One of the strangest stories in the whole bible comes in 3 Kings 13. An unnamed man of God comes by divine commission from the southern kingdom into the new, schismatic, northern kingdom that Jeroboam has just set up. He comes to the sanctuary at Bethel while the king is burning incense there and prophesies that a son of David will defile the altar. In proof of this, the altar cracks; and when Jeroboam stretches out his hand to motion to his guard to seize the prophet, the king’s hand withers, only to be restored to vigour at the prophet’s prayer.
Having caused this sensation, the prophet then starts on the return journey. God has told him not to eat or drink anything while he is in the schismatic kingdom, and to go home by a different route from that by which he came. Presumably this is so that he will not by fraternizing with the northerners lessen their sense of their perilous state. However while he is resting beneath a tree, a prophet whose home is in the northern kingdom finds him, and invites him to his house for a bite to eat. The holy man of Judah explains that God has forbidden this, whereupon his northern brother explains that he too is a prophet, and says that an angel has spoken to him telling him to invite the brave Judaean back for some refreshment. But this is a fib.
The man of God decides to accept the offer, and goes with the other. However, while they are at table, the northerner receives a true revelation, and says to his guest: “Because thou hast not been obedient to the Lord and hast not kept the commandment which the Lord thy God commanded thee, and hast returned and eaten bread, and drunk water in the place wherein he commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat bread, nor drink water, thy dead body shall not be brought into the sepulchre of thy fathers.” The holy man then gets back on to his donkey and departs. I imagine that the leave-taking must have been somewhat awkward, on both sides.
Almost immediately, a lion meets the man of God as he goes back toward Judaea, and kills him. But the lion does no harm to his dead body, or to the donkey on which he had travelled. The northern prophet hears of what has happened, and going to the place, finds the body lying by the way, untouched, with the lion and the donkey standing next to it. He takes the dead body onto his own donkey and buries it in the tomb he had prepared for himself, lamenting over him. And he charges his sons to bury him in the same tomb, when his time comes.
Not without mystery, as the Fathers would say, are so many details recorded. It is a type of what happens when one carries out some great work of preaching and yet also compromises on the rights of God. The holy man did not rebel against his commission: as Challoner notes, we may hope that he committed only a venial sin in allowing himself to believe, hungry, thirsty, and tired as he surely was, that the other’s message was true. Moreover, he had done bravely in going into the shrine and telling the king to his face that God was angry with him and would bring his designs to naught. Yet he obscured the truth of his message by that brief repast among the schismatics. And so he received the penalty proper to such a sin: not death, though he did die, but rather burial in a foreign tomb.
Am I wrong to be put in mind of Pope John Paul II? He too was a man of God who was not afraid to rebuke the powerful ones of this world, to tell them, for example, that abortion is a crime against God and man. He proclaimed Jesus Christ as the one Redeemer of mankind, without whom man’s plans and dreams will finally all fail. He was attacked, but could not be silenced. Yet did he not weaken his message by certain actions, fraternizing beyond the demands of charity with those who contradicted it?
After the holy man died, a miracle was seen. The lion that had killed him did not touch his body, but stood by it, as it were guarding it, nor did it touch the donkey on which he had ridden. God vindicated in this way the courage and holiness of His prophet, and the truth of his message. Even so, we are told, miracles have been worked after prayers to the late pontiff, and the Church of Rome has defined that he is in heaven. Christ, the Lion of Judah, honours His prophet and the faith that supported him on his long and painful journeys. Yet he was buried not in his proper tomb, but in another man’s. For we do not, I think, enshrine him in our memories in the way that might seem to befit his greatness, as we enshrine St Leo I, St Gregory I, St Gregory VII, St Pius V, St Pius X. Even as we admire, we hesitate and are puzzled. We do not recall him as we should wish to recall a holy, Catholic pontiff; we give him as it were a strange tomb within our minds. Maybe all this is just an illusion caused by our proximity in time; yet I think it is something else. But however that may be, there let him lie in peace, till all tombs are opened, and dead men live once more.