ELIJAH 2 – THE WIDOW OF ZAREPHATH
SET READINGS (Proper 5)
- 1 Kings 17:8-16
- Luke 7:11-17
- Galatians 1:11-24
- Psalm 146
WHY SHOULD OUTSIDERS GET ALL THE BENEFITS?
I saw a local newspaper headline just recently that said, “Refugees live in fear of their neighbours”. Some people can be very unkind, unsympathetic, even abusive to foreigners and immigrants. Mostly these negative attitudes are based on false assumptions, that they are “scrounging” on social security benefits, taking advantage of the health care system, filling jobs that would otherwise be available to local people. The fact is that immigrants on the whole benefit our economy and provide services that are necessary and productive. Where would out NHS and home care services be without all the non-British nurses and care workers?
But it’s a worldwide phenomena that local people are often wary, suspicious, and even frightened of outsiders just because they are “different”. Different features. Different clothing. Different food. Different habits. Different religion. But they are human beings just like us, and many of them have suffered violence and oppression in ways that we can’t even imagine.
- What kind of things might make you feel suspicious or afraid of outsiders? Why?
- What might help you to feel more sympathetic and kind towards them?
- What difference does it make to view the topic from a Christian perspective?
THE WIDOW OF ZARAPHETH (1 Kings 17:8-16)
The Lectionary sometime bounces around a bit, as you may have noticed! This week’s OT reading jumps back three and a half years to the beginning of Elijah’s ministry, when God sends Elijah to King Ahab to tell him, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”
Elijah may have avoided facing Jezebel, who would probably have killed him dead on the spot. But having given Ahab the message from God, he is spirited away to hide from Ahab and Jezebel’s wrath. (Jezebel, we are told, was intent on killing all of Yahweh’s prophets, and would have readily disposed of Elijah if she had the opportunity.)
At first, God sends Elijah to the brook Cherith (or ravine as some translations have, which would make more sense for him to be hidden out of sight) and sends ravens to provide him with bread and meat (that’s another story!) but because of the famine, the brook soon dries up.
So God sends Elijah to find a widow who lives in Zarephath in Sidon (the land of the Philistines). You might think that God is sending Elijah away from Jezebel’s influence, but there is a surprising twist to the story. 1 Kings 16:31 tells us that Jezebel was “daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians”. Sidon was Jezebel’s home turf! The very last place she would think of looking for him.
God tells Elijah that he has “commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food“. But how will he find the right widow – there must have been many there to choose from, and choosing the wrong one could mean disaster.
Remember how Jacob ran away from home after he had received his father’s blessing instead of Esau, and came to Haran, arriving at a watering place outside the city just as Laban’s daughter Rachel “happened” to come to water her father’s sheep?
The story of Elijah shows us another of those “coincidences” that are actually God’s way of leading us in the right direction. The widow in question “just happens” to be collecting sticks outside the city gate as Elijah arrives.
I’m not sure Elijah knows for sure if she is “the” widow straight away, but he tests her out, first asking for a glass of water, and then when she sets off to fetch it, adds a request for some bread as well. At this point we discover the widow’s sad predicament:
“As surely as the LORD your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread–only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son that we may eat it–and die.”
Elijah, knowing God’s heart for the poor and the oppressed, must have known now, if not before, that she was the one that God had chosen to provide his safe house.
What do you make of her opening sentence? Although she identifies God as “your” (Elijah’s) God, the fact that she mentions him at all indicates that she knows Yahweh as God of the Hebrews, and that Elijah is his prophet… and she knows that he “lives”. Is that an indication that she has doubts about the status of her own God, Baal? Whatever, her subsequent actions show that she is willing to follow Elijah’s outrageous request, and make him a meal first, before she uses what little she had left for herself and her son.
She was willing to trust Elijah’s words, and the word of Elijah’s God. And God honoured her faith.
She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah.
Jesus’ preaches in Nazareth
Skip forward about 800 years. Jesus is preaching his first sermon in his home town of Nazareth. The congregation are impressed, but the problem is that they knew Jesus when he was a boy, working alongside his father as a humble carpenter. How can they really take him seriously, and believe his claims to be sent by God?
Jesus addresses their lack of faith, and goes on to give them the example of the widow of Zarephath, and Naaman the Leper.
“I tell you the truth,” he (Jesus) continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed–only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:24-27)
The congregation were furious at these words, so furious that they drove Jesus out of the town and tried to kill him by throwing him off a cliff! Jesus calmly “walked right through the crowd and went on his way.”
But why so angry? If Jesus really was the promised Messiah, as he apparently claimed to be, then they were the ones who had first claim on his attention. They were God’s chosen people. Why would God want to include foreigners – not just foreigners but traditional enemies – in the blessings that were intended for the people of Israel?
I think there is also an implication in Jesus’ words that at the time of Elijah these foreigners were more worthy of God’s blessing than anyone in Israel. A consequence of the fact that Israel as a community had forsaken the true God and were worshipping the gods of Canaan, with all their idolatry and immorality.
Visions of the future
In Zechariah chapter 9, the prophet foretells God’s judgement on the land of the Philistines and the destruction of Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod. The prophecy was fulfilled around 200 years later when Alexander the Great invaded the land and besieged and destroyed the city of Gaza. But the prophecy includes a surprising element. After the land has been destroyed, says Zechariah, “those who are left will belong to our God and become leaders in Judah, and Ekron will be like the Jebusites” (who made an alliance and lived in peace with Israel).
Really? Philistines becoming leaders in Judah?! Remember, “those who are left” would be the refugees, houses and lands destroyed, people in need of new home and a new community,. Those fleeing from the destruction in their own land would come to find new purpose and new life serving and blessing their former enemy, just like Ruth the Moabitess.
Hidden away in Ezekiel’s rather strange and cryptic vision of a future holy and God-centred city of Jerusalem, Ezekiel declares:
“You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance,” declares the Sovereign LORD. (Ezekiel 47:21-23)
Visions of the future, perhaps, but that’s the attitude God wants us to have now in this present age. Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer we ask: “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” For God’s will to be done here on earth, in conformity with Ezekiel’s vision of heaven, we need to treat the refugees and foreigners in our midst with kindness and compassion, and “consider them as native-born” citizens.
Quite a challenge!!
THE WIDOW OF NAIN (Luke 7:11-17)
If we read on from the story of the widow’s jar of oil, we find that sometime later, while Elijah was still with them, the widow’s son died. For a widow at that time to lose her only son would be a double blow. She has already lost her husband, who would have been the bread-winner of the family. But her son would inherit the father’s property, and replace his father as the family’s provider and security.
But with her son also dead, the poor widow is now left with no means of support, no inheritance (which would pass to her closest male relative) and no hope for the future. Elijah, filled with compassion for the woman who has provided him with a hiding place and hospitality. Places his faith in a loving God and breaths life back into her son.
Although there is no deliberate thematic connection between the OT and Gospel reading, the passage from Luke also concerns Jesus’ love and compassion for a widow who has lost her son. Like Elijah, Jesus is filled with pity and empathy for her condition. Luke 7:13 tells us that “His heart went out to her”.
Do we share that empathy and does our heart go out to those in need?… those who like the widow of Nain have lost family, lost their livelihood, who face destitution and a future without hope?
Knowing how God wants us to behave, and putting that behaviour into practice are two different things.
- What opportunities do we have in our own community to encourage positive attitudes and good relationships with foreigners, refugees and immigrants?
- What can we do at the national and international level to uphold fair and just treatment of refugees and asylum seekers?
And let’s not forget others among us who are facing a hard and lonely future. James tells us in his epistle,
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
Psalm 146 reminds us that the LORD (in Hebrew YAHWEH), the maker of heaven and earth, is a loving and compassionate God who cares for the poor, the oppressed. He “watches over” the alien and “sustains” the fatherless and the widow (like the widow of Zarapheth).
May God help us to grow in his likeness, so that his character and attitude may develop in us, and control our thoughts and actions to His praise and glory.
Praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD, O my soul.
I will praise the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortal men, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God,
the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them–
the LORD, who remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets prisoners free,
the LORD gives sight to the blind,
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down,
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the alien
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
The LORD reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD.