In the patriarchal world of the Book of Numbers women had virtually no property rights. Widows didn’t inherit from their husbands but were dependent on their sons or the generosity of other heirs. Childless widows were the legal responsibility of their husband’s oldest brother—if he had one.
This is why I said last week that when someone in the Bible is describe as a “widow” we are to understand that this person is one of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, one of the ‘least of these’. A widow was outside the traditional system of household economy. They were the object of pity, and hopefully charity.
All of us, but women most especially, have suffered huge consequences for the failure of the Hebrew Bible to have a considered discourse on the dynamics and implications of human sexuality. Unfortunately this vacuum has been filled by Hellenistic ideas of dualism, cultic theories of sacrifice and Rabbinic notions of paternalism. These have had an enormous impact on the development of Western religion and civilization which has continued well into our day. In a discussion of 18th century women’s property rights there was one line, one bright spot, I’d like to share with you. It reported that British and American Quakers were unique in that among them women were equals.
In Biblical law, like in ancient Near Eastern social policy, a woman’s subordination to the dominant male in her life is simply assumed. Legal concerns about women’s sexual activity primarily had to do with relations between men. In Leviticus for instance a man is executed for having intercourse with another’s wife not because he violated the woman but because he has committed a crime of theft against another man. In Deuteronomy we are told that it is not a crime that a man rapes a virgin. It is a question of what man “owned” the rights to the women’s sexuality. At most the culprit is expected to pay a bride-price to the father.
Despite that the Bible makes it quite clear that God is especially concerned with those who are powerless, indigent and oppressed. Through Elijah in the ninth century BC and through Jesus in the first century we have two demonstrations of God’s desire to save the most marginalized of ancient peoples, including the widows of the world.
The women in both our stories today are found to be in a worse condition than being dead. I’m reminded of two tee shirts our girls had years ago. One said “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” the other said “Better to stay home and raise cats than marry a worthless man”. Those sentiments may speak our minds today but they would not have fit in either the ninth century B.C. or the first of the Christian era
Let’s look at Elijah’s story first. You’ll recall from last week that in a time of severe drought God sent Elijah to the home of a Lebanese widow who kept him alive until the drought broke. This is the same widow in today’s reading. 1st Kings 17:17
After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” 19But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. 20He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” 21Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 22The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.23Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” 24So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
Elijah is accosted by this widow when after providing him hospitality her son dies. According to best estimates she wouldn’t have been more than 33 years old. Her son became so terribly ill that there was no breath left in him, that it, he was dead. In her grief she shouts at Elijah that he had entered her house not to help her at all, but to “bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son”. She imagines that something she did earlier in her life was such an awful deed that the death of her son was the consequence. What a monstrous notion. Unfortunately we can still hear it echoed today.
And things get even more twisted. Elijah takes the child’s body and, this time shouting at God, prays: “O YHWH, my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?” What’s he saying: “Look, God. You sent me to this widow in the first place, and now she blames me for this child’s death when in fact it is you who have killed him?” God spends divine time evaluating human behaviors and doling out nasty punishments even to the death of innocent children? No.
Stretching himself on the dead child three times Elijah demands that God bring the child back from the dead. And God obliges. The prophet announces to the widow, “Look! Your son is alive”. And the widow in response to the miracle adds her benediction to this theological mess. “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of God in your mouth is truth”. By bringing the child back from death Elijah has proven himself to be a man of God and all he utters can be trusted to be true. The story and the characters in it haven’t told the truth about God.
They have created a characterization of God that needs to be rejected completely. This isn’t a God I recognize. God is not in the business of finding ways of punishing human sin by slaughtering loved ones. God doesn’t send messengers to announce such terrible claims. It is far past time for us to give up these absurd notions about a God who rewards and punishes our human actions in cruel and sadistic ways. Too many have gone down that road. It is a road that leads only to needless pain and useless explanations about the difficulties of our human lives.
The Common Lectionary suggests a somewhat parallel story in Luke. It’s important for us to see the difference. Elijah in Jewish tradition is supposed to return to usher in the messianic period. Matthew and Mark both identify him with John the Baptist. Luke drops the link between Elijah and the Baptist and shows Jesus fulfilling Elijah’s role.
Luke tells us that Jesus and a large retinue are entering the city of Nain. As they do they encounter a large funeral procession trying to leave the city through the same gate. This makes for a rather large crowd of witnesses made up of a pilgrimage of life and a procession of death.
11Soon afterwards he (Jesus) went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. Luke 7:11-17
Widows were the victims of a cruel economic system which provides them few ways to survive. According to Biblical law a widow finds herself at the mercy of her neighbors. Certainly, she grieves the loss of her child. But in our story today Jesus confronts the economic systems of his own time and provides an unexpected kind of healing. As I read this story it occurred to me that Jesus sees in this woman his own mother who in the death of Joseph was left a widow. He understands. The text says ‘His heart went out to her’. No one asks Jesus to do anything. She doesn’t beg for Jesus’ intercession. The text just says that Jesus was moved to compassion. Anticipation heightens for us as we read that Jesus says to her, “Do not weep.” Then he comes forward and touches the bier while the bearers stop in there trek to the place of burial.
Disappointing to some is the fact that there is no discussion about the widow’s faith or belief. “Young man” Jesus says speaking up to the platform on which the boy is laying, “I say to you arise.” Jesus restored him to his mother. This is simply and clearly a story of resurrection – not just of the son but of the widow. In that culture she was dead – and everyone in that funeral procession knew it to be so. In this event she is restored to life.
She is the one that is healed in this story; she is the one that is brought back to life. Jesus reaches out to her in her sorrow. and hopelessness. He sees in the widow’s tears a cry of anguish God has long promised to heed, and boldly brings her from death into life. For Luke resurrection is not just the resuscitation of a dead body it is awaking us in our faith community to God’s call to righteousness and justice.
It makes me wonder how we treat the so-called “deserving” poor. About the ways people in poverty are expected to jump over our hurdles and negotiate our obstacles, fail means tests while we demand drug tests before releasing their welfare checks or propose cutting supplemental nutritional assistance to families whose children aren’t succeeding in school.
A recent Pew poll revealed that four in ten households rely primarily on the income of women. On one hand this is good news. New opportunities are allowing women to be the primary bread-winners. Maybe our efforts toward gender equality are bearing fruit. On the other hand a significant majority of those women whose households rely primarily on their income are single mother households living in poverty or near-poverty. What if Jesus were to encounter today not a grieving widow but a single mother on the edge of poverty courageously leading a family? What life-giving message might he share with her? We have the evangelist’s mandate as the followers of Christ to embrace compassionate ministry to the poor in Jesus’ name.
Resurrection, the restoration to life is a mark of the Messiah’s coming, a necessary piece of the Kingdom of God. It can be witnessed in small acts of compassion.