The gates of the city

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’ (1 Kings 17:1)

And so the drought begins, because of Ahab's sin.

30Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him. 31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, he took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him.32He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33Ahab also made a sacred pole. Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him. (1 Kings 16:30—33)

As we live with our own droughts, floods, raging wildfires, and rising seas, we might wonder about the Old Testament's conviction that God punishes those who live outside the will of God. It is clear that our present greed and lack of compassion, and the horrific abuse of the poor by the privileged nations in the building up of empire during the C20th has brought us to the brink of disaster. Is there a grain of insight in the Old Testament understandings of drought and famine?

Is God the one who punishes us?

18She then said to Elijah, ‘What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!’ 

Even Elijah was not sure about this:

He cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?’

But the point of the story is that God has sent his prophet to the least of all people, a starving widow, who lives in the very country which is the source of the evil which has come upon Israel. Zarephath is in Sidon, the home of Jezebel. God has no personal grudge against us. God has compassion and preserves and gives life, raising up our only child, even as our living, individual or national, brings down the impersonal consequence of seeking to deny the deep reality of the universe. God offers healing amidst the Baals.

Luke has told the story of the widow of Nain so that we will remember the story of Zarephath. Fitzmyer says,

In the context of Palestinian Judaism in the last pre-Christian centuries it was often thought that prophets had ceased to appear among the people… Consequently there arose the expectation of a "trustworthy prophet" … who was at times linked to the prophet like Moses or to the expected Elias redivisus." (The Gospel According to Luke I-IX Joseph Fitzmeyer pp 214)

Jesus meets the widow in the gates of the city, and in compassion, heals her son. The people understand: 16Fear (Awe) seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ and no doubt they remembered the words of that other widow: ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.’ (Luke 7:16, 1 Kings 17:24)

Luke continues to drive this point home where our reading ends:

The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’…  2 [ Jesus]  answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ (Luke 7:18-23)

In all of this, the gates of the city is the public place. It is the Prime Minister's press conference. It is where Boaz resolves his relationship with Ruth. (Ruth 4)  It is Facebook. It is where the spirit Wisdom sits crying out to the city, (Proverbs 1:20-33) if we would only listen. It is the place where the dead are carried out, the place from where the scapegoats are driven, and the place where we meet the invader.

The gates of the city is one phrase which Luke uses to link the stories of the widow of Zarephath and the widow of Nain. And in each story, the man of God raised the widow's son back to life and gave him to his mother. The gates of the city are the place where the battle of life and death is lived out. Where the "juggernaut of death collides with Jesus the giver of life." (Nuechterlein)


Giles Fraser's headline this week reads "The world is getting more religious, because the poor go for God." He says, "The secularisation hypothesis is a European myth, a piece of myopic parochialism that shows how narrow our worldview continues to be."

I can imagine one of my friends saying

But this story of the widow of Nain is ridiculous. These things don't happen. People don't get raised from the dead. Neither did the son of the widow of Zarephath. These things are superstitious. How can you claim the presence of the reality of God in the gates of the city with tall tales like these?

How is it that you can say these stories show the love of God when they are but two insignificant  stories while the rest of the the city lies in ruins,  and the battle still rages, with the citizens of Fallujah this week, and some other city next week, being the latest human shields of tyranny?

He has a "tin ear" for the poetry of theology by narrative; he cannot see in this the hint of beginnings, the signs of the breakthrough of something more than our culture of violence. But beyond that, the Jewish and Christian faiths never claimed the world was a bed of roses. They start with the acknowledgement that we are "outside the garden," that something is seriously wrong with our culture. History begins with a religious murder the moment they leave Eden. But the faith also holds the conviction that God seeks to break in through our blindness to show us a reality underlying "our myopic parochialism," the myth of redemptive violence cleansing the gaining of riches.

There is a certain religious scepticism which is the preserve of the rich, thinking in their relative material security, that they have risen above all this barbarity, and that if we would only take their lesson this would all be solved. They temporarily forget that they too will be carried out at the city gates, or that some present-day Ahab or Ben-hadad (1 Kings 20) will arrive at the gates of the city, and roll in and turn their little enclave into another Fallujah.

There are only two globalisations: God and mammon. And they will never fully be reconciled. Imagine no religion, sang the man on a white Steinway with a net worth of $800m. Imagine no possessions he also sang. Though he obviously found that one a little harder. (Fraser)

In the gates of the cities, God cries out to us to listen: to be set free of the death dealing ways of mammon in which we live. To be free of the impersonal but inevitable consequence of our living, so that death is not a juggernaut which runs us down, but a new beginning in our relationship with God  as the funeral service says. (UIW I) For in a land of milk and honey, death does not leave us as a destitute widow, but safe in the hands of God.

This is a real now. It is for us to trust and live it, so that the yeast of Christ in us infects the whole city. It is not an easy learning, but each tiny refusal to cower before my vulnerability to death clarifies my sense that God is.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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