The Prophet Elijah – Famine, Fury, Fire – Thursday, 11th week in ordinary time – Sirach 48:1-14

The Prophet Elijah – Famine, Fury, Fire – Thursday, 11th week in ordinary time – Sirach 48:1-14

If you have been following my daily blog or the YouTube videos you will at once ask yourself why do we have a reading from Sirach when we are bang smack in the middle of the book of Kings (remember the book of Kings was originally one book and not two). The Church wants us to look at Elijah once more before we move on. Having read in the Book of Kings the story of the great prophet Elijah, we now read about him in poetic description. This is Sirach’s praise of the prophet.

It is quite normal in our liturgical readings that, after we have been hearing about one of the great personalities of the Old Testament, there is a final encomium (a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly). We had a similar reading after hearing about David’s life. Today we hear a summary of Elijah’s ministry.

This poetic piece of praise is taken from the Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus. The book of Sirach is one of the ‘apocryphal’ books, which are part of our Catholic Bible but are not included in the Bibles of the Jews or other Christian denominations. It is also known as ‘Ecclesiasticus’, and is not to be confused with Ecclesiastes, a book accepted by all denominations.

Why was this book written? It was written in a period of challenge and questioning as Judaism prepared to enter a new phase. By about 200 B.C. there were more Jews living outside Palestine than in there. Although the Greek king, Antiochus III was tolerant of Jewish customs, yet Hellenistic ( Greek culture and language) influence continued to come into Jewish society. In Jerusalem, the upper classes were tempted to look on their own literature as lower than Greek drama, poetry, and philosophy. So Sirach wrote to address the young Jews of his day, to try to keep them from falling under the spell of Hellenism. The work was originally written by Jeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira.

Chapters 44-50 are in praise of the ancient good and great men and consists of a long list of eulogies of various personalities in the Old Testament.. These testimonies are called the “Praises of the Fathers”. Some were men who ruled with wisdom in their kingdoms and some composed music and wrote verses. But the men of whom we speak of were men of mercy, their righteous deeds are not forgotten, and their posterity continues forever. Today’s reading from Sirach extolls the life of the prophet Elijah whose life we have been studying and reflecting on.

The prophet Elijah is praised as the prophet of the Northern Kingdom who prophesied in the name of God against King Ahab about 869 BC. He also denounced the worship of the god Baal. Elijah’s dramatic story is found in the First Book of Kings, chaps 17-19 and in the first two chapters of the Second Book of Kings. A number of his deeds are referred to in today’s reading.

Why read this passage today? There are at least two reasons. One remarkable thing about Elijah is that he did not die naturally. As today’s reading says, he was “taken up [to heaven] in the whirlwind of fire in a chariot with fiery horses”. It was witnessed by Elisha, who took over his prophetic mantle. But it was expected that one day Elijah would come back to earth and that his return would signify the imminent coming of the Messiah. He was “to allay God’s wrath before the fury breaks, to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob”.

Whether Elijah has returned yet or not, we do not really know, but the Gospel and Jesus himself, implies very strongly that the role as forerunner of the Messiah has been in fact filled by John the Baptist .

While Elijah spoke many prophetic words, the author of Sirach wants to draw our attention to Elijah’s deeds. Elijah was a prophet of word and action. He lived what he preached. But he did none of that of his own ability or authority. As a prophet of God, he was empowered by God to do all those things in his name. God gave him every grace and favour in order to accomplish his prophecies and bring great glory to God. We, too, may obtain every grace and favour from God. We need only ask, in prayer.

Like Elijah, we can do nothing without God. And like Elijah, our words and actions ought to reflect God’s desires and his glory. So may our own habits of prayer help us to grow in this area, and to rely ever more on God who loves us.

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