Our Old Testament reading comes from one of the books that we would call ‘history books’, but the Jews called, ‘The former prophets’. Partly that might have been because the books recorded the activities of people like Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha and Isaiah, all of whom were given prophecies – messages from God (a prophecy in the Bible did not have to be about the future). More importantly, the books were written to teach people how God had dealt with their ancestors in the past, as a lesson for them to learn from in the present. The books themselves were a message from God (prophecy) in story form.
The story in today’s reading has much to teach us. Jesus picked up one of its messages when he preached in his home town of Nazareth and met with suspicion. He reminded them that God did not send Elijah during the famine to one of the starving widows in his home country Israel, but to one in a foreign land where God was not worshipped. Our reading does not say why God sent Elijah there. It was unlikely to be a safe place, since it was connected to the king of Israel’s infamous wife, Jezebel. But there is a lesson to be learnt: God does not show favouritism, even to his own people. (That little reminder provoked Jesus’ hearers in Nazareth so much that they tried to kill him – Luke 4:22-30).
The most obvious feature of the story is the miraculous provision of flour and oil. Some people think the widow might have had more food in store than she at first admitted, and the oil and wine was a miracle of sharing rather than God’s direct provision. But that is to underestimate the importance of hospitality then and in many places now, where there is almost a sacred duty to provide for guests even if it puts one’s own family at risk. Certainly the most natural reading of the story is that it was a miracle, and God is certainly able to do such things – look at the Gospels! Even today we ask God to give us our daily bread, though we often fail to see how much God is involved in answering our prayer.
Interestingly, God says ‘I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.’ Yet when Elijah turns up at Zarephath and meets the widow, she knows nothing about God’s direction. That was not an order given to the widow, but to the situation as a whole. Logically she seems the last person to look to for food; yet God knew what he was doing, and gave Elijah an insight into what was going to happen to the flour and oil. Often when God works out his purposes he involves us without our knowledge at the time.
In saving Elijah God also transformed the situation for the widow and her son. He could have done things differently, but he chose to include that little family in his salvation. God does not show favouritism, but he does show concern for the poor and helpless – and he wants us to do likewise.
1) What can we learn about God from this story? How does it affect us?
2) How can we best help the poor?