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
I think it is safe to say that there are still prophetic voices out there in the world today, probably not being paid much attention. I think it is also clear that there are many people who get their five minutes of fame by predicting doom over one issue or another and they seem to be paid a great deal of attention.
I got the idea for this post a while ago while watching When Harry Met Sally with my daughters. As he states himself, Harry has a dark side. Particularly in the early part of the movie Harry makes many pronouncements which, while not necessarily without basis in reality, would suck the enjoyment out of almost any moment! For instance;
Harry Burns: You take someone to the airport, it’s clearly the beginning of the relationship. That’s why I have never taken anyone to the airport at the beginning of a relationship.
Sally Albright: Why?
Harry Burns: Because eventually things move on and you don’t take someone to the airport and I never wanted anyone to say to me, How come you never take me to the airport anymore?
Sally Albright: Its amazing. You look like a normal person but actually you are the angel of death.
Later he and Sally actually discuss this tendency to the dark side;
Sally Albright: I have just as much of a dark side as the next person.
Harry Burns: Oh, really? When I buy a new book, I read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.
A doomsayer is “one given to forebodings and predictions of impending calamity” (http://www.merriam-webster.com) Harry, is a doomsayer! Another good candidate for the title of doomsayer would be Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh;
“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning,” he said. “Which I doubt,” said he.”Why, what’s the matter?””Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.””Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.”Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.”
If predicting calamity is what it takes to be a doomsayer, then why do we not have a section in the Bible after the Pentateuch and Psalms and Wisdom Literature called Doomsayings? If you read the beginning of many of the stories in the books of the prophets, they begin with warnings of catastrophe about to befall the people of Israel who have strayed from the ways of the Lord in one way or another. Predictions of pandemics, military defeat, destruction of the Temple, and being taken into captivity abound! I’m not sure I’d be in a hurry to invite a prophet to dinner at my house for fear they may have just such a message for me.
A prophet is,“one who utters divinely inspired revelations: as a often capitalized : the writer of one of the prophetic books of the Bible b capitalized : one regarded by a group of followers as the final authoritative revealer of God’s will <Muhammad, the Prophet of Allah> 2: one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight; especially : an inspired poet 3: one who foretells future events : predictor” (http://www.merriam-webster.com)
The fundamental difference is that a prophet is divinely inspired. The messages prophets share with the people around them are the words of God. Some prophets in the past were pretty unhappy to be called upon to give the message they were told. Jonah really didn’t want to help out the people of Nineveh and even ran away, but that didn’t end well for him and he delivered his message in the end. There are stories of prophets hiding in caves in the wilderness to avoid crowds who were out to get them. In 1 Kings 19 we read about Elijah, having challenged the prophets of Baal and won, ran away to a cave on Mt. Sinai to hide from Queen Jezebel who had vowed to kill him.
Regardless of the message a prophet may carry to us, our problem remains. How can we tell when we are hearing from a true prophet and not a doomsayer? Recently there was an individual who “prophesied” the coming of the rapture. He claimed that the date and time were to be found written in Bible. Many people were convinced by this prediction, some even selling all they had. Many took it as a joke and there were many photos posted on Twitter of people’s clothing laid out as if they had just vanished from within them.
Our best hope is to look to the Bible to determine validity of such claims. “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32) This is also stated in Matthew 24:36 and echoed again in Acts. If our doomsayer of the day had really been speaking words from God, he would have known that the hour and the day would not be written in the Bible.’ Through study and prayer we seek the truth of God.
Posted in Bible Study, Reflections
Tagged Bible, calamity, catastrophe, Christianity, church, doomsayer, Eeyore, faith, God, Holy Spirit, Jesus, justice, leadership, love, Pentateuch, prayer, problems, promise, prophets, Psalms, Rapture, rapture predicted, reflection, sin, stress, survival, When Harry Met Sally, Winnie the Pooh, Wisdom Literature
For those of you over forty-something have you ever listened to a rapper? To include the younger set , have you travelled to an area where people all spoke a different language or with an accent that was very difficult for you to understand?
If you were immersed in that sort of situation for days on end, then imagine the joy you would feel just hearing someone speaking so that you could understand. Then, imagine if they were telling you that God had loved you so much that he gave his son’s life to atone for your sins. Then they told you that through Him you would have eternal life.
Imagine the feeling that would give you! Imagine the questions it would raise. Are these guys drunk? In Acts we see Pentecost play out. The wind blows, the tongues of flame descend and then people begin to speak in languages they don’t even know. Peter interprets these things for those who are present. In order to make sense of this he quotes scripture.
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour
out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”
Wait a minute…did Joel say prophesy? Was Peter saying we should prophesy? I’m all for God pouring out His Spirit on me, but I’m not Isaiah, Jonah, or Ezekiel…how am I supposed to prophesy?
In his book New Proclamation Matthew L. Skinner says, “Peter’s brand of “prophecy” is …the task of identifying our own circumstances as somehow in line with testimony about God from the past and in line with the promises of what God is yet to do.” He goes on to explain that the art of prophecy is in truly believing that the Bible is a message to us in our own time.
We need to be open to a dialogue with the scripture. We need to let the Bible shape and effect all that we see, say and do. We need to stop reading the Bible as if it was just another book of information.
In a course I took on Reformed Spirituality we looked at the practice of spiritual reading. In the introduction to this section of her book Soul Feast, Marjorie J. Thompson asks the reader to consider the different way we would approach reading a letter from a dear friend and a newspaper.
Spiritual reading of the Bible is not going to come from reading to get through a section of text. It is not about how much you read, or how quickly you read. Our intention should be, in the words of Thompson, “simply to sink into the words and open ourselves to their meaning in our lives. How do we go about this?
There are four phases to spiritual reading. The first to read in a reflective way, slowly, pausing over words which seem to catch our attention. The second phase is meditation, in other words, when we find those words which really catch our attention, then give some thought to why this seems important to us…what is the connection between this text and our lives?
The third phase is speaking. We respond to our reading with our emotion in prayer. If the reading has highlighted our current struggles we will call out, perhaps in pain, if it speaks of our joy we will lift our hearts in praise. If you want some excellent examples of this phase, read through some of the Psalms.
Finally we contemplate. After pouring out in words all that we need to, we sit quietly and give time for God’s response to us. We rest in God’s presence and listen. These steps may go back and forth as we move through a text but the process is not complete without all four.
As you can tell from the steps listed, this is not the kind of
reading we can fit into the 20 minutes between activities and is best not left to the end of the day. When we make a space available in our day for this kind of reading, the Spirit will lead us in finding the meaning of the text for our lives.
God sent His Spirit to us for a reason. The Spirit is a gift to us which comforts us in our pain, helps us when we most need help, exhorts people to be present with God in answering the call to serve others in the world who are in need, advocates for us and provides the link for us to stay in touch with Jesus and through him with God, and, if we let it, reveals the truth in Jesus.
When God sends out His Spirit, plants spring to life– the whole countryside in bloom and blossom.
This is the glory of GOD–let it last forever!
New Testament:Acts 2:1-21
Epistle: Romans 8:22-27
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Posted in Bible Study, Faith, Lectionary, Reflections
Tagged Bible, Christianity, church, cross, dreamers, evangelism, faith, forgiveness, God, Holy Spirit, improvement, Jesus, leadership, love, New Proclamation, promise, prophets, reflection, reformed spirituality, seers. Pentecost, Soul Fest, spiritual reading, spirituality