Texts: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
Is it right to call God an unrepentant meddler? Technically to meddle means to interfere in other people’s matters without right or invitation. You could argue that God, as author of…well… everything… has every right, and needs no invitation. Furthermore, God answers to no one, so could God ever even be repentant?
Some people say that God is no meddler at all. God set everything in motion in the beginning and since then has watched from a distance. Didn’t Bette Midler sing a song about that a few years ago? God chooses not to intervene in our lives or in current events. The usual evidence cited for this is heartfelt prayers that go unanswered, tragedies of every kind, untimely deaths, and horrific things that are done in God’s name without anyone getting smited. (Or should that be smote?)
Whatever your position is on the question of God as a meddler, there is a lot of biblical evidence for God as an interventionist. What would you call the story of the Widow of Zarephath after all? It’s actually two interventions for the price of one.
Elijah had been living – at God’s command – in a seasonally running watercourse. In Hebrew it’s called a wadi, a source of water for crops and for drinking. While there Elijah was fed by ravens. Which is interesting because usually ravens are way more into taking than giving. It suggests that God has quite the sense of humor when it comes to getting involved. More on that in a moment…
The rainy season ended, the wadi went dry, and perhaps the ravens moved on too. So God appointed a widow in Zarephath to take over the watering and feeding. What is it with Elijah that he couldn’t feed himself? What surely seemed to be Divine intervention to Elijah might have felt a lot more like meddling to the widow. You want me to do what for whom?
The funny thing is this: Zarephath wasn’t even Israelite territory. What was the God of Israel doing speaking to a foreign woman? And a widow at that. The effrontery of this story would be used by Jesus to demonstrate that people completely outside the faith are sometimes more faithful than the most important insiders.
When Elijah came by to pick up his provisions, the widow readily gave him water. Offering hospitality to travelers was a core value of the ancient near east. But when Elijah asked for the food God had ordered up for him, the widow replied that she was caught unprepared. “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked…” And was that a little bit of attitude when she mentioned that oh, by the way, this was not her God?
Then the widow admitted her precarious situation. Her day’s baking not yet done perhaps because she and her son had been eating only one meal a day… And now her store of food was at an end. She and her son were going to eat their last meal and die.
Elijah tells the woman, “Do not be afraid.” At this point in the story, whenever it was told among Israelite audiences there must have been a huge sigh of relief. This phrase is sprinkled liberally throughout the bible. Do not be afraid Abraham… Fear not Mary... Right? And it always, always signal that God is up to something good. Something redemptive.
Sure enough. Two interventions now came to pass. The widow’s jug of oil and jar of meal stayed bottomless until the wadis flowed and the fields were green again. And Elijah got his fill too so that he could continue his prophetic mission.
One idea that runs through the stories of both Elijah and the widow is that we can’t always know in this moment how our faithfulness will bear fruit in the future. That’s worth a lot of reflection.
Particularly this reflection: that both Elijah and the widow responded to the challenge to be faithful with their very lives. The only exception to this is the widow’s determination to feed her son before giving anything to Elijah, even if only to give the boy a few more hours of life. It is exactly what we would expect a parent to do.
Yet this is also a caution perhaps about the nature of faithful sacrifice. Any of us may offer our lives in service to God, or another person, or to our nation. But we cannot so commit the life of anyone else no matter how noble the cause. We must each make our own response of faith.
We return to the matter of meddling in Mark’s gospel with the story of the widow giving her offering at the Temple treasury. Because, after all, isn’t Jesus himself God’s most engaging intervention ever? Here Jesus started with a little rant on the Scribes and systemic injustice operating in the Temple administration.
Scribes in Israel were early literacy adopters, becoming necessary to Temple management as record keepers. After some time they rose to even greater prominence as interpreters of the Law. They also prepared legal papers for illiterate people on all levels of society.
Widows depended upon the integrity of Scribes. In matters of inheritance they needed the Scribes to advocate for them. But according to Jesus, the Scribes had lost all sense of proportion. It was not enough to have elite status in the Temple and in society. They consumed everything they could on the pretense of holy duty, even the rightful inheritance of widows.
Still, this story is not about money, not about wealth or poverty, or even greed. What Jesus celebrates is the widow’s freely offered gift of her entire life to God. She gives it all to the Temple which, incredibly, is charged with supporting poor widows like herself. She must know that. But maybe widows have a special insight in the category of “what have I got to lose anyway?” It’s an insight that Jesus alone fully appreciates. And he wants to share that with his followers.
Jesus caused his disciples to really see the widow. It looks like she’s putting two tiny copper coins into the Temple box. But really it’s her whole life measured in dignity, humility, gratitude and courage. The cross is not far in the future. Jesus is doing an intervention - be not afraid - for the disciples. And for us too, but you knew that already, right? Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.