‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’
So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said,
‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’
As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said,
‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’
But she said,
‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.’
Elijah said to her,
‘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 on the earth.’
She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
Elijah has to live through the drought that he prophesied, like everyone else. God instructs him to journey from east of the Jordan, across Israel, to the western coastal area of Sidon, the home of Jezebel. There, needing water, he asks a widow to provide some for him and she complies. He also asks for food and her desperate poverty is revealed through her reply; but Elijah insists that he is fed first, with promises that if she obeys, then Israel’s God will provide for her until the drought ends.
In the context of the narrative this story demonstrates the truth of Elijah’s prophecy and the power of Israel’s God over all things, including the natural world, since everything happens as predicted. Elijah, the widow, and all her household are able to eat for many days.
However, as I read this passage, I am challenged less to reflect on what I believe about prophecy or miracles and more by the idea of asking the poor to meet the needs of others out of their meagre resources, before satisfying their own. Surely God’s prophet should demonstrate divine compassion, rather than putting this woman’s generosity and obedience to the test?
Sadly our capitalist society frequently expects those who are economically poor to grow and sell produce to satisfy our palates, while they barely subsist. It is also a reality that those in our world with little are frequently more sensitive to the needs of others with even less; and they also show generous hospitality to guests.
I am reminded of words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: ‘Live simply so that others may simply live’ and pray that I may be inspired by the selfless behaviour of the widow in this story to ‘give and not to count the cost’ (St Ignatius of Loyola).
Bountiful God, we praise you for the fruitfulness of the earth and the abundance of water, sufficient for the needs of all. We confess our misuse of these resources, gifts of your grace; and seek your forgiveness for the times when we have acted as though they are ours by right. Grant that we may be thankful and generous as we tread lightly on this earth. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.