lord comes truly from your mouth.”

Now let’s turn to today’s gospel reading. It’s a very similar story: a widow has one son who has died. Jesus arrives in town as the funeral is taking place, and the weeping mother is at the burial of her son. Jesus moves through the mourning crowd, touches the boy’s coffin and prays. The dead man sits up and begins to speak, as Jesus returns him to his mother. 

Once again we see the miracle end in the renewed faith of all who witnessed the power of God over death. “Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, exclaiming, “A great prophet has arisen in our midst,” and “God has visited his people.”

So what have these old stories got to do with our lives today?
A trap that Christians fall into is in thinking that these are simply ancient stories. Yes, these events did happen 2000 and 3000 years ago. But the God of Elijah is alive and active in our world today. Jesus Christ is not simply an historical character, but is living and present among us today. Our personal 2013 experience of the present reality of Jesus is what we call faith.

This brings us to the heart of the mission of Elijah. He was the one who reminded his world that there was only ONE God, and that this was not a pagan God of magic but a living God of miracles. (In magic something appears to happen but in fact does not – ie the woman is not really sawn in half. Whereas in a miracle, what appears to happen does in reality occur).  If you jump ahead to chapter 18 of 1 Kings there is the great account of the competition between the “gods”. I won’t give away the story here, look it up for yourselves! (Click on this link to see the earlier blog posting and account of this event)

In each of these stories, life’s lowest point had been reached. The characters in these accounts really are at the “end of their tether.” They are immersed in hunger, suffering, death, grief and anguish. For the one who has no sense of the presence and power of God, these circumstances are without hope. At best we might anaesthetise ourselves against the pain, but then we sober up again and find that our earlier circumstances remain unchanged.

Thanks be to God the reality is totally different for the person of faith. This does not mean that the life of the Christian is free from human suffering. Not at all. The faith-filled person will experience all the traumas that are a part of the fallen (ie post original sin) human condition. But, the person of faith knows too that the “end of tether” feelings and thoughts that we might experience, while unpleasant, are simply an opportunity for Jesus to come to us anew. In this encounter Jesus does not simply restore our own human strengths, but allows us to share the fulness of His power and His divine and eternal life.

It is important to remember that in each of these accounts, we are hearing of resuscitations of dead bodies. Each of these two young people, while by the power of God now breathing and walking the earth again, would once again experience pain, suffering and death. Often again, each of them would come to the end of their tether and call out for help.

The heart of our faith is the fact that the resurrection of Jesus was no such mere rescuscitation. Resurrection is no return to a previous tethered earthly existience as resuscitation is. Instead the resurrection of Jesus broke through the barrier of death for all those who have the desire and the capacity to follow Him. The path is clear. Human happiness is not found by avoiding suffering and pain. Instead the deep and lasting joy we seek is found in facing all circumstances of human reality, knowing that we are perhaps ‘at the end of our tether’ and calling out to Jesus who respectfully awaits our cry. (To read Pope Benedict’s comment on the distinction between resuscitation and resurrection refer to  Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection, Ch 9)

In this fact of faith, we find our hope. There is no situation that you or I can find ourselves in that is without hope. Most often our perspective is limited and death looks like nothing but an end. In this restricted vision, suffering and pain are harbingers of death. Such tethers appear to limit our freedom and prevent our happiness. 

However the person of faith is able to see that these tethers are in fact divine cords of kindness (Hosea 11:4), drawing us into more intimate relationship with the God who is saving us. 


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