Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves.’ Elisha said to her, ‘What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?’ She answered, ‘Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil.’ He said, ‘Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbours, empty vessels and not just a few. Then go in, and shut the door behind you and your children, and start pouring into all these vessels; when each is full, set it aside.’ So she left him and shut the door behind her and her children; they kept bringing vessels to her, and she kept pouring. When the vessels were full, she said to her son, ‘Bring me another vessel.’ But he said to her, ‘There are no more.’ Then the oil stopped flowing. She came and told the man of God, and he said, ‘Go, sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest.’
The widow in this story (which mirrors much in 1Kgs.17:7-16) belongs to a prophetic group faithful to the same God as Elisha. This time the problem is debt, not drought. If her sons are forced to work for her creditor to pay off the debts the widow becomes destitute, without anyone to support her.
This practice of time limited debt-slavery (Exod.21:2-4) was intended to ensure that creditors received what was due to them, without debtors being deprived of the land that was their inheritance. However, as with the Victorian practice of debtor prisons, the system failed the weakest in society and was frequently denounced by later prophets (e.g. Mic.2:2).
The widow turns to Elisha expecting him to provide a solution. Once more we see the prophet mediating God’s compassion on the poor in a way that sustains life and offers hope for the future.
The widow and her sons are enlisted to work together to bring about the transformation, reliant upon the cooperation of neighbours to supply empty jars. Elisha’s instructions sound ridiculous but the widow trusts that he represents God and she demonstrates her faith by contributing her last jar of oil as required. When all the available vessels have been miraculously filled Elisha reminds her to pay her debts first and then get on with life. God has used the little she had to save her and to provide sufficient for her on-going needs.
Slavery persists as a modern evil. Children are often sold by parents as a consequence of poverty; and traffickers entrap vulnerable people into forms of debt-slavery. Many caught in such life-denying cycles do not know where to turn for help. May we be willing to come alongside them in the name of Christ, to reveal new possibilities and to demonstrate God’s power to bring release.
God of life, we rejoice in the freedoms that are ours and thank you for all that you provide to satisfy our needs. Forgive us when we take any of this for granted. Whatever our resources, may we recognise them as blessings, to be used as you command to sustain us in your service. Responding to your goodness, may we work to bring freedom and hope to all. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge
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