A widow, is a woman who has lost her spouse, her husband. Unlike these days, with women working outside the home, social security and survivor benefits from pensions, in biblical times this not only meant a loss of a life partner, but loss sole bread winner, and loss of legal status. The Hebrew word for widow meant unable to speak or without a voice and this was exactly her situation. Women did not speak for themselves. As children and young women their fathers spoke for them. When they left their father’s homes and went to their husbands’, it was their husbands who spoke for them. The Greek word used for widows in the New Testament means forsaken or left without. They were left without a means of support. If they had no children they would either return to their father’s house or fall under the Levirate law according to which they would marry brothers-in-law to produce children to carry her husband’s name forward. Left on their own they were allowed to glean left-over grain from fields, were allowed to eat at public festivals and feasts.
The mothers we read about today were both left with sons. At the point we read about in 1Kings the region was in the middle of a drought which Elijah had predicted to last for a long time, in other sources three years. She was the first person Elijah met as he entered the town. She had been out gathering sticks to make a small fire so that she could make a small loaf of bread for their last meal with the last of her wheat and oil. She had lost all hope and fully expected that they would die shortly later.
Similarly the widow at Nain would have lost hope. Her husband had died and now she had lost her only son and was on the way to bury him. She was accompanied by a crowd from town mourning with her. Their support would have been a comfort to her, but soon they would drift back to their homes and families and she would be left alone to fend for herself. She had no reason to expect anything other than a hard and lonely life ahead.
We really learn nothing of the sons in these passages but we know that they were culturally the heads of their households. We can infer that neither is yet old enough to have his own wife and it would seem that the son at Zarephath was still young and unable to work to help support his mother. Their primary function in the passages is really to shed light on the positions of the mothers. We know that with sons they didn’t go back to parents, nor did they fall under the Levirate law.
What of the prophets, the heroes of the stories? Both meet widows with sons while entering the town gates. In Kings we read of Elijah, the sole remaining prophet of God. In Luke, from our point of view, we read about the very Son of God, however to those in the region he was a travelling preacher just beginning to make a mark.
The prophet Elijah was a stranger who entered town and asked the Phoenician woman he meets near the gate for hospitality in the form of a drink. With the weight of the world on her mind the woman didn’t question or hesitate to meet his request for water. It is not until he adds a bit of bread to the request that she pauses, and unburdens herself of her dire situation. She was without hope and Elijah pronounced hope with God’s promise that the oil and grain would not run out until the drought was over. The widow accepted, gave Elijah some bread and God followed through.
Jesus and his followers were heading south from Capernaum where he had healed a Centurion’s servant with a word from afar. As the end of the path was in view, as they entered the city gate, they were met by a funeral procession. A young man’s body was being carried on a bier and followed by his mother and town’s people. For a number of reasons, basic respect and potential defilement in the event of contact with the body, Jesus’ group would have stepped aside to let them pass. It is likely that the woman was hardly aware of the group at the side of the road let alone saw Jesus and realized his identity. The widow, like the widow at Zarephath, doesn’t ask for help. Her son is already dead and that is it! Jesus saw this situation and all its implications for the woman’s future, and felt compassion for her. He chose to return hope to this stranger. He reached out and touched the bier which froze the bearers in their tracks. Likely horrified that this man was interrupting and risking his own defilement! Then, “he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
Despite the desperate situation many widows found themselves in at the time, and even now, there was, in Jewish tradition, a special connection between God and widows. The OT portrays God as the special helper and refuge of widows, along with strangers, orphans and the poor. This is echoed clearly in the life and acts of Jesus and then later by the early Christian church which cared for widows and had a special role for them within the church, that of prayer.
Surely widows and their sons don’t have problems in this day and age. After all, women are out there working for a living and if not we have a great social safety net right? In the 2011 census statistics show that almost 40% of the unattached women under age 65 live with low income and that app 34% of the children under 18 who live in female headed single-parent families are low income as opposed to 10% for two-parent families. We pay our taxes, however, and income supplements are available through that…few people are actually starving to death in Canada.
There is, however, more to God’s care for widows and sons than providing food. More and more we seem to be isolated in our societies. People don’t know much about their neighbours and aren’t really interested in learning more. When we give assistance it is usually from a nice safe distance, through faceless charity organizations. Like the towns people, we attend to others in their low moments, but we naturally get absorbed back into our own lives. Elijah didn’t quickly move on, through God he made sure that the widow and her son could survive the drought. If we had continued our reading a little farther, Elijah also brought the son back to life and gave him to his mother. Jesus didn’t send in a pledge to help the widow to make ends meet, he stepped up personally, physically laid his hand on the bier of a dead man, and gave that man back to his mother.
Perhaps it is time to focus again on personal relationships with our neighbours. Maybe we need to take the idea of the family of Christ more literally. We may not be able to bring people back to life or keep the oil flowing in a jar, but we can be of help. While there are times when more can be done for people with our money sent to them than by our presence in body, there is never a time when people will not be better for our prayers for them. Emotional contact through caring and listening, physical contact through handshakes and hugs, social contact through knowing people’s names, and shared activities, spiritual contact through prayer and sharing in worship. We can choose to take the role of the prophets in somebody’s story, will we?
1 Kings 17:8-16