19th Sunday in Ordinary time

He was a man unshakable in his beliefs who followed what he believed to be just and right. He was actively and passionately against the political establishment, genuinely hated by the powerful and the influential, but loved by the masses. He strongly believed that his home country had gone to the dogs, and that the only way forward was by returning to the traditional values of the past. He successfully led several campaigns targeting those in power whom he considered malevolent, including the sovereign. Despite being a troublemaker and a source of constant frustration to his enemies, he seemed to be untouchable, even respected. But one day his iron will suddenly snapped and his unshakable stance crumbled. A weak, desperate, helpless man emerged from his impenetrable armour and wished to be dead. That’s the moment at which we’ve found the prophet Elijah in today’s first reading.

We can see him, a day’s journey into the wilderness, sitting under the bush and pouring his bitterness out: ‘Lord, I’ve had enough. Take my life.’ He’s a broken, resigned man who has given up. He is mentally exhausted and overwhelmed by all he has faced up to that moment; he can’t take any more. This passage from the Bible is always read on the 19th Sunday in Ordinary time every 3 years. I read that last Tuesday night at the beginning of my preparations of this sermon. I was dumbfounded at how it coincided with media reports of a healthy former palliative care nurse who’d travelled to Switzerland and taken her own life, ‘because growing old is no fun.’ We might have got rather used to hearing about terminally ill people going down that route. But this time the person in question wasn’t particularly unwell, and didn’t have any indication of forthcoming medical problems. Her case provoked a wave of comments and renewed the debate on assisted suicide. Strangely enough, some organisations promoting the legalising of it believe this case has paid them a huge disservice.

Perhaps you have noticed over the years that I’m not a fierce, highly vocal fighter bent on forcing people to believe in what I do and to follow the moral compass that I preach. I strongly believe that each and every person makes their own decisions and takes responsibility for their lives, even if in my opinion they are wrong. It’s based on the fundamental rule of individual liberty, including the freedom to make mistakes. My opposition to the legalisation of assisted suicide is based on that fundamental civil right. There are always people out there, bent on taking advantage of any legal loopholes at the cost of the vulnerable, the ignorant, the unaware or misled. Think about tax evaders, the marketers of so-called legal highs, fraudsters of the welfare state – you name it. I have first-hand knowledge of a situation where most of the children of a terminally-ill elderly woman were interested only in her estate, and who demanded money over her as-yet unburied body. Thanks to the determination and love of just one of her children, however, who protected her from those predatory offspring, she had excellent care and passed away peacefully. I’m absolutely certain that legalised killing would exert enormous pressure on those considered redundant to society. Their fundamental right of freedom would be breached, even if involuntarily.

The prophet Elijah experiences his moment of desperation and he wants to die. This was triggered by a promise of sanguineous revenge by the queen Jezebel, his ferocious rival. The prophet escaped her fury but, overwhelmed by it, he had nowhere to go so he went to the wilderness ready to die. But he doesn’t kill himself – he puts that in the hands of God, and falls asleep. There, he’s woken by an angel offering him food and drink in order to continue his journey. The Greek word ‘angelos’ means a ‘messenger’, not necessarily of supernatural origin. Perhaps the story echoes a simple gesture of generosity made by a traveller passing by; a personal touch by a stranger, and – considering ancient customs – a conversation between the two. Whatever happened, it gave the prophet new hope and the strength to carry on with his life. Perhaps those who are vulnerable, desperate or simply exhausted need a more personal touch and the gift of our time to help them as they go through their difficult time. It’s not always the easiest way – but the alternative is much worse.