Did God’s prophets ever contemplate suicide? Not exactly, but Elijah did feel so mentally and spiritually exhausted that he asked God to take his life (not at all the same thing as taking your own life). In today’s first reading from the book of Kings, Elijah,
sitting under a furze bush wished he were dead. ‘Lord,’ he said ‘I have had enough. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’
Why did he feel this way? Dr John Bergsma explains:
Elijah was experiencing “ministry burnout.” Just days before, he had won a great show-down with 450 prophets of the false god Baal on Mt. Carmel, calling down fire from heaven and proving, in front of a crowd of thousands, that the LORD alone was the true God (1 Kings 18). Such a public demonstration of the power of God would seem like a tremendous victory that would lead to repentance and renewal in Israel, but that’s not what happened. The queen of Israel, a Gentile (Phoenician) princess by the name of Jezebel, was incensed by Elijah’s victory over her 450 prophets, and vowed to kill Elijah. When we find him in today’s reading, then, Elijah is fleeing for his life.
Elijah was waging a cultural and spiritual war in the kingdom of northern Israel. The war was between worship of the LORD and worship of Baal. One of the major cultural issues between these two religious was sexual practices and family life. Baal was a fertility god, and one of the ways he was worshiped was through ritual sex or “sacred” prostitution. What to do with the children that resulted? These could be sacrifice to the god (Jer 19:5). Needless to say, the standing of marriage in a culture with these practices was none too high.
By contrast, the law of the LORD had no place for sex outside of a covenant bond between a man and a woman, which would ensure that the child resulting would come into the world in the safety of a marriage, wherein he or she could be raised to adulthood by his/her own father and mother. This is “best practice” for human society. Marriage in Israel was modeled on God’s own fidelity to his covenant with the nation (Mal 2:16 and context). “Casual” sex, “cultic” sex, promiscuity, and the killing of infants had no place in worship of the God of Israel.
The king of northern Israel, Ahab, had married this Phoenician princess Jezebel, who was a Baal worshiper and was using government authority to promote Baal worship and its debased view of sexuality, marriage, and the value of infant children; and to suppress the religious freedom of the worshipers of the LORD, the God of Israel.
For all his efforts, Elijah was losing this cultural war, and now was in danger of his very life. We find him fleeing into the wilderness of Judah in order to escape from any of Jezebel’s agents. There he collapses in physical and spiritual exhaustion, and prays for death.
Yet God extends to Elijah a very gentle mercy in this passage. Twice he sends an angel to him, to awaken him and prod him to eat a mysterious meal: a jug of water and a cake of bread that inexplicably appears nearby. The nourishment from this food strengthens Elijah for a forty-day fast during his journey to Mt. Horeb (=Sinai), the mountain where God appeared to Moses. There at Horeb, Elijah will speak with God and his prophetic vocation will be renewed.
In this passage we see God’s compassion for the weakness of his prophet, expressed in the provision of this sacred meal which strengthens him for the next step in his prophetic ministry. In Christ, we “have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who was tested in every way just as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). He knows our weakness and so has provided us day by day with a supernatural meal, the Eucharist, in which he comes into us and supplies the strength of spirit we need to carry on in our vocations.
Word format: Year B 19th Sunday 2015
Pdf format: Year B 19th Sunday 2015