If we look carefully at our own personal or family history many of us have known a widow of Zaraphath. Oh, it may not actually be a widow, it may be a man rather than a woman, or it may be a married couple, or a parish priest – but it was a person upon whom we had no claim in justice for help who was willing to share some portion of their resources to help us survive in a difficult time.
The story from the book of Kings in today’s liturgy tells of a time when Elijah the prophet, a messenger of God, did not have enough resources to meet the basic demands that survival put upon him. The Lord, in an act of mercy, directs him to go to a strange city (outside of his territory where he has authority and power) and to look for help there in that unlikely place – from a most unlikely source. The more we understand Middle Eastern culture of the 5th C before Christ, the more we realize that widows and their small children were the most vulnerable members of society. The very term widow (or orphan) identified one who was entirely dependent on God and the people who revered God. In an interesting biblical irony, Elijah, the strong prophet of God is sent to find help from the most helpless. We, in the US culture which carries a powerful message about being able to provide for ourselves are, perhaps, ashamed to be in Elijah’s situation. But such arrogance is a silly fiction. Had Elijah been ashamed to seek an alien widow’s help he not only would have died of starvation, but so would the widow have died. And God’s intention would have been thwarted! For just as Elijah needed her help (food) she needed his help (God’s power to give miraculous providence). And most interesting of all is that God seems to have needed both of them to accomplish what God was doing (announcing the Good news of salvation).
If God could keep the widow’s flour bin and oil jar stocked miraculously, God certainly could have provided water to Elijah even from a dried-up brook right where he was. God could have ended the drought. God could have provided for the widow and her son without the prophet’s intervention. But God did none of these things. Rather, God chose to work through human need and human generosity to accomplish multiple goods. The widow may well have needed to hear the word of God witnessed by Elijah. Elijah may have needed her down-to-earth realism as he discerned what it was that God was asking of him. The son may have needed some adult male guidance for a time, they all may have needed human companionship and mutual care . . . not to mention a hundred other needs and works that God may well have had in mind by providing for their immediate needs in the manner of Divine Providence described.
This is one of the most important messages of Eucharistic theology. The sharing of food and drink out of both mutual need and mutual generosity of ALL the participants from the least to the greatest, as an act of obedience toward and love for God (the very definition of worship) provides resources far beyond our bodily needs for nourishment.
If I am a friend of God, then I am a friend of God’s friends and I have to expect to be called on to help my friends, and also to be helped by my friends. Today I want to remember all the folks who have functioned as a “widow of Zaraphath” for me. I want to commend them to God’s care so that their flour bins remain overflowing and their oil jars full until whatever kind of drought that afflicts them is broken and the gentle rain of God’s presence fills their lives with joy and peace. Today I also want to look around for the Elijah’s in my life who need a bit of human care and who bear to me the message of God’s unlooked-for providence. Perhaps by the acknowledgement of our mutual need and our mutual help we can witness to the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven!
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