REMEMBER THE WIDOWS Proper 5, Year C
The title of today’s sermon–because it’s the central metaphor of today’s Gospel and Old Testament Scriptures—the title today is “remember the widows.”
In the Old Testament lesson today, we encounter the widow of Zarephath. Perhaps it was hard for you to hear the depth of pathos in that story. The prophet Elijah, we are told, is instructed by God to go to Zarephath, which would be in modern-day Lebanon. He has been driven out of Israel because he dared to question the religious and economic policies of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Jezebel has put a price on his head, so Elijah has run away to save his skin.
The drama of today’s story has an important backdrop: a massive drought and famine is gripping Israel at the moment. Such droughts have always been a significant, often disruptive part of Middle Eastern life throughout recorded history. How many of you are aware that just such a drought has had a lot to do with the eruption of the “Arab Spring?” North Africa, Egypt, Syria, all have been in the grip of severe drought the last few years. Drought led to food shortages, which led to demonstrations, which led to government clamp-downs, which have led to civil wars and revolutions. Same story, different time.
So here, in our OT lesson, another drought is convulsing society. Crops have failed, people are starving. No doubt there have been outbreaks of disease, always the sister affliction of drought. In the midst of this, Elijah goes to Zarephath, and finds a woman gathering sticks. When Elijah asks the woman for a little hospitality, her reply is heart-breaking. She is gathering sticks so that she can go home and make a little fire, and with it take the last flour meal she possesses, and the last drops of oil, and make them into a last meal for herself and her son.
There is a whole lot more back story to this scene that we can reliably assume. Presumably, this woman lost her husband recently, perhaps a victim of the famine himself. The mention of a “household” indicates that whoever the husband was, he was the head of a household that perhaps included other wives or concubines, children, servants, perhaps some slaves. The death of this man, the protector of everyone in the household, would have been a catastrophe in the best of times. But in a time of famine, it was effectively a death sentence for everyone. That we hear nothing of these other people suggests that hunger, disease, and death has already ravaged the household, that only a few are left.
Yet, when Elijah asks for the customary hospitality, the woman responds. Perhaps she is hoping that this famous prophet will become the man of the house, her new protector. She offers him a place to stay, and gives to him the piece of bread she had wanted for herself and her son.
This act of faith and hospitality, of course, results in the miracle of the grain NOT running out, and the oil flask NOT being empty. The woman is able to feed what is left of her household after all. But death, it seems, will not be denied. And now we hear that the son, the most precious thing left in this widow’s life, the only long-term security this woman and her household can hope for, her son now dies. Catastrophe is compounded. It is a cruel and devastating blow.
But again, Elijah the man of God, snatches life from death. Elijah cries to God, stretching himself upon the dead boy three times, until the breath of life returns to him. He restores the son, and therefore a future, to this desperate widow.
It is an ancient story that has at its heart one of the most common images in all of Scripture. The image of a widow. It is safe to say that in the Bible, no other image is more often conjured than the image of a widow. On the one hand, it is an image of great tragedy and weakness—no person in ancient Middle Eastern culture was in more peril than a woman without a man. But at the same time, the widow is also the most common biblical image of strength, faith, and endurance.
Think how many times in Scripture Jesus talks about or encounters widows, as in today’s Gospel. Think how often the God of the Old Testament commands his people to look after the widows, the orphans, and the sojourners. In all of Scripture, some of the most important people, with whom and through whom and to whom God’s power and love are most made manifest, are widows.
Over the years of my ministry I have encountered a truth over and over again. When women lose their husbands almost invariably I witness them begin to find a strength within themselves they never imagined they had. I’m not saying they get happier. The loneliness of widowhood is hard. It is still perilous to be a woman on your own. But widows almost always somehow manage to survive, even thrive again, in spite of their loneliness, and in spite of the difficulties that widowhood inflicts.
You may be quietly wondering if I see this reality among widowed men. Sometimes I do, but quite simply, widowed women rather heavily outnumber widower men in our society.
But the Scriptures this morning are not really meant to be a sociological commentary upon widows and widowhood. The Scriptures invite us to consider ourselves and our God.
We who sit in these comfortable pews every Sunday, who live by sheer dumb luck of birth in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, we can never remind ourselves too many times for whom in this world God is most concerned; for whom it was that Jesus most went out of his way to serve: the widows, the orphans, the refugees, the blind, the sick, the weak, the poor, the least, the last, the lost, and the little. The ones who live far away, and the ones who live within shouting distance from this altar. Today’s Psalm tells you in just a few sentences everything you need to know about God, about Jesus, and about the mission of the Church:
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
So the image of widowhood is meant on one level to tell us about God’s passion. But on another level, it is meant to evoke for us our own moments of deepest weakness and uncertainty. The moments of catastrophe, when all seems lost, when our worlds come to an end, when we think we cannot go on. Ironically, these texts seem to imply, it is precisely those moments when we feel least, last, lost, and little, that God moves closest to us.
It is in those moments that we discover strength in ourselves that we didn’t know we had. In moments where we can see nothing, where all is lost, it is often then that we discover God does indeed provide, that there is enough. Maybe only just enough, but enough nevertheless. It is in those moments when in our imaginations we are gathering the sticks to build the fire to cook our last little shred of a meal that so often God’s new word, new provision, new challenge walks in the door. It is then that the desperate desolate widow within us who can see no future gives way to the faithful, survivor widow who feeds a stranger and makes a future.
The widow is the image of us all in our moments of deepest distress. But the widow is also the image of how God sustains us, how God helps us find deep within us the strength, the faith, the endurance we had no idea we had.
And so, whenever you are feeling bereft and devastated. Remember the widows. When you are standing in the voting booth, remember the widows. When you are making decisions about how to spend your money, or how to do your work, or where to direct your spare time, remember the widows. And when you’re at the end of your rope, when you’re down to your last handful of flour and your last tablespoon of oil, remember the widows. And God will be there.