From Prophetic Strength to Priestly Gentleness
Wednesday: Tenth Week of the Year: June 8, 2016
Year II: 1Kings 18:20-39; Psalm 16:1-11; Matthew 5:17-19
1Kings 18: 20-39 shows us the prophet Elijah at his best — and the next verse (18:40), expurgated from the Mass readings, shows him at his worst.
Elijah, simply by calling on the Lord, won a great victory over the prophets of Baal. After they spent all morning dancing around and gashing themselves to get their god to set fire to an offering on the altar, Elijah with a simple prayer brought down fire from heaven to consume it. Good. This confirms the Responsorial Psalm: “Keep me safe, O God, you are my hope” (Psalm 16). But then, in the verse the Church chooses not to read at Mass, Elijah said to the people, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” And “Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there” (1Kings 18:40).
This was the “old Elijah.” whose image God profoundly modified in John the Baptizer (see Luke 1:17; Matthew 17:12). The “new Elijah” did not kill. Rather, he was killed as the precursor, not only of Jesus’ coming but also of his death. When the Father delivered his only Son to death for us, and Jesus went without resistance to the cross, a new meaning was added to the words, “Keep me safe, O God, you are my hope.” God does keep us safe, but not necessarily in a way we can immediately recognize. And he is our “hope,” not just for our earthly existence, but for a fulfillment beyond our wildest dreams. One that lasts forever, in comparison with which our time on this earth is less than an eyeblink. The Resurrection of Jesus changed the meaning of “life,” “death,” and “safety” at their roots.
In Matthew 5: 17-19 Jesus tells us, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.” Jesus didn’t “abolish” the significance of Elijah’s victory. He didn’t subtract anything from what God did, or from what God expressed through it.
The Scripture does not say God inspired Elijah to execute the prophets of Baal. That was something inspired by his culture. Like the Christians, Catholic and Protestant, who in misguided zeal for their religion put each other to death during the Protestant Reformation, Elijah was acting on his own.
Jesus came, “not to abolish but to fulfill.” In John the Baptizer and in himself, prophetic courage was purified of violence. In Christianity, the highest example of “witnesses” to the faith are not those who stamp out error in others by force or power, but those who offer themselves as Jesus, as “priests in the Priest” and “victims in the Victim,” to suffer and even die in testimony to their belief. The word “martyr” — a Christian translation of the Greek word for “witness” — now refers only to those who bear witness at cost to themselves.
Jesus is talking about his New Law when he continues: “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” From now on, Christians must “break” with their culture. And teach others to do so. That is prophetic witness.