Will you pray for me? Lord, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Does this story, the story of Elijah and the widow sound familiar to you?
Do you feel like you’ve heard this story somewhere in the Bible before?
Haven’t you heard another story—or maybe several—like this somewhere in our tradition?
A man who comes with healing, and food, and the word of God, and a call?
Can you think of anyone else like that?
Now, before I go on with that train of thought, I want to talk to you for a minute about the ancients. Now, the ancients knew how to read Scripture. They didn’t ask, “Did it really happen?” They didn’t ask whether it was possible for a jar of meal to be bottomless or a jug of oil to be inexhaustible, or whether it was magic or CPR that Elijah used. They didn’t care. What they asked was, “What does it mean?”, and they had a seemingly endless number of ways to squeeze meaning out of a text.
One of these ways they sought meaning in these stories was what they called a typological reading. Typology started as a Jewish way of reading the stories of the Jewish Bible (including this story), and it was quickly adopted by first Jewish Christian and then Christian writers. Over the first few centuries of the church’s existence, this method of reading became the church’s preferred way to understand the relationship between the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures, a way to understand the Jewish Scriptures through the lens of the Christian ones, and it reached its height in the Middle Ages. Here’s how it works: in this kind of reading, one event or person or story is seen as prefiguring another event or person or story, not unlike an allegory. The first thing is called the “type”, the thing that the first thing prefigures is called the “antitype.” “Antitype” is not a bad thing, despite how it sounds.
By this method, Eve, the mother of humanity, becomes the type for Mary, mother of God, who is the antitype (which is a good thing, though “antitype” may sound like a bad thing). The Flood with all its implications of cleansing becomes a type for the baptism of John, its antitype. The Twelve Tribes of Israel become types to the Twelve Disciples’ antitypes, the Prophets prefigure the Evangelists, and soon.
Now, the Medieval Christian mind, elastic and imaginative, ate this stuff up. They loved to search for the connections between the Testaments, to listen for the echoes of grace that resounded back and forth between the great lives and events of the Bible. Looking for types and antitypes was a kind of theological brain exercise, designed to stretch the mind and open it to the Word of God. They loved it. So too did the Puritans and the Pilgrims, who understood their entire project, their journey from Europe to the Americas as an antitype to the type of the Exodus from Egypt. When John Winthrop spoke of a city on a hill, he was reading the history of Boston typologically: the New Jerusalem that the Bible predicted was the type for the very city he was founding.
These days, typological readings have largely fallen out of fashion for all but the most conservative churches, primarily for this good reason: Christian typological readings of the Hebrew Scriptures have always had a tendency to triumphalism, the claim that everything Christian is better than everything Jewish, and that the latter is bankrupt. When typology takes this particular unpleasant turn, everything wrong in Eve is fixed in Mary, and everything good in Eve is improved upon. Everything that went wrong at Eden is fixed in the New Jerusalem; the twelve tribes, who were lost, are gathered around God again as the Disciples, and so on. The Christian antitype is always better than the Jewish type. At its nastiest, Christian typology claims that no one and nothing in the Old Testament has any inherent integrity, any value at all except insofar as it points to Jesus, and that includes the Jewish faith itself. You know the historical fruit that this kind of hyper-extrapolation of typology has born. You also know what happened to the Native Americans when the Pilgrims and Puritans decided to pattern their lives on the part of the Exodus story where the Israelites clear all the natives out of their new land. One must treat typology carefully.
And yet, it is hard to miss that certain kinds of characters seem to show up over and over again in our Bible, certain events seem to repeat themselves more than once, certain themes recur and recur and recur, and spending time connecting them does seem like a worthwhile exercise, if one that should be carefully performed. Typological readings have the power to throw these repetitions into relief, to teach us to listen to the echoes of grace that resound back and forth all throughout both testaments. Such readings need not be triumphalist or supercessionist; though the Christian will read through the lens of Jesus Christ, still the reading need not make the claim that the antitype trumps the type, or that one is better than the other. Instead, they need only claim that God is constant and we learn best be repetition.
So, I want to invite you to join me in doing a typological reading now. One of the classic type-antitype pairings is Elijah and Jesus. I want to invite you to see if you can come up with why. I want to invite you to stretch your mind and your scriptural memory in this way. What connections do you see? What are the echoes of grace that you hear resounding back and forth between these two lives? Take a minute now, turn to a neighbor, and list the ways that Jesus’ life echoes Elijah’s. If you don’t know Jesus’ life well enough to do this, fear not; chances are your neighbor will. And if neither of you does,
Elijah, Jesus. Type, antitype. Go.
A man sent from God, from the Jewish God, shows up where he is least expected. He goes to the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable of all, and blesses them beyond imagining. Doesn’t that sound like Jesus? Doesn’t that sound like God?
Elijah shows up in this woman’s life and asks her to give more than she could ever possibly give, and yet, when she says “Yes”, she finds that she has as much as she needs and more—Stewardship Committee, doesn’t that sound like Jesus?
The man shows up to a hungry family, and suddenly, there is more than enough food for everyone. Outreach Committee, doesn’t that sound like Jesus? Old South Gardeners, doesn’t providing food sound like Jesus? Old South Deacons, doesn’t setting a meal sound like Jesus?
He takes a sick and dying child and heals him. Congregational Care and Support Committee, doesn’t that sound like Jesus? If the Old South AIDS Walk team were here right now instead of out raising money to heal the sick, I would ask them, doesn’t that sound like Jesus?
He shows up, and asks for an open door, and a drink of water, and a little food, and then he saves them all. Old South Church, doesn’t that sound like Jesus?
Doesn’t that sound like God? Doesn’t that sound like every hero God has ever sent into the world to do God’s work?
Now, here’s the thing about types. Types tend to breed types. That’s how God works: one story of healing, and feeding, and power, and grace is not enough for our God. Our God won’t stop typing and antityping until everyone gets the point and the whole world is saved.
Types tend to breed types, and you can choose to be an antitype if you want. Don’t you think the widow of Zarepheth must have done just that? In the midst of a nationwide drought, when thousands must have been starving, don’t you think she did just what Elijah and God had done for her? Do you think she would let her neighbors starve? Don’t you think she went out with her jar of meal that would not empty and her jug of oil that would not run out, and don’t you think she dumped her meal into their jars and poured her oil into their jugs and stood there delighted and full of praise to see that they were not empty as she walked to the next neighbor’s house? Don’t you think that after Elijah saved her son from his illness, she spent the rest of her life doing whatever she could to heal other people of what ailed them? Don’t you think she decided to become an antitype to Elijah’s type. And don’t you think God delighted in the power and grace that echoed back and forth between their lives?
Types tend to breed types, and you can choose to be an antitype if you want. Didn’t Jesus choose to pattern his life on Elijah’s?
You can choose to be an antitype. If someone has fed you more than you ever could yourself, then you can choose to make that one your type, and go feed somebody else. If someone has brought healing to your life, then make that one your type, and go out to heal the nations. If someone has called you to a task that was too much for you, then gave you what you needed to do it, if someone came to you when you were at your poorest and most vulnerable, if someone came to you speaking truth and grace, if someone came to you and showed you God, then don’t you want to be that type of person?
In these stories of God’s people that we read over and over again, grace echoes loud and long from beginning to end, and every story is both type and antitype because every story—Elijah’s story, and Jesus’ story, and yours, is an antitype of the one great story, the only one that matters.