by Chris Honig
A morsel of bread, not a loaf of bread. A little water, not a lot of water.. The images in the story of Elijah visiting the widow of Zarephath are simple yet lasting. Something striking are the amounts illustrated. I guess we don’t know for sure how much bread a morsel is but it doesn’t convey an abundance to us, does it? And all Elijah asks for is a little water. Doesn’t seem like much to us, does it?
We’ve become accustomed to going places to eat and coming back with enough food leftover for a full meal the next day, maybe even two! Our scriptural images contrast what many of us experience on a daily basis. If not on a daily basis, then certainly during this coming week, marked by a day of great feasting; a day when discomfort in our mid-section is often seen as a badge of honor. But we don’t initially encounter an image of plenty today; rather an image of scarcity.
Our world is a world that wrestles with the tension between abundance and scarcity. We are told that there is more than enough food to feed the world’s population. However, scores of people die every day from scarcity. During the recently concluded Presidential election, we saw candidates grapple with the tension of abundance and scarcity to the point of exhaustion; the 1 percent, the 99 percent; the 47 percent, the 53 percent. A scarcity of jobs; an abundance of projects. A scarcity in Washington; an abundance on Wall Street.
While working in the self-titled ‘beef capital of the world’ last year, Cuming County Nebraska, a label signifying abundance, the highest attending community gathering was the monthly Salvation Army food pantry. In Chicago, an abundance of services and resources in some neighborhoods; scarcity of services and resources in others. In the church (at least for now) an abundance of candidates, a scarcity of calls. In school, an abundance of assignments and paperwork; a scarcity of time and energy.
Where else do you experience this tension of scarcity and abundance? Where have you experienced scarcity? Scarcity in relationships; being far away from close friends or siblings or parents. Scarcity in student debt. ‘Tis the season for final papers and exams; scarcity of sleep. The tension between abundance and scarcity emerges in our reading from 1 Kings.
As Dr. Cheryl Pero emphasized in chapel yesterday, the context of this story is important. Elijah visits this widow from Zarephath during a three-year drought instituted by God; a drought used to prove that God, not Baal, was the one who, as Creator, brought rains and cycles of fertility and infertility. Drought, an accurate depiction of scarcity, stands in tension with the history of Zarephath; a wealthy trading city known for its abundant resources.
In the midst of such an extreme drought, food and water was scarce. Add to such a bleak context the fact that widows represented, particularly in the contexts of the scripture writers, immense vulnerability. So the question begs, why did God send Elijah to go to see this widow; the last person on earth who would have anything to provide Elijah with for sustenance? Why did God send Elijah to a situation of great scarcity in search of abundance?
We are confronted by a difficult truth about scarcity; that people do live in scarcity and will live in scarcity and that’s hard. That’s hard especially for those living in scarcity and that’s hard for us as leaders to explain. Suffering is hard to understand. Scarcity is hard to understand.
The widow in the story utters that she has nothing. She has admitted death’s victory. Still she is asked to give. Like the widow in the story, there are those among us who have nothing; yet are asked to give. That is hard to understand. As someone who comes from a privileged place that is hard to understand. While we are called to advocate for and walk alongside the vulnerable among us, we are also called to bear witness to God revealed in and through the vulnerable among us.
The widow of Zarephath, here, the unlikeliest and most vulnerable character, takes center stage. She and her son face starvation yet give to Elijah anyway. “Do not be afraid,” she is told. Why? Because she has nothing to lose?
We hear throughout scripture that great comes from small.
This week we heard from Mark about another widow who becomes a model of great faith. The unlikely reveals the wonderful. The ordinary becomes a vessel of the holy. Scarcity promises abundance. Weekly we come to the table for nothing more than a morsel of bread and a gulp of wine. Baptism does not require an abundant amount of water. But it is through these ordinary things that God in Christ gives us life and grace and abundance. It is through ordinary things that God nourishes and sustains us. It is through ordinary things and through unlikely ways that God is revealed to the world and promises faithfulness and salvation for all.
Yes, we encounter images of scarcity at the beginning of this passage, but we are left with images of abundance, “the jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail.” And “She and her household ate for many days.” The widow acts as the fulcrum in this story as the plot of scarcity is turned upside down.
Through the widow God proclaims “gracious powers”(1) that turn our moments and lives of scarcity into moments and lives filled to the brim with abundant promises. God promises abundance when neighbors cling together in the scarcity left behind by Sandy. God promises abundance when we sit down for a meal and conversation with those who have no home. God promises abundance when we listen to stories of people who are different than us. God promises abundance as we feel the coolness of water, as we taste the heartiness of bread, as we taste the sweetness of wine.
Through the widow, God calls us from places of scarcity and says, ‘Come, receive the gift I offer; a gift of refreshment; a gift of sustenance; a gift of life.’ Through the widow, God proclaims abundance to all people. Through the widow God proclaims to us, ‘you will not be emptied.’
On our “pilgrim journeys”(2) we will long to chew on the bread that “will not be emptied.” We will long to be warmed by the oil that “will not fail.” We will long to be quenched by the “ever-flowing fountain.”(3) We continue, clinging to God’s promise, revealed in the nameless widow from Zarephath, manifested in Jesus the Christ, that we will be restored from scarcity and given new life. The waters for which we gave thanks will not run dry. “The jar of meal will not be emptied. The jug of oil will not fail.”
(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “By Gracious Powers,” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
(2) Dolores Dufner, “Come to Me, All Pilgrims Thirsty,” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
1 Kings 17:8-16