Elijah the Prophet was definitely not a man of the cultural mainstream of his time. His fierce stand against an immoral and corrupt king and his court made him particularly unpopular among the powerful. His denouncement of the king’s ‘yes-men’ – false prophets – was provoking fiery criticism. When he managed to crush them in a spectacular way, the queen – who was a champion of massive cultural changes – swore to get revenge on their behalf. The threat was so powerful that the valiant Elijah initially hid in a deserted place; and eventually he went abroad and stayed in a pagan town, courtesy of a widow living with her only child. She gave shelter to Elijah as she regarded him as a holy man of God. So it must have come as an excruciating shock when suddenly her only child fell sick and apparently died. It seemed that her devotion to God in serving his servant was in vain, as her beloved son apparently passed away. The situation was agonisingly painful for the woman, and it was deeply embarrassing for the prophet.
Many of us have had to face doubts similar to those of the woman when something unpleasant, something unexpected, has happened in our lives despite our efforts of keeping the faith and living according to its recommendations. Somehow, without being aware, we subconsciously develop a prevailing belief that, if we are faithful, God will reward our faith by providing an easy passage through troubled waters. When this belief is dashed by horrific events happening to us, shocked and disturbed we try to make sense of them. But the main and most common question is: ‘Why me?’ And sadly there is no simple answer to that. One way of dealing with such unpleasant situations is finding someone to blame. For the widow in the Elijah story, the sudden death of her son recalls some dark things from her past, as she asks the prophet: ‘Have you come here to bring my sins home to me and kill my son?’ The mother of April Jones, the little girl who was abducted and murdered, blames herself for letting her daughter out to play on that fatal night, although April’s killer is the only one to blame.
In today’s gospel we have a story similar to that of the prophet Elijah, when Jesus comes across a funeral procession carrying the body of a young man, the only son of a widow. His reaction is significant: ‘When he saw her he felt sorry for her.’ Jesus doesn’t play the blame game. He offers his sympathy and consolation. St Luke presents that situation as a moment highlighting Jesus’ triumph and power over death. But, as the boy eventually has to die physically in due course, that event foretells the moment when Jesus’ sympathy reaches everyone throughout time and space: his crucifixion. That moment has provided the most essential tool for making sense of every pain, of suffering and of death. Jesus’ sacrifice, made out of sympathy for the human race, reaches beyond anything we suffer here on earth.
Elijah had to face many dangers in his prophetic career, including being attacked and mocked mercilessly, and pursued by the vindictive queen and her hit men. But I think the most difficult and helpless moment he ever came across was when his hospitable host lost her only child. His helplessness is often our own experience when we are confronted with overwhelming circumstances. Elijah didn’t allow that feeling to overpower his will. He offered his helping hand out of his sympathy. This is exactly what each one of us can do.