The Prophet and the Widow
Today’s text focuses on two ordinary people who are challenged by God to do extraordinary things against ridiculous odds. Ahab became King of Israel in the 9th century BC. 1 Kings 16 summarizes his reign by saying: “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” He was a wicked king; and on top of everything else, he married the legendary Jezebel, an evil and idolatrous woman, whose father was the King of Sidon–a region north of Israel in what is now Lebanon. Jezebel and her whole family were committed to Baal worship and Ahab soon embraced this idolatrous faith.
The first time that we meet the prophet Elijah in the Bible, he is being sent to warn Ahab that what he is doing was destructive to the heart and soul and culture of Israel. This was no doubt a tough assignment for the inexperienced prophet from the backwoods of Gilead. Elijah wasn’t from a powerful family, he wasn’t wealthy, he wasn’t even a priest. He had no credentials to cause the King to listen to what he had to say. On his first visit with Ahab Elijah tells the king that because his evil behavior it wouldn’t rain again until Elijah said so. After that Elijah disappears into the mountainous wilderness of Gilead.
The spring rains didn’t come as expected that year. And as summer came it was evident that a drought was upon them. And as the drought deepened, everything became more serious. The crops didn’t grow. People became hungry. And Ahab began to look for the young upstart Prophet of Yahweh named Elijah. He literally puts out an arrest warrant for the Prophet.
In his hideout beside a mountain stream Elijah was fed by food dropped by a flock of scavenger ravens. But eventually even Elijah’s stream dries up and the ravens stop coming. God tells Elijah to go to a new place, Zarephath, 100 miles away, in the heart of Gentile territory and just eight miles from Jezebel’s hometown. I can only imagine Elijah’s conversation with God and his fear as left the security of his mountain retreat.
Ist Kings 17:8-16
8Then the word of the Lord came to him (Elijah), saying, 9“Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.14For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
The story introduces us to a gentile widow living at a time of a severe drought when people were literally starving to death. She is a Lebanese widowed single mom who experiences the miracle of the bottomless flower jar and oil jug, as she provides food for the prophet Elijah at a time when she herself had nothing to spare. When we read the word “widow” in the Bible our minds treat us with a host of images: Vulnerable. Without power. Outside the traditional system of household economy. Object of pity, and hopefully charity. ”Widow” often serves as a scriptural shorthand for “the least of these.” The Hebrew script for “widow” resembles the word meaning “to be mute.” The connection suggests that widowhood creates a sort of social muteness. But this widow is anything but voiceless. She stands up for herself. She makes her needs known. She becomes an active agent in her own life.
So here comes Elijah, expecting hospitality from this woman God had told him about. He asks her for food. We just kind of expect that the widow will drop everything and prepare food for this foreign Holy man wanted by the authorities. But she doesn’t do that. She offers Elijah a drink of water. But in terms of sustenance she protests. She has nothing to share. She has only enough for one final bitter, poignant meal, before hunger steals their lives from both she and her son. It is a heart-rending scene.
Think about the position he is putting her in. To accommodate the prophet of God she would have to give away the very substance of her and her son’s livelihood and become a traitor to the King, which I am sure, was punishable by death. She is being asked to put her and her son’s life at risk for God.
Our tradition holds up civil disobedience, conscientious objection, as the right thing to do. To stand with the oppressed or to take a stand in opposition to an unjust law, because human law takes a second seat to God desires for creation. Finding living examples however is becoming increasingly difficult. It’s getting a little late to ask those who went through the civil rights era, who put at risk their lives and their future for the cause of ending discrimination and institutional racism. We have to turn to the movies to be reminded of those in Nazi Germany who hid Jews, Roman Catholics, homosexuals, or many others that were on Hitler’s political enemy list in the basements of their homes. They risked their own lives and the lives of their family members to do what is right in the sight of God. And some of them actually lost their lives as they were found out.
The thing is this, if the widow had given in to her basic instincts and had gone against her conscience, neither she, her son nor the Prophet Elijah would have survived the drought. What an unusual Gentile woman God picked out for this particular assignment. She could have called the law on this Prophet from Israel, had him arrested and maybe have even received a reward for his capture. But evidently she was able to do what her conscience, I’m sure directed by the Spirit of God, told her what was right.
The danger is that we know the rest of the story–that in the end God richly rewarded the widow and her son; they did not go hungry for the rest of the time of the draught. A little later on in the same chapter, we read how Elijah is used by God to restore to the widow her deceased son. And we want to believe that God always stands up for us, if we stand up for God. God provides for those who obey God and do what is right. I’d certainly like to assure you of that. But I can’t. At least not is this life. When you or I chose to challenge the authorities or the prevailing opinions in our neighborhood or nation over a matter of injustice or oppression what we must be prepared to accept is rejection and punishment to the full extent of the law. Otherwise it’s not a risk.
Our story is about two people. The first is a valiant young and inexperienced person called to be a Prophet of God – his very name means Yahweh is my God. He faces up to his call to challenge unrighteousness at the highest level at the risk of his life.
How about us this morning? What kind of decisions do we face in everyday life? Are we struggling with what is God’s will? My guess is that deep down, when you ask your own conscience, you already know what the right decision is. Perhaps we can get inspired this morning by the example of the faithful widow. Most likely, our decisions aren’t even as difficult as hers, so let’s take courage this morning and let’s take joy in standing up for what is good and right in the sight of the Lord. Amen.
Lord God, you are the God of history and you are the God of our lives. We pray that you would help us to be attentive to the daily acts of obedience, to the small steps of faithfulness so that we, like the widow of Zarephath in helping Elijah, can be utilized in your hands. Use us, we pray, use all of our little daily actions and weave them together in the way that only you can into the mighty tapestry of history. And as we journey together, we will be grateful people. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.