Elijah and the widow

November 11, 2018


This morning’s Old Testament story starts with Elijah on the run.  He has spoken the word of God to Ahab, Israel’s king.  God has promised that there will be no rain or even dew upon the land because of Ahab and Jezebel, his queen’s worship of the idol Baal.  And so, because of this bad news that he shared with Ahab, Elijah is on the run.  You do not speak truth to evil power and expect to sit around enjoying the use of one’s head.

As Elijah escaped God directed him to a small valley that had a thin brook running through it, where God sent ravens bearing meat and bread twice each day.  This hiding spot worked well until the brook dried up because of the drought.  It was then that God called Elijah to go to the town of Zarephath and seek out the widow of today’s story, who was to feed and care for him.

Now the first peculiarity of this command is that God is sending Elijah to a town outside of the Hebrew kingdoms.  Yeah, sure he wanted to flee from Israel, but why not into Judah, the Hebrew kingdom to the South, where he could hide amongst his own people who were ruled by the God fearing King Asa.  No, God had something else in mind, Elijah was sent into the very land Sidon, from which came Queen Jezebel, to the town of Zarephath.

Now the other interesting aspect to God’s command is that Elijah would be fed by a widow.  Widows often were the poorest of the poor, and we hear this was especially true of his hostess.  And yet that is to whom god sends Elijah.

Our modern Western culture does not have as one of its central values hospitality.  Sure we might invite family and friends over to eat and visit at times, but if someone shows up on our doorstep asking for food or a bed, we are more liable to call the cops then to usher them in with a warm welcome.  In the Middle East the very reverse is true, both in Elijah’s time as well as today.  A visitor, be he or she, stranger or family is an honor to the house and to the family.

So when Elijah arrives upon the widow’s doorstep, she cannot refuse his request for food, even though she and her son are preparing to starve to death after one last meal.  Though she has virtually nothing, she still is willing to share all that she has with this stranger to whom she has become hostess.  And so, even though it was to be her last meal she gives Elijah part of it as a meal.

Yet unbeknownst to her, within her gift of a meal lies her and her son’s salvation for God promises that her meal and her oil will not fail until God sends again the rains.  And so, Elijah, the widow and her son live because of her willingness to give all that she has to the prophet live.

This is a great story but what does it mean for us, today?

What does it mean to give, and what does it mean to receive?  What does it mean to give because of a value or belief or because of faith?  What does it mean to receive because of those same things?

In 1994 as I have mentioned before I traveled into Northern Mexico, to live with the family’s of two different pastors.  I went to improve my Spanish and to better understand Mexican culture and the Mexican Lutheran church.

When I asked my missionary friend Gary, who set this experience up for me, where I would live and from whom would I learn, he simply answered, “They’ll take care of you.”

By “they” Gary meant the Mexican people of the church.  They opened their arms, their homes and their lives to me.  They did not know me and I did not know them, and yet they took care of me.  I gave them some money to cover food, so as not to burden them but everything else was taken care of for me, and never begrudgingly.  For three months, I was the guest of honor.  My Mexican friends were so hospitable that I felt stifled at times.  In their culture, for me the guest, “It was only the best.”

The Mexicans hospitality was not only cultural, but a part of their faith.  I was their brother in Christ for whom they would do anything.  There were times that it felt as if I was receiving all they had.  I remember going along with Pastor Velazquez to the home of a desperately poor family.  We were offered crackers upon entering, and we each took one.  As I looked around I realized there was nothing else to eat on their shelves, and yet we were being fed with possibly all they had.  This family was holding nothing back, for in their giving they were living out their beliefs.  I felt terrible eating their food, but they would have been insulted if I had done any other.

In today’s gospel lesson, the widow whom Jesus points out to his disciples faithfully gives all that she has into the temple offering.  She gives not expecting anything in return, but simply because she is faithful.  It is not the ends in which she is interested, but rather the means, the giving itself.  Her giving defines who she is.

There is another giver who is defined by this trait, by this value.  Jesus.  He gives everything, in exchange for pain, humiliation and death.  He gives with no thought for what he might receive.  Jesus gave so that we might receive.  He gave that we might receive life.

The widow of Zarephath gave to Elijah that he might live, for another day.  Jesus gives that we might live forever.   And unlike the widow who had to give again each day to Elijah, Christ’s gift is given once for all.

That is the beauty of Jesus’ gift to the world, he died that we all might live.  His is a gift that endures and does not demand recompense or payment or righteous action to even the scales.  It is a pure gift that can only be received, it cannot be paid back.

Yet, even though the price of this gift is unimaginable to us as humans, and it is a gift that we can never repay, or earn, or live up to, we too often act otherwise.  Too often, we either forget about the gift, and live as if we can earn what Jesus gave us on our own, or we take it ‘lightly’, meaning we take Jesus’ gift for granted.  Either way, the reality of Jesus’ great gift can get lost on us.  We live our lives not feeling, or understanding the full impact of what God’s love, shown us in Christ Jesus means for us.

If we live only as the receiver of such a gift it can become as nothing to us.  So, what do we do?  We learn and work to live as givers, as passers-on of Jesus’ great gift.  We give in the same manner as Jesus gives, with wild abandon and joy.  Jesus came to save the world, and he loved everyone.  So, we cross the barriers that the world erects, and leap over the boundaries that our own experiences or feelings try to place between us and other people.

As Jesus did, we try to love everyone. We give to those whom we are taught to look at with judgment, or ridicule, or as lesser than us, or greater than us.  We give Jesus’ love and the news of his great gift, to women and men, boys and girls, to the young and the old, to the poor and the rich, straight and gay, conservative and liberal, every language or dialect deserves to receive, as does each shade of skin, and each type of culture.  Jesus loves us all, and gave himself for all people…even you!

We can and we should live in the reality of Jesus’ gift each day.  Jesus died that we might live.  Our lives are God’s gift to each of us every day.  The only question that we can ask ourselves is; “How am I going to live out God’s gift today…and am I going to share it?”


Bible References

  • 1 Kings 17:8 - 16
  • Mark 12:38 - 44



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