Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings : Now that Eastertide is over we return to the different accounts of Jesus’
mission to his people and the growth of the Church in the light of his
great commission and example. In our gospel, (Luke 7:11-17), we find
Jesus in Galilee. We have to remember that to Jews, Galilee, whilst the
home country of Jesus was itself a dubious area up in the North and we
frequently see officials from Jerusalem checking up on Jesus’ mission.
Clearly this mission was a great success, for our gospel speaks of his
being attended by ‘a great number of people’. It is in this crowded
context that we see Jesus raise the son of the widow of Nain from the
dead. We are told that Jesus did this great, even impossible thing, simply
‘because he felt sorry for her’. Jesus apparently put his hand on the bier
and spoke to the dead man. That is something we find very peculiar for
there is no indication he even touched him, but the point is clearly made.
Jesus transcends the rules of life and death, he is its Lord and not
dominated by its demands. Jesus can then go out beyond the normal
ways of thinking and acting. The people acclaim him as a ‘great prophet’,
clearly Luke wants us to think in quite different ways about Jesus; the
Jesus he is presenting to his patron the Greek Theophilus, someone who
had his own very specific ideas of what divinity was like.
By way of comparison we read in 1 Kings, (17:17-24), of a similar
account of the raising of a child from the dead by Elijah the prophet.
Elijah we know was in serious conflict with Ahab, king of the Northern
Jewish state of Samaria, who had married a worshipper of Baal and
adopted her religion to the fury of the prophet. Zarephath was pagan
territory, belonging to Sidon, so the woman was most likely a pagan.
Perhaps then we are to see this raising from the dead as a turning of
God’s back on this evil and apostate king and his people and as a turning
to the gentiles. The ‘raising’ from the dead then becomes an analogy, a
rich story of God’s work with a different people, and of his turning away
from the Northern Kingdom. Elijah, one of Israel’s foremost prophets,
performs perhaps the greatest of his ‘miracles’, whatever was meant
by that, out away from his homeland and amongst needy foreigners.
The fact that at this time Ahab’s kingdom was economically rich in
comparison with the Southern Judah, and by implication had no need for
God, is telling. Prophets can only work their miracles amongst receptive
Is this what we are seeing when we read Paul’s letter (Gals 1:11-19), in
which he writes to justify his mission to Gentiles? We, and they, might
have thought that Paul was best qualified by way of education to have
served the Christian cause in Judea. After all, he was a Pharisee and had
studied under Gamaliel. Who better then to have argued the new faith in
Jesus than Paul? Why was it that he went abroad and confined his
mission to gentiles? It seems that God, working through his Spirit in the
Jewish-Christian community thought it best to send this worker abroad.
Paul indicates in Galatians that his first missionary work was in Arabia.
Now ‘Arabia’ at this time was not what we now think of as Arabia, but
rather client kingdoms including the Nabatean Damascus and Petra and
kingdoms in the Decapolis; Greek city states over the Jordan. We have
no other evidence of Paul’s work in these places other than this comment,
and no letters appear to have survived from this earliest missionary
work. It appears that this was where Paul served his apprenticeship as a
missionary before going on to work in the three years before the Council
of Jerusalem in what we now call Turkey. This would include the Galatian
cities and those of Cilicia, Paul’s birthplace and Lycia. What we have then
is an albeit hazy picture of Paul’s move out and away from the security
of his very strict and traditional Judaism into very different and even
threatening environments. Anyone at all familiar with the lifestyle of
Greek cities would have immediately understood what a challenge this
would have been to Paul. Or, was this precisely the reason why he was
chosen for this task? His own upbringing in Tarsus –which he had left
resolutely behind when he opted to study with the greatest rabbis of
his age may in the end have been the reason why the Church felt it
best to send him abroad once more. Contrary to what may have been his
own expectation, given his education in Judaism, the Church may have
felt his earlier experiences provided him with gifts and abilities more
suited to a Gentile mission. Sometimes we have to go out of ourselves
to discover who we truly are, and then make the most of the situation
in which we find ourselves, as did Elijah, and just as Jesus did.