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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Two Widows.

1 Kings 17:8-16.

            The prophet Elijah is engaged in a protracted war with the King of Israel, Ahab.  Ahab was the worst of the many bad kings that Israel had.  His greatest sin was introducing into Israel the formal worship of the god, Baal, and its consequent falling into terrible injustice, as indicated by the story of how the king basically murdered a guy named Naboth in order to get his vineyard.  He did all this under the strong influence of his wife, Jezebel, a fervent Baal worshiper from Sidon, the kingdom just to the north. 
            The consequence of such injustice is always eventually some kind of disaster, and Elijah proclaims this disaster himself: the region would suffer a terrible drought.  And it doesn’t rain for like three years.
            This doesn’t improve the relationship between Elijah and Ahab; most people blame the king when the economy tanks.  And in this case the drought is an indirect result of Ahab’s policies.  The king tries to blame the prophet, and he puts out a warrant for Elijah’s arrest, forcing the prophet into hiding where God feeds him by means of birds.
            The God commands Elijah to go to Sidon, the kingdom of the evil queen Jezebel herself.  In those days, deities were often considered to have their own territory.  Gods had power when they were in their own land where the people worshiped them.  But they had less or no power in other places.  The Lord was the God of Israel; but it was the opinion of many that the Lord’s power would be reduced and relatively ineffective outside of Israel.
            Furthermore, Elijah would be seen as carrying the battle into Baal’s home turf, and Jezebel’s.  Here is God making the point that God is the God of the whole world, not just the little corner of it where the Israelites live and worship.  It is an in-your-face move, somewhat equivalent to wearing a Red Sox cap in the South Bronx.  Only way more so.
            God indicates that he has commanded a widow in a village called Zarephath to feed the prophet.  So he is told not just to go to the enemy country, but to make his home with some of the poor people of that country. 
            Whenever the gods of economic inequality take over a nation, the people who suffer the most are the poor.  In the Bible, the term “widow,” of course, means a woman whose husband has died.  But it is also almost a euphemism for poor people generally, so common was it for widows, having lost all income and rights, to be destitute.  “Widows and orphans” is a term often used in Scripture to refer to the poor in society generally.

            So God sends Elijah, not just to the land of his enemy, he is sent to live with those most harmed by the queen’s religion and economic policies.  It is as if he is saying that the Lord is God, not only of this foreign country, but the Lord can also be the liberator of poor people here.  The monotheistic values of the God of the escaped slave nation of Israel – mainly equality and justice – can be activated even in a country where the Lord is not worshiped.  In other words, God does not want the poor of Sidon suffering under Jezebel’s predatory Baalism any more than God wants the Israelites to be oppressed.  Israel’s God is the liberator as well of the Sidonians, and everyone on earth.
            Elijah meets the widow as she is gathering kindling for her fireplace.  He tells her to get him some water.  And she goes to get him some, even though there is this drought and water is extremely precious.  While she is going, he calls after her, “Oh, and some bread too, while you’re at it.”
            Her service and generosity to Elijah are remarkable.  Elijah sees this.  He notices that she, in her extremity, is even willing to help this presumptuous stranger from a foreign land and a foreign religion.  But being asked to provide food is too much… she doesn’t have it.  And about this she is apologetic.
            Seeing that Elijah is an Israelite, she swears by the Lord his God, and says she has nothing baked.  In fact all she has left in this disaster is a handful of flour and a few ounces of oil.  Her intention is to make some flatbread with it, which will be the last meal of her and her son.  It is the last food she has any hope of having.  In other words, she doesn’t have enough for her to give him his last meal, too.
            We don’t know how politically aware she is.  Does she know she was speaking to the guy who declared the drought in the first place?  Maybe.  Maybe we can hear a little bit of bitterness, here, like “Excuse me, but my son and I are going to have a final scrap of bread and then starve to death, thanks to you.”  Did she know that the Lord was responsible for this disaster? 
            What she does know is that the god who has failed in his job here was Baal.  Rain was Baal’s thing.  Baal was a thunderstorm god.  Baal was the god the government said to pray to for rain.  But much heartfelt prayer to Baal had gone unanswered. 
            Elijah feels for her.  People at the bottom are the ones the Lord loves the most… but they are also the ones who suffer the most when the rulers’ injustice generates a natural disaster.

            Elijah says gently to the woman: “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.  For 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 upon the earth.”
            That is good enough for her.  She does it.  Her hospitality, her generosity, and her trust in the man’s words, are sufficient. 
            Here is a poor foreign woman feeding the Lord’s prophet, responding to his need, welcoming him into her home.  She is demonstrating a selflessness and a community spirit that embraces even this foreigner.  In so doing she is showing that, even though she is not an Israelite, she is one of the Lord’s people.  Her welcoming, generous, serving heart identifies her as one of God’s daughters, even if she never formally worshiped the Lord at all.
            And consequently, in response to this show of trust in the Lord, we see the Lord miraculously feeding a poor, foreign woman.  Here is the Lord’s prophet, finding a home in her house.  And the message is that if God’s Word finds a home in your home, and in your heart, you will be fed.  If you give shelter to and feed the truth, the truth will provide for you.  Feed your faith by trusting in God, and God will feed you.  Show your own hospitality and generosity, and you will discover the generosity and hospitality of God. 
            The Lord comes to us in our poverty; both our poverty of spirit, and our actual material poverty.  The Lord comes to us, or we are able to receive the Lord best, when we have no other means of support, when we are not distracted by other concerns and responsibilities, when we have nothing to lose or worry about losing.  That’s when we are most open to God’s saving presence.
            But we should not over-individualize this or make it something that only happens within the heart.  The widow and her son are fed real food.  God nourishes our bodies.  And, while we may not expect the canisters of flour in our kitchens to be miraculously refilled whenever we deplete them, we may expect that living in communion with God and God’s people will create a culture of sharing and generosity, and we will be fed.
            Jesus enacts a similar miracle with loaves of bread and pieces of fish.  He does not create bread from stones when Satan tempts him to do that; but when he is gathered with others on the mountainside, he does.  Neither Jesus nor Elijah materialize bread for their own individual use.  But for the sake of others, for a community, for hospitality, they do.  The Word of God is never empty and isolated; but it always appears in relation to others. 

            Both the prophet and the Messiah are vehicles through whom God’s grace and blessing pours into the world.  All it needs is a world that will receive it by passing it on.  Those who welcome others will be welcomed by God.  Those who feed others will be fed by God.  Those who give away what they have will receive more from God than they could imagine.  Those who lose their life will save it…. 
            Elijah travels deep into Baal and Jezebel’s territory and establishes a beachhead for the Lord there in a small community where the consequences of injustice are mitigated and people are fed.  In the middle of the kingdom of death, life is preserved.  We see this even more in the following story, where Elijah brings the widow’s son back to life after he had died.
            Even in the middle of this horrible, punishing drought, people’s faith and togetherness, their hospitality and generosity, enable them to be fed.
            In the gospel reading for today we see another poor widow.  She too gives the last of what she has to the Lord.  In her case it is the two tiny coins she drops into the receptacle in the Temple.  Jesus is there and he witnesses this.  And he also witnesses the well-dressed, self-important, pompous, wealthy leaders, who conspicuously make a show of giving large amounts of money to the Temple.
            Jesus knows this is not generosity, but the buying of access and influence, and power.  And it positively disgusts him.  “Beware of the scribes,” he says, “who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”
            By Jesus’ time, the Ahabs and the Jezebels had taken over again.  Only now they have a façade of faithfulness to the Lord.  In reality, they worship Baal without knowing it.  How do they devour widows’ houses?  Any number of ways: high interest rates; fixing high prices; maintaining low wages; refusing to hire at all.  And here: making them pay a fee for the upkeep of the Temple and the payment of Temple staff, consisting in part of these overpaid, ostentatious scribes.
            These people had reduced Judaism to a mere religion, a set of rites and beliefs, an institution.  Jesus knows that faith in the Lord is a way of life to be expressed in individual righteousness and social justice and equality.  There aren’t supposed to be rich and poor.  That kind of a society is Baalism.

            This struggle between the Lord and Baal is a fault-line running through all the Scriptures and all Christian history.  The church, and every believer, is faced with a choice every generation and every day. 
            Will we follow the Lord who creates us and gathers us together in a holy community of love, characterized by sharing, generosity, blessing, hospitality, service, and equality?  Or will we follow Baal – and even call it Christianity – by our exclusion, judgment, inequalities, and violence, allowing poverty and disease and despair to spread among the people, and not particularly caring about it?  Will we be a welcoming community, or a place of rejection?  Will we be known for our forgiveness and healing?  Or for forcing others to live up to our “standards” and demands?  Will we be people of compassion after the model of Jesus?  Or will we haughtily look down our noses at those who don’t exercise “personal responsibility” to our satisfaction?  Will we be people who humbly and simply share what they have?  Or will we be takers, extractors, parasites who get fat off of others’ labor?
            Too often the church has capitulated to the powers that only want to use it to enforce social classes and conformity.  But, as with Elijah, the Lord is never without a witness to the truth.  There has always been a remnant, a community of those who are chosen to follow the Lord, Jesus Christ.  Even in the throes of an apocalyptic drought; even in the regime of violence and injustice; there has always been a witness showing us that it doesn’t have to be this way.
            If we open our hearts to what God is doing in the world, if we share what we have, welcoming the destitute and the stranger, the sick and the disabled, if we pass God’s saving grace and blessing along to each other and expand that circle… then I know that “the jar of meal” that sustains us will never be emptied, and neither will “the jug of oil” that binds us together ever fail. 

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