Pentecost 2C (2 June 2013)



  • 1 Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39 & Psalm 96
  • Galatians 1:1-12
  • Luke 7:1-10


This Sunday we return to the cycle of ordinary time, now described as “Sundays after Pentecost.” The Gospel readings from now until the end of the liturgical year will be from Luke, as that as the primary Gospel for this year, while the other readings will initially be selections from 1 & 2 Kings (for the First Reading) and Galatians (for the NT Reading). The readings for this week are well-known although not so often read in church these days. It has been some years since this set of readings has been used in the Sunday lectionary.

First Reading: Elijah and the prophets of Baal

The dramatic story of the confrontation between Eljiah and the prophets of Baal is a classic of the biblical tradition. It is also a ghastly tale of religious violence and exclusive religious prejudice. Its legacy can be observed in the tragic legacy of violence driven by religious extremism, and is graphically expressed in the statues of Elijah slaying the pagan prophets sometimes found at the entrance to Christian villages in northern Israel as well as at the Muhraqa, the holy site on Mt Carmel that marks the traditional location of the massacre.

Elijah Muhraqa.jpg
Elijah slaying a prophet of Baal, Muhraqa

Given the contribution of religion to the historical and current violence it is hard to see how a Christian faith community could embrace such a text of terror.

Graphic violence is a common element in biblical texts, as well as in the sacred texts of other religious communities and many non-religious texts. This story stands out for its gratuitous violence when—according to the text—the prophets of Baal had already been exposed as frauds, and humiliated by the success of Elijah. For Elijah then to take them captive, transport them to another location, and kill them in cold blood is a crime against humanity and a dark blot upon the biblical tradition.

Interestingly, the RCL steps around the worst of the sacred violence, with its omission of the most offensive verses from the material recommended for reading in church. However, the church (like the synagogue) finds it all but impossible to name such religious violence for what it is, and to repudiate it. Small wonder then, that religious violence continues to be a hallmark of our human experience. While the churches no longer have the power to enforce conformity on the pain of death, our history offers many examples of exclusion, degradation, torture and killing. And that is not even to mention the Crusades.

There is a propensity for violence within monotheistic religion that is rarely named, and should never be celebrated. Perhaps those with ears to hear might discern what the Spirit is saying to the churches about religious violence this coming Sunday?

Second Reading: Galatians 1:1-12

Galatians is a polemical document, seemingly composed in the heat of the moment.

This is arguably the earliest of Paul’s letters to have survived, and it is a mix of raw anger and deep insight into the human possibilities derived from the Easter experience.

In the opening section of the letter, Paul abandons any pretence of conventional civility. He asserts his authority as an apostle in the opening lines, and reiterates his claims to privileged knowledge and to apostolic authority in the lines that follow. Anyone who teaches a different form of Christianity than the one he promotes is to be accursed. In case that was too subtle, Paul repeats himself and pronounces the anathema a second time:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! (Galatians 1:6–9 NRSV)

These are harsh words, and they are spoken from a position of privilege and power. Paul will have better moments in his career as a religious essayist, but he has many admirers in today’s church. The theological thought police are quick to confront deviations from approved forms of liturgy or theology. What the world needs now is more religious communities with some capacity to live with ambiguity. We need fewer fatwas and no more church edicts that divide, exclude and control the faithful. What might the world be like if the followers of Jesus were famous for our gentleness towards others, and especially those with whom we disagreed?

Gospel: The healing of the centurion’s slave

Once again among the readings for this week, we have a story that centres around the theme of authority. In this case, there is the explicit authority of the centurion and the ascribed authority of Jesus, who heals the centurion’s slave on request and at a distance.

Perhaps one of the themes that might be addressed in preaching this week is the question of authority: how do we recognise it, and (more urgently) how is it exercised? Is it exercised to save life, or to destroy opponents? Is our authority used to close the circle and exclude those with different views, or to push the boundaries and affirm the presence of faith in unexpected places and in diverse forms? To announce a crusade, or to proclaim a year of jubilee?

The story has a close parallel in Matthew as well as a probable parallel version in John. The form in Luke seems more stylised, with the absent centurion communicating with Jesus via intermediaries who, among other things, suggest that his contribution to the construction of their synagogue had demonstrated his love of the Jewish people. This righteous Gentile centurion sounds suspiciously like the prayerful centurion of Acts 10, and both stories celebrate the discovering of faith outside the Jewish community. In keeping with Luke’s agenda, here we find a Roman official represented as a person of authority, compassion, dignity and piety. Theophilus will have appreciated the implied compliment, I a sure.

In Matthew the centurion makes no use of intermediaries and there is no mention of him erecting the Capernaum synagogue. Instead, we have the familiar words now used in Catholic liturgies prior to receiving the Sacrament: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” (Matt 8:8).

In the parallel version that survives in John, the centurion is simply a “royal official” and the location changes from Capernaum to Cana. In addition, the slave has become a son. Despite these differences, many scholars consider this to be a variant of the story in Matthew and Luke, and even attribute it to the Q Gospel (making it a rare narrative in what is otherwise a sayings gospel, rather than a story about the deeds of Jesus).

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

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Music Suggestions

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  1. How indeed are we to deal with violence? Are we to name it both inside the tent and outside the tent and in so doing we appoach truth telling? Is truth telling the only way for us with integrity to confront violence? Is it that we have to trust that truth will set us free?

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