by Linda McMillan
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”
― Robert Frost
When I was a little girl I would get together with the other little girls in my neighborhood and we would plan our weddings. Sometimes we would even get towels from the bathroom and pretend to have a veil. I suspect that some of those little girls eventually had the weddings they planned. It’s important to plan, even if the plan is more of a dream than a real plan. A dream can’t become real without a plan, after all.
The thing is — and if you’ve ever made a plan, you know this — plans change. The daily changes of postponements, interruptions, and cancellations are minor things; bigger changes, though, seem to cast a shadow over years, even decades. It is not what we wanted, not what we planned, even prepared for. Why? Why can’t things just go as we planned? The marriage, the career, the children… really, why can’t one thing just go as planned?
The story of the Widow of Zarephath in today’s reading is a tale of a woman whose plans have changed. Oh, it doesn’t say so, not in so many words. But, we know that nobody plans to be a widow, people don’t plan poverty, nobody plans the death of a child. These are the kinds of changes which change everything, and our unnamed widow, at an age when many of us are still dreaming and planning, has lived through all three. It is a marvel to me that despair didn’t overtake her before hunger.
At her very lowest point, Elijah appeared. One would think that a prophet of God would come with good news. Instead, Elijah demanded her last bit of food for himself, and he was not kind about it either. The widow told him very clearly that she was preparing to die. This should have been a tender moment. This is one of the very last things she would ever do. She was preparing for her body to die, and her son’s as well. Their dreams, the plans they’d made would die too. It has all come to nothing. But, Elijah didn’t comfort or reassure her. He didn’t try to talk her out of it. He said, “Well, OK… you can die later. First, bring me something to eat.” And then he made an unbelievable promise from a strange God that the barrel of meal would not finish nor the cruse of oil fail. It is hard to know what the widow must have thought about that. Certainly it was not what she had planned!
Why didn’t the widow tell Elijah to go away? She did explain, and somewhat forcefully, that she had nothing to spare. If it had been me, I most certainly would not have given Elijah my last meal and oil. But, in the desert hospitality is not just a religious value, it was a habit, a survival tool. So, maybe she gave to him out of habit. Maybe she just didn’t care anymore, thinking, What’s one more meal, we are going to die anyway. Today or tomorrow… doesn’t matter much. Or, maybe she just made him a very small cake, reserving some of the meal and oil for herself. We don’t know.
The story is, though, that after she made a small cake for Elijah there was enough oil and meal for two more, one for her and one for her son. Each day thereafter the barrel of meal had enough, as did the cruse of oil, and the widow, her son, and Elijah ate that way for two years, until the drought ended.
Looking back, this story reminds us of how the Israelites were fed manna in the wilderness. Looking forward, we are reminded of the single cruse of oil which burned for eight days in the temple at its rededication after being liberated by Judah Maccabee and his army.
We know that the children of Israel ate manna for 40 years; we know that Elijah, the widow, and her son ate from the barrel of meal and the cruse of oil for two years; and we know that the Chanukah oil of rededication lasted for eight days. These events have two things in common — besides the fact that each one vaguely reminds us of the other two. 1) each one occurred after the last bit had been used. The miracle of the manna didn’t happen while there was other food to eat; the miracle of the oil and meal couldn’t happen until the bottom of the barrel was in sight, and the Chanukah oil couldn’t have lasted eight days if it had been saved until more oil could be found, it had to be lit first. And, 2) it was enough. Forty years, two years, eight days… these numbers are not important at all. What matters is that it was enough. So the lesson for us is to use the resources we have, it will be enough. Do not save your last bit of oil and meal. Cook it up. Give it away. There is plenty.
When plans change drastically, as they did for the widow of Zarephath, we may be left feeling that we don’t have anything left to give, that we are out of oil. We might not even have enough for ourselves, and it’s OK if you have to borrow a little oil from your neighbor sometimes. These are big changes, after all. They take the life out of us. But — hard as this is, I know — the desert value of hospitality is instructive here. If, in the midst of the gut-tearing changes of life we can find something to share, some shred of whatever is left, it will be enough.
We don’t know what happened to the widow. She was a woman of will. We know this because she made decisions, she took action, and she spoke to Elijah with authority, and probably cursing. I hope that her son, having been revived by Elijah, grew into a strong man and took care of her. I hope that they found joy in their lives. But, we don’t know. It used to bother me that so many stories in the Bible seem unfinished. But I have learned that these stories are similar to my own unfinished story and that having a tidy ending isn’t realistic. What I do know from today’s reading is that even when it’s the end, it may not be the end; and, when there’s nothing left to give, give it anyway.
Will that kind of wacky extravagance change anything? The stories of our faith indicate that it does. The best we can do, you and I, is become part of the long history of people who have used life down to the bottom of the barrel, given away whatever is left, and expected there to be enough for tomorrow.
May the Widow of Zarephath be your guide, and mine too.
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai.
Image: the constellation of the widow’s jar By Julius Schiller (Linda hall Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Some Notes of Possible Interest
“It is a marvel to me that despair didn’t overtake her before hunger.” Many people don’t realize that you can die of a broken heart. You can read about Broken Heart Syndrome here.
If you have severe depression or a situation that is distressing to you please seek help. Depression is serious. Left untreated it can be fatal.
We know that YHWH was a strange god for the widow because she refers to this god of yours… Elijah’s, not this god of ours.
If you want to read more about how the Israelites ate manna in the wilderness look in the book of Exodus, it’s the second book in the Bible. Chapter 16 tells that they ate the manna for 40 years.