THE LONE PROPHET WAS NEVER ALONE
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [Sirach 48:1-14; Mt 6:7-15 ]
Elijah was the greatest prophet in the history of Israel. He became an exemplar of what a prophet should be. He was singular minded in his vocation as a prophet. Totally committed to God in purifying his people from idolatry, he did not mince his words in reprimanding the kings and their people for their betrayal of Yahweh. He sought to preserve the faith of Israel in its pristine form. He challenged the people not to limp after other gods. (1 Kgs 18:20f) They needed to make a choice between Yahweh and the Baals. “The prophet Elijah arose like a fire, his word flaring like a torch.” For that reason, representing the prophetic tradition, he was seen together with Moses, the Law Giver at the Transfiguration conversing with the Lord. (Mt 17:3-4)
He was the voice of conscience. He confronted Ahab for killing the prophets. When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’ He answered, ‘I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.'” (1 Kgs 18:17f) On another occasion, he had to confront King Ahab for killing Naboth and seizing his property. Ahab said to Elijah, “‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you.” (1 Kgs 21:20f) Elijah was never afraid to speak the truth and in calling the king to account.
He was dead against sin. He was a man of integrity. For Elijah, evil was evil. There was no compromise. So much so when God showed His power in consuming the holocaust and manifested Himself as Lord and God, all the people “fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.’ Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them, and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.” (1 Kgs 18:39f) Of course, it seems rather ruthless to kill nowadays. But in those days, purity of faith could not be compromised in any way.
He called evildoers to justice not only through his prophetic words but also through the miracles that he performed in the name of God. At his command, there was no rain in Israel. He prophesied the beginning and end of a three-year drought. “It was he who brought famine on them, and who decimated them in his zeal. By the word of the Lord, he shut up the heavens, he also, three times, brought down fire.” He did this in order to let the people know that nature was not under the control of Baal whom they worshipped as the god of fertility. He performed the multiplication of the jar of meal and jar of oil for the widow and her son who had given all her food to Elijah when he was hungry. Then when her child died, he brought him back to life. By so doing, he proved himself to be a true prophet.
Most of all at a showdown with the priests of Baal and Asherah, Elijah represented Yahweh and showed Him to be the Lord over nature. In spite of their cries and loud prayers from morning to noon, and self-mutilation, their gods did not come down with fire to burn up the holocausts. Elijah demonstrated that Yahweh was not just a Trek-God but also a Creator God. He came down with fire to consume the holocausts in spite of the fact that it was submerged underwater.
Perhaps Elijah’s strongest point was his personal relationship with God. He had great confidence in Him. He knew that God was trustworthy. He believed that God would answer his prayers. He never hesitated on the power of God to heal. He prayed for the rain. When it didn’t come, he prayed with perseverance. “Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; there he bowed himself down upon the earth and put his face between his knees.” (1 Kgs 18:42) At the seventh time, his servant looked up the sky. It grew black with clouds and wind and there was a heavy rain. (1 Kgs 18:44f) God answers such faith-filled and persevering prayers. This was what St James said, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.” (Jms 5:16-18)
Most of all, he was attentive to the voice of God and obedient to His word. He did not simply preach to others to obey God’s word but he set an example of obedience himself. When he was running away from Jezebel in fear, God was with him. God took care of him when he was in the wilderness by sheltering him under a solitary broom tree. He got the angel to provide him a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. God loved him. In his discouragement, God spoke to him, not in the wind, earthquake, or fire but in the gentle breeze when there was a deep silence. He was instructed to go back and finish his mission, and he went back in obedience to God’s command. (1 Kgs 19:11-16)
He was truly a holy man of God. The widow of Zarepath said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” (1 Kgs 17:24) Indeed, this is perhaps the most appropriate way to describe the prophet Elijah. He spoke God’s words and acted always on behalf of God and His people. As a consequence, God rewarded him by taking him up to heaven. “Elijah was shrouded in the whirlwind, and Elisha was filled with his spirit; throughout his life no ruler could shake him, and no one could subdue him. No task was too hard for him, and even in death his body prophesied. In his lifetime he performed wonders, and in death his works were marvellous.” Only two persons in the Old Testament were given this gift of being taken by the Lord without suffering death. Besides Elijah, the other one is Enoch. Unlike all the other descendants of Adam from Abraham to Noah, Enoch was never said to have died. (cf Gn 5:24) This also provides us one of the indications, though not a proof, for the dogma of the Assumption of Mary because she, too, at the end of her life was assumed into heaven, body and soul. The Church in her definition of the dogma never said whether she died or not.
Yet, although he was a great prophet, his main weakness was that he worked alone. As a consequence, he faced all the challenges alone. He had to suffer loneliness because he did not have confidence in other prophets. Perhaps, he thought that to travel fast, one must travel alone. Thus, he had to bear all the crosses and persecutions by himself. This resulted in him falling into despair when the Queen sought to kill him for slaughtering her prophets. He was presumptuous to think that he was the only one who was faithful to Yahweh. Twice, he said to the Lord, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (1 Kgs 19:14) In truth, he was not the only true prophet. Obadiah told him that he had hidden 100 true prophets in two caves, each containing 50 of them from Jezebel who wanted to kill them all. God also told him, “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (1 Kgs 19:18)
This is a fitting reminder to us in ministry, never to work alone or think that we are indispensable. Hence, God instructed him to anoint Hazael as king of over Aram, Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and sent him another helper, Elisha as a prophet in his place. (1 Kgs 19:15f) The Lord always asked the disciples to work in a team. He called the Twelve as His apostles and He sent them out two by two for the mission in His vineyard. In the early Church too, Paul and Barnabas were sent out together on a mission. If we do not want to suffer the same loneliness of Elijah in the ministry, we must remember the importance of communion in mission, of team ministry, and most of all to encourage each other so that we will never feel alone. This is how the Lord wants to strengthen us in our ministry. Just as the Lord appointed the Twelve apostles to help Him, we too must invite others to collaborate with us.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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