Michael Barnes S.J.
19th Sunday of the Year
1 Kings 19.9, 11-13: The story of the discouraged and depressed Elijah hearing the 'still, small voice' stands on its own as one of the most beautiful and moving episodes in the Old Testament. But the image of God which it teaches is enhanced by a brief investigation of the context. What was Elijah doing on the mountain? And where did he go after hearing the word of God?
Having just made short work of the prophets of Baal, Elijah is trying to escape the wrath of the evil Jezebel, In his misery he asks God to take his life — for I am no better than my fathers.' God, however, has further tasks for him, Strengthened by an angel, Elijah eventually finds his way to Horeb, or Sinai, the holy Mountain.
Like Moses before him, he is seeking God's revelation. But what he receives is not altogether what he expects. First of all, God does not appear, as he had done to Moses, in smoke, cloud and fire. For Elijah, who was, to say the least, an impetuous character. the presence of God in the whisper of a gentle breeze was no doubt lesson enough. God's will is revealed not in violence but in peace and stillness.
But that is not all. In the verses which follow our reading we hear what the still small voice says; the
message which greets Elijah forces him straight back where he came from — 'Return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.' God will certainly console us in our moments of fear and despair; but that does not mean that we can languish forever in blissful isolation.
Romans 9, 1-5. After the outburst of joy which we noted last week, Paul returns to another theme. What about God's promises to the Jewish patriarchs? Has God suddenly changed his mind and rejected those he has chosen? Our reading introduces us to what was for Paul a very real problem and a constant preoccupation — something which, as he says, causes 'great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.'
In many ways the two chapters which follow are a digression, but they cannot be ignored. We too need to ask about the status of God's promises to the likes of Abraham and Elijah. Is there anything to be gained from the Old Testament readings apart from the illustration of largely moral themes?
Paul proceeds to give a long list of the blessings which Christians inherit from the Jews, finishing with the greatest of all: 'Of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all. blessed for ever. Amen.' To simplify somewhat. the 'answer' to Paul's problem is found in a distinction which we have seen him make before — between the flesh and the Spirit. God's promises to the Chosen People have not failed. Originally they were made to the physical descendants of Abraham, of whom the Christ is certainly one. But the real children of Abraham are those who share his faith in God's promise — spiritual descendants. We are spiritual, not necessarily physical. brothers of Christ for God's Spirit dwells in us as it dwelt in Him.
Matthew 14, 22-33: The Gospel reading too is about consolation in time of trouble. And if, as in the first reading, we extend the context somewhat. we also find the theme of mission. Matthew tells the story of Jesus walking on the water. As in Mark, Jesus leaves the crowds and goes off to pray by himself; the disciples, left alone in a tiny boat battling with the stormy waves, are terrified.' But Jesus comes to them walking on the waters. 'Take heart, it is I,' he says. 'Have no fear.'
In Mark the lesson is about faith — or rather the lack of faith, for although the disciples recognise something special about Jesus the evangelist tells us that their hearts were still hardened. That note is missing from Matthew. Rather he intends the symbolism of the episode to make us think of the Church, the community of believers strengthened by the presence of the Lord even when in dire distress.
Matthew alone adds the verses which follow. Peter attempts to walk on the water. 'Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.' He tries but, of course, fails and Jesus has to lift him up.
The lesson of the first part is made more explicit — only this time, it is applied especially to the head of the Church. Peter must have faith for the burden of the Church's mission falls primarily on him. To sit tight and comfortable is not enough. Just like Elijah he must be prepared to go out and risk all in the service of his Master,