2 Kings 4:1-7
October 25, 2015
As we mentioned during sharing time, pastor Hal Shrader, of Trinity Mennonite in Phoenix, died this past week in a motorcycle accident. It’s one of those deaths that is hard to take in. Andrea called me with the news, with requests for prayer. It took me awhile to realize who she was talking about, then to get my mind around the fact that this young, vibrant, gifted man is no longer with us in this world. I don’t think I completely believed it until I read the Mennonite article, saw the statement on the church web page, watched laments emerge in my Facebook stream.
Hal’s death is a loss for all of us—for people like me who met him only once, for people like you who may never have even heard of him before. But I can’t stop thinking about his wife, Chrisie. About what it would be like to say goodbye to your husband as he goes off on a much-anticipated trip, and then never see him alive again. About how you could wade through the shock and the anger and the grief to continue to function in the world—to balance the checkbook and do the grocery shopping and schedule the kids’ dentist appointments. The kids. What in the world do you say to your daughters?
This woman who comes to Elisha, she also has two children. She has two children and a dead husband; a husband who had been in ministry, who had passion for sharing the word of God. She has two children, a dead husband, and a heavy debt.
That’s about all we know. Which leaves a lot of the story for us to wonder about.
I wonder about her two children. Were they both girls? Like my youngest children? Like Hal and Christie’s children? How old were they? How much did they understand about the horrific situation they faced? How were they dealing with their own broken hearts?
I wonder about her husband’s death. Had this widow also kissed her husband goodbye as he set off on a trip, never to see him alive again? Or did he die slowly in front of her eyes from a lingering illness? Or was he killed by powerful enemies—as sometimes happened to prophets? And how long ago did he die? How long has it taken her to move from devastated to desperate?
I wonder about her debt. Is it a debt her husband incurred in the course of his ministry? Tradition claims that this widow was the wife of Obadiah, who hid and fed a group of prophets when King Ahab was on a rampage; I imagine you could run up quite a tab trying to keep all those prophets fed. Or is this a debt the family incurred because they wanted a bigger house with the most modern well and luxurious clothing and designer leather sandals? Or maybe the cause of this family’s bankruptcy is the same as the leading cause for bankruptcy in the US today—medical debt. Remember the woman with the flow of blood who comes to Jesus; Mark says “she had endured much under many physicians and had spent all she had.” Maybe the prophet had run up a debt trying to find a cure for the illness that ultimately took his life.
In the end, there is a lot we simply do not know, cannot know, about the details of this woman’s situation. We know that she has two children, a dead husband, and a heavy debt.
We know that she is so desperate she finally goes to Elisha; and she does not merely tell him about her situation, she cries to him: because her creditors are threatening to take her children as payment—a horrifying prospect.
We know how Elisha responds to her: “O.K. That is a problem. Let’s think about this. What do you want me to do? What do you have in your house?”
I wonder what Elisha is thinking. Maybe the widow has some valuable jewelry hidden in her underwear drawer, or the crystal she got for her wedding, or her husband’s old baseball card collection—something of value she has overlooked. Surely there is a reasonable way to fix this problem.
That’s where most of us go first, right? When we have a problem to solve. When a friend is in trouble. What are our tools? What are our assets?
“What do you have in your house?”
Only, the widow is at the point of having her children taken away as slaves. If there was even one of grandma’s broaches, one chip of crystal, one George Brett baseball card laying around the house, it’s already been sold. All that is left now is a jar of oil.
She has absolutely exhausted her resources. That’s why she has come to Elisha. She needs a way forward that she cannot see for herself. She needs the kind of miracle that Elisha is known for.
We know that when Elisha realizes how desperate the widow’s situation is, he gives her instructions on what to do. Very specific instructions.
You may have noticed that in most of the miracles we read about in scripture, the recipient of the miracle is more or less passive: Moses just raises his staff and the people walk through the Red Sea; Jesus says, “Get up and walk,” and the lame man gets up and walks. Even for people who are somewhat active in their own miracles, they generally don’t do a whole lot: Hannah prays at Shiloh; the bleeding woman reaches out and touches Jesus cloak. Wallah! Miracle accomplished.
This widow, though, she works pretty hard for her miracle.
First she has to go around to her neighbors and ask them for vessels—and not just a few! Some of you with a touch of social anxiety (or with particularly cranky neighbors) already realize that this is a difficult action. But to fully appreciate what Elisha asks the widow to do, we have to consider the historical context. If one of my neighbors wanted to borrow a “vessel” from me, it would be no big deal. I probably have over a hundred vessels in my house: baskets, buckets, cups, bowels, tupperware containers—and at any given time, the majority of them are empty. Vessels are not hard to come by these days.
But for this woman’s neighbors, vessels were a precious commodity. They were absolutely essential for survival—hauling water, storing grain. And they were all hand made of clay. People did not necessarily have spare clay pots laying around the house. These are not simple “can I borrow a cup of sugar” requests she is making; the widow is asking her neighbors for something they may, justifiably, be reluctant to give.
I wonder what the neighbors think when the widow comes around with her request. Maybe they think she has finally had a mental breakdown–because what could this poor widow need all of these vessels for?—and they didn’t want to set her off by refusing her request. Maybe they realize what a desperate situation she is in and are happy to help in any way they can.
We don’t know what the neighbors think, but we do know what they do—they give her their vessels.
I’ve been wondering about these vessels this week. We have to be careful about allegorizing scripture, of course. Because we can just say anything represents whatever we want and then we’re basically writing rather than reading the holy text. Still, oil is such a strong symbol in scripture for blessing—and clearly functions in a very practical way as a blessing in this story. So I’ve been wondering about the vessels we might need to gather—what is it that we can use to hold God’s blessings in our lives? What do we need from our neighbors to help us realize the abundance of goodness in our lives? Goodness that is there even in the midst of our despair?
What do these vessels look like? What can we give our neighbors—and what can we ask for from our neighbors—that will allow us to experience the fullness of life God longs to pour out—the abundant life Jesus speaks of to his followers?
Perhaps these bandaids in the MCC kits are vessels. Or the casserole we take to someone grieving. Or music we play. Or an offer to babysit. Or a kind smile. Or our ears when we listen. Or . . . I don’t know. But I think I was wrong when I said I have over a hundred vessels at my house. I must have thousands of them.
I wonder how many vessels the widow gathers. We know she has more than a few; and then, according to Elisha’s instructions, she shuts herself and her children up in their home and starts filling the vessels with her meager supply of oil.
We don’t know how this worked—how the one jar of oil filled vessel after vessel after vessel until she had enough oil to sell and pay off her creditors. We don’t know exactly how it worked, but we have a glimpse here into how a miracle is made.
We know that the miracle was possible because the widow’s neighbors were willing to give her vessels.
We know the miracle was facilitated by Elisha, who could have easily ignored the crying widow.
We know that the woman’s own grief and desperation and love for her children compelled her to go to Elisha in the first place; that this grief and desperation and love forced her to consider possibilities outside her realm of understanding—to believe that maybe one jar of oil could save her children, because it had to.
So we do know a little more about miracles thanks to this story. We know that they are born in desperation and love. We know that they require faith and imagination. We know that they require other people to pay attention, to care, and to give.
And we certainly know that we live in a world where many people are longing for miracles. A world where there are still widows—and widowers–and orphans; Hal Shrader’s family among them. A world where there are still people who grieve and struggle and get overwhelmed for any number of reasons.
Yes. We know the desperation is here.
And, as people of faith, we also see the love, the faith, the imagination, the attention, and the generosity present in the world. All the makings of a miracle.