There is a prevailing belief, not unreasonably, that if you do everything right – if you follow the right steps, everything will turn out for the good.
This was drummed into me at school. If you study hard, you will get good results and you will be able to either go to university or get a good job. If you follow the right steps, the outcome will always be good.
This is how we dream, isn’t it. I used ask the Senior High’s in my youth group what their dream was for life – and it was always to work hard, graduate, get a good job, settle down, find the right person , marriage, kids, travel etc.
I would then teach on the curve balls of life – the 20 year olds who die in road accidents, or get paralyzed playing sports, or encounter a season of disease, treatment and rehabilitation. We don’t factor into our dreams that life can throw the unexpected and the unpleasant.
My brother in law, who passed away at a tragically young age experienced this. He did everything right. He went to school, graduated from Cambridge University – one of the very best in England – became a nuclear chemist, married, had children. He did everything right. But then his wife left him. The stock market crash led to the company which held his pension to fold, losing him 60% of the money he had diligently saved and then he passed away from cancer at 48 years of age.
You can do everything right and it still not turn out right. Life can be tough. We live in a world which is fallen and imperfect.
This is why it is so important for us as Christians to realize exactly what it is we lean on in life. If we lean upon our good decisions, careers, pensions, abilities, income, good works, even religion then all of these can be taken away, and we will crash to the floor.
If everything were to be stripped away from you today – everything, what would be left?
The two widows we encounter in our reading today have had everything stripped away. We have no idea whether they had been wealthy or not – or what their husbands had done. All we know is that when we encounter them in the scriptures they have nothing left. And they themselves probably did not envision the latter half of their life being so hard and difficult. In the days of both Elijiah and Jesus, a woman without a husband was very vulnerable – work was very hard, if not impossible for a woman to get and so without an income and without help and support very often widows would die.
What is remarkable about these two widows is their heart. In the midst of their complete hopelessness and destitution they reach out to God.
Let’s look at each of these widows.
The first is a widow who lives in Zarapheth. That means she was a gentile – a pagan widow. Zarapheth was between Tyre and Sidon and 80 miles north of Samaria. This is Baal country. In fact this is the Domain of Jezebels father, Ethabaal (1 Kings 16:31). The King of Israel at this time was Ahab and he had imported the cult of Baal, his wife’s god, into Israel.
But the irony here is that in the middle of the cult of Baal was this widow who believed in the God of Israel – Yahweh.
The fact that God would send Elijah to her tells us two things: (1) God always hears the cry of his people, no matter where they are or who they are; (2) God judges those who ignore his grace.
Jesus gets into hot water by recounting this event in the Synagogue in luke 4:25-26. Jesus points out that there were many poor widows in Israel, but because of Israel’s continued rejection of God’s ways, Elijah was sent to a gentile. This infuriated Jesus’ hearers – they could not believe such an interpretation of the scriptures – that God would favor a gentile pagan over an Israelite.
The Israelites were trusting in and leaning on something other than the Lord – and so God exercises his judgment, symbolically, on them by going outside of Israel to bless a pagan who believed in God! God clearly shows that his grace is not based on what you are but on what you believe in and trust in.
In what appeared to be the end of hope for this widow in Zarapheth, gathering wood for the final, pitiful meal before the inevitable outcome of death, hope appears. God honors her faith. But look at what he asks of her! Elijah asks her to give HIM the last of their food. If she gave him everything, God would take care of her.
And she does. She leans entirely upon the Lord. She trusts in him utterly. She gives everything over to him. And notice how the miracle plays out. She does not receive twenty barrels of oil and flour miraculously outside her house. She has to live day by day and each day she receives the miracle which allows her, her son and Elijah to live. She was reliant daily on God’s continued provision.
As one writer has said, In the absence of Baal who lies impotent in the netherworld, Yahweh steps in to assist the widow and this is done in the heart land of Baal.
Israel, the people of God, have adopted Baal, who is powerless, and yet here in the very center of Baalism, Yahweh performs a miracle and saves!
Whatever it is we face, even in the face of our last meal and even death, it is on faith, on the very word and promises of God that we are to lean – for from that comes life – just as this widow experienced.
It is this same attitude which accompanied the widow in the temple.
Just was the writer of Kings would have us make the comparison between the nation of Israel, the supposed visible representation of God on earth being bypassed by God in favor of a woman in an pagan, idolatrous nation because of her faith, so the gospel writer makes a similar comparison between the leaders of the God’s people and an insignificant, poverty stricken widow.
Who had the real faith? Who truly leaned upon the living and true God? Who put their money where their mouth was?
Jesus is scathing. These men were men of ostentatious attitudes and corrupt morals.
Ostentatious in that they wanted to be seen and they wanted to be revered and they wanted to be honored. Everything they did was to advance their own selves. Jesus’ charge is simple – they had attitudes of Lords rather than attitudes of servants. Their long prayers presented an impression of piety that masked greed. They pretended to love God greatly but their aim was to get people to love them greatly. They wore flowing robes. Why is this mentioned? Not to attack their dress but to show the type of people they were – you could neither hurray NOR work in such robes. They were men of leisure. They enjoyed being called Rabbi = my great one.
They were also, largely corrupt. Teachers of the law in Israel received no official income. They depended upon voluntary contributions and yet all were wealthy. They had large benefactors who would contribute to their ‘ministry’ and they had no qualms from taking money from old ladies and widows. To support a teacher of the law was seen as a blessing – God would bless you for supporting such a person. And instead of the teachers of the law saying to little old ladies and widows, “You do not have to give your money – keep it” they took it happily – indeed they solicited from such people.
The teachers of the law were spiritually poor, and physically prosperous. The widow was physically poor and spiritually prosperous.
This even takes place in the Court of the Gentiles. There were 13 trumpet shaped metal reciprocals where the offering were put. These boxes made a very recognizable sound as the coins were dropped into them. Often those Pharisees who wished to boast would drop a large number of coins in at once. This was called sounding the trumpet.
And in the midst of all this coming and going and all the large and impressive giving Jesus points out this one woman.
Oh, we will meet her in heaven. We will have the privilege of speaking with her. A woman who had lost her husband, her support, her provider. She had nothing. And she takes her two coins – her lepta – worth in todays value 1/5th of a cent, and put’s both into the offering.
Her actions do two things:
1. It expressed her love for God. She had come to the temple to worship – to bring her offering, to express how she felt to him and she gave God what she had.
2. it expressed her trust in God to sustain her. She gives it all because she believes God will help her.
The means of the giver and the motive are the measure of true generosity.
This woman gave her all. She trusts in the Lord. She leant entirely on God. And this means that whatever the outcome, even, I believe, in the event of her starving to death, she trusted the Lord.
Both these widows gave everything they had to God. They held nothing back, even in their most difficult situation.
There is a great symbolic truth here. There is nearly always something we hold back. We rarely make the ultimate sacrifice.
These two widows did. And these widows did.
God calls us to give everything – to hold nothing back – to give ourselves to HIM – that is to lean on God utterly – to trust in him completely. For he will never fail us nor forsake us.
Lastly, while we do not have time do focus on this, I did want to mention the fact that there is no sense that these two widows were angry or bitter with God.
A baptist theologian and pastor John Piper says:
Adversity by its very nature is the removal of things on which our comfort and hope have rested and so it will either result in anger toward God or greater reliance on him alone for our peace.
And his purpose for us in adversity is not that we get angry or discouraged, but that our hope shift off earthly things onto God.
God’s main purpose in all adversity is to make us stop trusting in ourselves or any man.
This is the cry of the Psalmist. Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help: Whose hope is in the Lord their God.
These widows trusted in God regardless of the situation or the outcome. They leaned on Him utterly, whether in the miracle of his provision, or even in the face of death. And they appear to have done it without bitterness or anger.
May our faith be like this. May it lean on the our very real and eternal hope, Jesus Christ.