Text: I Kings 17:8-16
Now hear the rest of the story…
17 After this the son of the widow, 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 God, ‘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 God, ‘O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.’ 22God 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 God in your mouth is truth.’
When working with newly forming groups, I often use an ice-breaker called, “Two Truths and A Lie.” Many of you who have served on committees and councils with me know this game. The game goes like this. Each person writes down on a piece of paper two truths about themselves and one false statement. For example I might write: I got my first motorcycle when I was four years old. I played on Gardner-Webb’s women’s basketball team while in college. One summer while in college, I parked airplanes at a private airstrip in upstate New York. When it is my turn, I read each statement and the group then tries to decide together which of my statements is not true. The point of the game is for members of the group to learn something personal about each other thus making connections.
I thought of this game when I read the story of Elijah and the widow in I Kings. For sure, there is a lot going on in this narrative. Elijah is doing his best to be God’s prophet in the midst of a three-year drought brought on the people of Israel by God because King Ahab is worshiping Baal – or so the story says. The widow, a Phoenician woman who more than likely worships Baal herself and is on the brink of starvation because of the drought, is just trying to keep herself and her son alive. And then there is God, who according to the story-teller, is creating droughts, staying busy talking to Elijah, magically putting endless meal and oil in two jars and causing the near death of a young son.
This passage in I Kings 17 is part of the introduction of the prophet, Elijah, into the book of Kings. The first cycle of Elijah stories in I Kings 17:1-19:18 centers mostly on the nation’s economic collapse as the result of a severe drought that ruins crops and decimates the population. In the opening verse of chapter 17, the reader is told that Israel’s God, Yahweh, has sent the drought. The rest of the story depicts the interplay of religion and politics during national crisis. The drought is the result of the religious policies of Ahab, and it is prolonged by a lengthy government-sponsored contest between prophets of competing religions. This contest, we are told, with the prophets of Baal in chapter 18 (our lectionary text from last week) is won, not when Elijah calls fire down from heaven, but when clouds appear on the horizon.
The story of the widow of Zarephath precedes that contest. Most often, when we see the word “widow” in the Bible we think of one who is vulnerable, without power, and at the mercy of those around her to care for all of her needs. But widows are not just spiritual symbols. You may remember the famous widow, Naomi, who ultimately thrived thanks to her daughter-in-law and their combined resourcefulness. Or you might recall the story of another widow who placed two copper coins in the temple treasury, eliciting the praise of Jesus. Widows play a significant role in scripture, as often they are the ones who teach us about God’s justice. And the story of the widow of Zarephath is no exception. Her story illustrates the severity of the drought while also humanizing the casualties of the tragic interplay of politics and religion.
What I love about the widow in this story is that she doesn’t respond with the same faithful readiness that we expect from her. She doesn’t take one look at Elijah and throw open her arms to him. She doesn’t set an extra place at the table with that classic hospitality that is so common in the Ancient Near East or in the stories of Jesus. She does offer Elijah a drink of water, but in terms of sustenance, she protests – she had nothing to share she tells him. She only has enough for her and her son: a final bitter, poignant meal before hunger overtakes them. She is real; and as I said earlier, she humanizes what is often the tragic interplay of power, politics and religion.
While Elijah and the widow are significant players in this narrative, I am more interested this morning in thinking about what this story says about God and how God interacts in the human drama of religion and politics. I am more interested in what this text says about who God is and how God works in the world.
For me, this story of Elijah and the widow and her son offers two truths and a lie about God. I will begin with the lie. God is not a God who wreaks havoc on humanity to make a point or to direct the course of history. God does not cause bad things to happen to good people or bad people. God does not cause natural disasters that wipe out entire populations of people. God does not visit our sins on our children thus causing calamities to come upon them. God does not ask some people to kill other people.
For sure, there are stories of scripture that depict God as a vengeful and wrathful God. But it is imperative that as modern day readers of those stories we understand them as simply one way that the Israelites were trying to make sense of their world and their faith and of God. The truth is that these stories – as hard as they are to read and understand – are valuable to us because they reflect the ongoing relationship between God and humanity and our own attempts to make sense of our world and the violence we see in our world. They reflect to us humanity’s continued struggle to be in relationship with a God who asks of us to do justice and love kindness even when the world around us is unjust and unkind. These stories hold a mirror up for us as we seek to be in relationship with one another and with those who are different from us. I have often said that I see myself more in the stories of the Hebrew scriptures than in the stories of Jesus because of the realness and rawness of the people. The stories of the Bible are about real people trying to understand God. And sometimes, those people missed the point when it came to understanding how God works in the world and in our lives, much like we still do today. The central message of the Bible is not that God is a vengeful and wrathful God; but rather, the God of the Bible is a justice-seeking, radically loving and grace-giving God. It is simply a lie when we try and make God into something other than love.
Now for the two truths. The first truth: This story of Elijah and the widow teaches us that God works outside the boundaries, and on the edges of society, to bring about justice and mercy. This story suggests that like the Phoenician widow, God is often more present among those who suffer at the hands of those in power – the homeless, the hungry, the marginalized, the oppressed, the poor, those who are guests in our country – the immigrants, the widows and the children. God does not reside at the center of power. The God of the Bible and the God of history can be found first and foremost in those places where people are hurting, where the injustices of our religious, political and economic systems and institutions have some people thriving and others not even surviving. That is the first truth this story teaches us.
The second truth is related to the first. Sometimes a scrap – an almost empty jar – is all that is needed for God’s love to be shared in the world and in our lives. Elijah calls out to the widow, “bring me a morsel of bread.” The widow responds, “I have only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.” A morsel, a handful, a little – that’s all it took in this story to respond to God. But how often do we hold back God’s love because we think we are not enough, or we think we don’t have enough, or because we don’t believe that a little is enough? It would serve us well to remember this truth from Elijah and the widow: a morsel, a handful, a little is enough for God to act. And that is a beautiful truth about God.
Two truths and a lie. My dad bought me my first motorcycle when I was 4. The summer after my sophomore year in college, I parked airplanes at a private airstrip in upstate New York. I didn’t play on the women’s basketball team at Gardner-Webb College.
A lie and two truths. God does not cause bad things to happen to us and to our world. God does work outside the boundaries, and on the edges of society – through the poor and the forgotten and stranger and all who are consider the least by our society – to bring about justice. And God can use whatever morsel, whatever handful, whatever little bit of who you are and what you have that you are willing to offer to God – God can use your little bit to bring about justice and love and grace into this world.