In mulling over todays Scripture readings two themes came to my mind, (1) the role of women, and (2) what kind of a God God is.
When you stand back and try to look at The Big Picture you recognize how often Scripture — God’s Word for us – forces us to see that women play a significant part in it. Again and again in Sacred Scripture we see how God continually calls us to care for widows. In ancient Jewish culture, and at the time Jesus lived among us, women were not treated well at all. They were regarded as inferior, often mistreated, and had no legal status or rights. It was a totally male dominated culture. Even in our day, particularly in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Asia we see that this ancient prejudice and treatment of women still exists in our world. Just bring to mind the many recent news reports we have heard regarding terrible abuses of women. The abuse of women here in the United States is nowhere near the levels of such abuse found in other parts of the world but we should not for a moment forget that this scourge afflicts us here in our own country a well.
Prior to, and at the time of Jesus, a woman had status only in her relationship with a male, either as the daughter of her father, or as the sister of a man, or as the wife of a husband. There were some rights that were accorded to women but commentators generally conclude that men were dominant and women were submissive and passive, not having any equality of status with men. There were exceptions, and so those exceptions were significant. The Bible reveals God’s concern that men should care for women and protect them.
In the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of St. Luke, we find that women played significant roles in relationship to Jesus. So, too, as early Christianity developed. Think of the early martyrs and how many of them were women. Think of the numbers of declared saints we find recognized in the Catholic Church. Think of the great women who have done such wonderful work in our Church and for our Church.
In that context the accounts we found in today’s First Reading (Kings 17:17-24) and again repeated in today’s Gospel (Luke 7:11-17) take on significant importance. To be sure, the main point has to do with God’s power over life and death, but there us a secondary point, namely God’s compassion and care for women, something that is not without significance for us. In both the Old Testament and New we find God calling on us to care for and respect women.
All of this likewise points to the significance the Blessed Virgin Mary has for us as well as the prominent role she plays in the history of our salvation. Along with Jesus her Son, Mary played an essential role in our redemption, and still does!
Many people have a problem in coming to believe in God because they ask: “How can a good and loving God allow pain, suffering, and death?” Others have quite the opposite response. Sickness, suffering, and crushing adversity bring them to their knees and they cry out to God in appealing for His compassion rather than attempting to blame God. When things go wrong many are tempted to immediately play the blame game. Someone has to be blamed and many times people will blame God. It’s paradoxical isn’t it? Pain, suffering, and death draw some to reject God while at the same time pain, suffering, and death draw others to a closer faith in God.
Today’s Scripture readings cause us to focus on that question, one that we as Christians will be presented to us by friends and neighbors who have no belief in God or who identify themselves as Christians but have difficulties in their belief because of the fact that they, or the ones they love, experience pain and suffering. What kind of a God, they ask, would allow pain and suffering to exist?
In dealing with the problem of pain, suffering, and death we need to go back to the genesis of it all and take a look at the story of Adam and Eve. There we see that God didn’t create us to suffer, to die. Human life began in the Garden of Eden. We were made for happiness and for eternal life with God in a beautiful world like a garden. But it was human rejection of God’s plan, not God, that brought about suffering and death. The Serpent planted the seed of doubt in our human hearts and like an infectious disease that has weakened us the rejection of God’s ways spreads. Cain kills Abel. Subsequently the disease spreads to others reaching the point where God has to start out all over again. He commands Noah to build an ark to save a precious few from the Flood.
But God continues to love us in spite of our rebellion. Perhaps He loves us even more. With that realization we can see that one of the things that most often bring us to God is the adversity of sickness. Through the power of healing many people strengthen their faith and get a stronger belief in God. We find that truth in today’s first reading. The widow who has taken Elijah into her home is a good woman, a woman of faith, but one who has suffered adversity, similar to the woman of today’s Gospel account. Her husband had died, leaving her with a child, a cursed state in Hebrew times because women were so dependent on men. When Elijah is able to take the child and ask God for a cure and the child is cured her reaction is belief. “Now I know,” she declares, “that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is true.”
Elijah’s belief is strengthened, as we should well note. When Elijah first talks to God, it is in a questioning way, a way that almost takes God to task for the affliction of this woman who has been so hospitable to him. In fact, as in all our lives, God has not caused anything evil. The course of nature is such that people get sick. People die all the time. But like us, Elijah wants to see a cause, and he blames God. Many of us have heard this reaction. But soon, Elijah simply calls out to God several times, the number hinting that it is a continual cry to the Lord for help. There is no blaming of God in his cry, only the belief that God can cure if God so wills. Elijah’s strong belief caused God to listen and to act on it. I can’t help but point out how this woman points to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who likewise lost her Son but whom God restored to life.
The Gospel reading for today reveals to us that God’s love is infinitely compassionate. In His Christ, God’s healing compassion and love conquers even death itself. The widow of Nain, by the power of God, has her son restored to life… and to her. Next Sunday’s Gospel will show us that God’s merciful compassion also extends to bringing life out of the spiritual death of sin. We will hear the story of the sinful woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair.
There is nothing automatic about what God will do. God offers and we respond but nothing will happen unless through, with, and in faith we respond. The question that remains to be answered, however, is this: Just how deep is our faith? As deep as Elijah’s? As deep as the women we find in St. Luke’s gospel accounts?
The testing, you see, is not of God. The testing is of us.
This is why we need to turn to our Mother Mary and turn to her often. When we turn to her she always brings us to her Son… and to new life… no matter what sin and death can do to us.