Ninety years ago, two writers had an argument about the writing of children’s stories. One writer, Bertram Stevens, thought the way to really grab children’s attention was to write about fairies. His friend thought the most enduring and popular theme, even for children, was food – and to prove his point Norman Lindsay set about writing a story about a bad-tempered pudding named Albert. In ‘the Magic Pudding’, the hero, a koala named Bunyip Bluegum, joins up with a swaggie named Sam Sawnoff who happens to be the owner of a most remarkable pudding. As Albert himself explains, he tastes like whatever you want him to taste like, and no matter how much of him you eat he never runs out. The one thing that makes Albert most bad-tempered is when his owners ignore him or finish their meal without eating what he regards as enough.
Norman Lindsay was right. Even in fantasy, we want to have our needs met, we crave security and safety. Especially at times when the world around us seems scary and unpredictable, as it did in the middle of the Great War when Lindsay wrote ‘The Magic Pudding’.
Today’s Old Testament version of the Magic Pudding, of course, is the jug of oil and the jar of flour of the widow of Zarephath. To begin the story at the beginning, of course, Elijah the prophet is on the run after telling King Ahab that God was sending a terrible drought as punishment for worshipping his wife’s foreign gods. Out in the desert, God sets up a raven delivery service to bring Elijah food for a while - but then sends him on into enemy territory, into the drought-ravaged land to throw himself on the mercy of the local Baal-worshippers. Begging a meal from a woman and her dying son in the middle of a drought that, in a sense, he is responsible for himself - Elijah repays her kindness by pulling off the miracle of the Magic Pudding.
What, do you suppose, is the point of the story? From our vantage point in the 21st century it’s easy to see stories like this as legendary, to question the obviously magical thinking – but we, too, live in a country where drought makes life precarious for many people. Most of us, I think, would be uncomfortable with the idea that God causes droughts as divine punishment for failure to come to church – but maybe we struggle a bit more to understand where God is and what God is about when much-needed rain fails to arrive. Human beings who fantasise about the basics of life, who are vulnerable to the slightest environmental variations – we have a powerful need for a God who cares about us, and we long for a God who is in control.
It’s a strange little story until we recognise that the most important thing about it is not who was responsible for the drought or how they managed to ration the oil and flour. The most important point of the story is the compassion of the widow, who shares her last handful of flour with an enemy on the run. That’s where we see in this story what God is like, and maybe that’s the secret of the Magic Pudding as well.
We’re going to be staying with the Elijah cycle of stories over the next few weeks, mainly because it seems to part of Luke’s agenda – the gospel writer - who seems to have structured some of his own material, the stories of Jesus, to make the point that Jesus is like the mighty Elijah who according to legend was taken bodily up into heaven, and who many expected to be putting in a return appearance sometime soon. Just like Elijah, Jesus miraculously feeds people in the desert. Just like Elijah, Jesus raises a dead widow’s son from the dead.
The description of the miracle itself is strange and compelling, structured with the logic of magical wish-fulfilment. Elijah takes the boy up to his room and prays. I think we need to notice that he doesn’t hold anything back here. Elijah feels free to accuse God of an enormous injustice. We might question his assumption that everything that happens is God’s doing – but the point is that his relationship with God is transparent, no holds barred. Then he lays himself out over the body three times – his mouth on the mouth of the widow’s son, his eyes on the boy’s eyes, his palms on the boy’s palms, and breathes into his body. The intimacy and physicality of this resuscitation maybe strike us as odd – but at the same we recognise that Elijah is giving something of his own life to restore life to the widow’s child. It’s a telling story – in the middle of this big-picture history of kings and government and power the prophet finds compassion and discovers a shared humanity in the home of a pagan woman. Only then does this woman – unnamed because in the big-picture logic of the story she is seen as unimportant – only after this moment of compassion and vulnerability does the widow of Zarephath exclaim, ‘now I know that you are a man of God – now I know the words you speak are God’s words’.
When Jesus also restores to life a widow’s son the description is less intimate, less vulnerable – maybe Luke is trying to show us that it’s easier for Jesus than it was for Elijah – no angry words with God, no physical shenanigans – and what I think we’re most meant to notice which is that the onlookers are seized with fear. Like us, they know that death happens. It defines how the world is. What does it mean when death comes unstuck? It’s like the world as we know it starting to run backwards – theologian James Allison comments that through Jesus the whole mechanism by which death controls the lives of human beings is shown to be invalid – death no longer has the power to impose a structure on human life. Resurrection unravels the fearful logic that we’ve got used to and that makes it both scary, exhilarating and full of hope.
Well we’ve got to be careful how we hear this. Many Christians argue – one way or the other – about whether we can really believe literally in stories like this. Can we actually believe that either Jesus or Elijah really brought their widow’s sons back from literal physical death? In Luke’s story, doesn’t it make more sense to interpret it symbolically, as Luke’s way of telling us that anything Elijah can do, Jesus can do better? Or to interpret it theologically as saying that the God who creates us is deeper and more powerful than death itself? Other Christians argue equally passionately that we need to take these stories at face value if we are to believe in the resurrection of Jesus himself. But I think that argument is a whole lot less important than the observation that in the world we live in, miracles like this don’t happen. To have a faith that depends on short-cuts to human suffering like this is not going to work in the real world where just in the last week, in our own safe country, young children as well as adults have died in a train accident at a level crossing on a clear sunny day, whole families have died in floods and in earthslides. Magic pudding thinking doesn’t help. We need to ask ourselves, ‘really, what’s the good news that these stories contain?’.
Well the good news is compassion. The word Luke uses for the compassion Jesus feels for the widow of Nain is splagcna – literally, something that happens deep in the bowels. Jesus doesn’t just take the widow’s needs seriously, he takes her anguish into the core of his being and he makes her pain his own. Jesus reacts out of that deeply shared pain and, like Elijah, spends something of his own self and his own life in giving life to another.
The God who created the world we live doesn’t cause drought. God didn’t cause the death of the son of the widow at Zarephath. We know that, because God intends creation for life and flourishing. But we know, too, that in the natural cycle of things droughts and floods happen, we know that fragile human beings die and God doesn’t prevent that. We dare not pretend otherwise. But we know that the God who gives us life shares our suffering, that’s what these stories are telling us. The compassion of God, splagcna – something deep in the bowels of God that can transform us, and the world we live in. The costly compassion of God that longs to superimpose itself on our lives, mouth to mouth, eye to eye, hand to hand – and to breathe new life into us. The compassion of God that, if we allow ourselves to be shaped by it, can be a radical threat to our world’s dominant culture of competition and self-preoccupation, can unravel death itself.