The word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 1 Kings 17:8
All our thoughts have been on the widow of Zarephath who, while gathering sticks for her last meal, is asked by this foreigner for bread. But it is not a simple thing to be Elijah. He is a hero of the faith, of course, so we imagine it all comes naturally to him. Great wonders are no surprise. God is able to do the unexpected. But we forget his story is not victory upon victory.
He is in hiding. It is not safe for him in Israel. He has cast down the gauntlet: if Israel wants to worship the god of rain, then the Lord God shall hold back the rain. Let Ba’al try. See where that gets the nation.
It has made him an enemy, as if he had put a curse on the land. He is a moral equivalent of a communist in the McCarthy era. A public enemy. A challenger of the social values. A betrayer of national beliefs. A lone and lonely voice. It is his fault the crops lie withered and children cry themselves to sleep. He is hiding in a narrow ravine east of the Jordan where only ravens will share with him their food. And then the stream runs dry.
Now the Lord sends him to the home country of this prosperity god. Is there a secret path across the country? Does he travel by night? It is dangerous for a man to travel alone, let alone a hunted man.
And every step of that journey takes him closer to the question he must ask of this widow. He must ask her to care for him, to feed him when there is not enough for her child.
What is it like to ask such a question? What is it like to ask a woman past the edge of despair to make one last sacrifice, to give away her last meal?
Would he not rather have shown up at her doorstep with a donkey laden with grain? Would he not rather put out six barrels of water and turn them into wine. Would he not rather bring joy than to ask her to do the right thing and take the last joy from her child’s mouth?
Yes, he comes with a promise. But a promise that seems thin, even cruel, in the face of such hunger. She has been a long time coming to this point. She has counted every grain of barley. She has portioned ever smaller measures for their sustenance. She knows there is not food for three.
And he knows she knows.
Yet he asks.
Such a story is not only about the faith of the widow to trust God’s promise; it is about the courage of the prophet to dare speak it.
November 13, 2012