Both the first reading and Gospel feature widows – one of the most vulnerable groups in Israel and the ancient world. When there is no social safety net, widows relied on other family members and the wider community to provide the sustenance that they could not earn themselves. There lot was even worse when times were bad – such as during the ninth century BC famine that is the setting of I Kings 17 and the general destitution of life under the Roman Empire in the early first century AD.
At the end of I Kings 16, we are told that the evil king Ahab comes to the throne, and marries the even more wicked Jezebel, daughter of the Phoenician king and worshipper of the god Ba’al. Soon afterwards a drought occurs resulting in widespread famine which spreads beyond the borders of Israel to include parts of Phoenicia. Chapter 17 opens with Elijah escaping to the Wadi Cherith east of the Jordan River, where he finds refuge and is able to sustain himself with water from a spring and food provided by ravens. When the water runs dry he falls into a depression (a common state for our hero Elijah). Verse 8 opens with the word of the Lord being addressed to the prophet: “Arise, go to Zarephath in Sidon and stay there. Look, I have commanded a woman there, a widow, to sustain you.” So, in response to this word from the Lord, Elijah travels into the foreign territory of the Ba’al worshipping Sidonians, where he encounters an unnamed widow gathering sticks near the gate of the town, to prepare a final meal with the last of her meagre food supplies before her inevitable death from starvation.
Elijah bizarrely asks this woman for two things – rather than offering her assistance. First, in a request that we hear as an echo of the one that Jesus makes to another foreigner, the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4), Elijah asks for a drink of water. Then, in an act of black Jewish comedy, he asks her to bake him a small cake after she announces that she only has enough food for her son and herself to ward off starvation for a few more hours. The fact that the woman responds in generosity shows something of her true character. Although she has nothing to give, she is prepared to make this incredible sacrifice, trusting somehow in the graciousness of a God that perhaps she has only just met through the words of this strange prophet of the God of Israel.
The interaction provides an example of one of my favourite maxims of St John of the Cross: “where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love.”
- Recorded at St Mary’s, Leppington, 8am (9’09”)
- Sunday 32B. I Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44