Understanding Faith and Miracle (II Kings 17:17-24)

by Joseph M. McShane, S.J.

Joseph M. McShane, S.J., is associate professor of religious studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 24-31, 1989, p. 555. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Scriptures have always used the widow and orphan as symbols of society’s most vulnerable and defenseless people. Both justice and compassion require that Christian churches make the gospel a real word of good news by reaching out to such people.

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill, and his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. And she said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!" And he said to her, "Give me your son. And he took him from her bosom, and carried him UP into the upper chamber, where he lodged, and laid him upon his own bed. And he cried to the Lord, "O Lord my God, hast thou brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?" Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried to the Lord, "O Lord my God, let this child’s soul come into him again." And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. And Elijah took the child, and delivered him to his mother; and Elijah said, "See, your son lives." And the woman 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"

[I Kings 17:17-24].

Many Christians are uneasy with the miraculous stories in Scripture. Elijah’s role as the true spokesman for God is demonstrated first by the miraculous supply of food (I Kings 17: 8-16) and then by his resuscitation of the widow’s son (I Kings 17:17-24) Luke (7:1 1-17) uses the Elijah story as a skeleton to recount a similar healing by Jesus. He pairs the restoration of the widow’s son with the cure of the centurion’s servant (7:1-10) , an incident recounted in Matthew and John as well. Luke has used the episode of miraculous food from I Kings 17:8-16 in Jesus’ inaugural sermon. There is no doubt that Elijah provides the model of the "great prophet" (Luke 7:16) which the people recognize in Jesus. Jesus will soon tell the messengers of John the Baptist that "the dead are raised up" (Luke 7:22) and he will repeat this miracle by raising Jarius’s daughter. Yet Luke portrays Jesus as something more than a prophet like Elijah.

In the Elijah story, God has struck down the son of the widow with whom the prophet was lodging. Both the woman and the prophet protest the apparent meaninglessness of the boy’s death. Elijah must lie across the body and plead with the Lord three times before God restores the child’s life. The result indicates Elijah’s relationship with God.

Luke’s story is quite different. Jesus had no prior relationship with the widow. He only happened on the procession as the body was being carried out. No one demands that Jesus intervene. He acts out of compassion for the widow, whose only son has died. She is one of the helpless, poor ones of the world to whom the gospel brings news of a reversal of their fate. God comes into this life in the surprise of compassion and restored life. Any possibility that God or fate might be arbitrary or even cruel is erased. Unlike Elijah, Jesus only has to speak to the man to restore his life.

The proper response to Jesus’ deed is to recognize that he is a great prophet and the source of God’s saving power. In that sense faith springs from the miracle. But faith is not a prior condition for the miracle. Jesus intervenes with compassion because he is moved by the woman’s plight. From the opening chapters of the Gospel, Luke pictures the good news as a message of salvation for the poor, sick, sorrowful, weak, lowly and outcast. This episode dramatizes that message.

Yet stories like these do make us uneasy. We have all seen TV reports of parents whose religious convictions prevented them from seeking medical treatment for a critically ill child. In some cases, the state intervened to force the parents to get treatment for the child. In others, parents were prosecuted for causing their child’s death. Christians can hardly be blamed if they think that we would be better off with a faith not linked to such miracle stories. Viewing both stories as being about "near death experiences" could help Christians avoid expecting special exemption from sickness and death if they trust God.

The stories themselves contain their own framework for understanding faith and miracle. The widow’s words to Elijah carry all the overtones of anger mixed with self-accusation that any hospital chaplain learns to hear in the voices of the terminally ill and the bereaved. Elijah does not know an "answer" to her pain, and his first speech to Yahweh echoes her suffering. In a sense both the woman and Elijah learn about faith together. God is not vindictive or hostile to the suffering.

In approaching the widow at Nain, Jesus addresses the situation of suffering before anyone speaks to him. Until the crowd confesses its faith in Jesus after the miracle, Jesus’ voice is the only one we hear. Anticipating the miracle to come, Jesus tells the mother not to "go on weeping." Many English translations leave out the progressive sense of the Greek and read "Do not weep," as though Jesus were prohibiting her mourning. The Jesus of compassion is not a Jesus of the stiff upper lip. He is telling the woman that the weeping she now experiences will not go on. In that sense the story illustrates the beatitude of Luke 6:21, "Blessed are you who weep; now you shall laugh." The story is not a promise that faithful Christians will not experience the pain of a loved one’s death. It does not promise that widows will never find themselves left alone and impoverished by the death of their only source of support.

The story does promise that such suffering is not God’s choice for human beings. Faith recognizes a loving and compassionate order in God’s world, which seeks to transform the pain of the suffering, the poor and the outcast. Elsewhere in the Gospel, Luke makes it clear that Christians have a responsibility to show the kind of compassion that Jesus exhibits. All the widows who do not get their sons back should find "new children" and relatives in the Christian community. The Scriptures have always used the widow and orphan as symbols of society’s most vulnerable and defenseless people. Both justice and compassion require that Christian churches make the gospel a real word of good news by reaching out to such people. In that sense, the miracle is a challenge to the faith of all Christians. We must make the compassion of God visible by providing for the needs of those who are suffering.