Saturday, January 17, 2009

Empty Jars

Elisha said, “Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few.”

                        2 Kings 4.3 

A Little Oil

I’m personally fond of this story since, as a second-grader in Christian school, I got my first taste of stage acting in a short play based on it. (The experience didn’t harbinger stardom. Actually, it was pretty traumatic. Extreme nervousness led to a little “accident”—thankfully undetectable beneath my costume—that taught me then and there what “the show must go on” means.) I played one of two sons about to be sold into slavery when their mother can’t pay a debt left behind by her recently deceased husband, a prophet. She appeals to his colleague, Elisha, for help. He asks if she has anything to sell. “All I have is a little oil,” she answers. Elisha tells her to canvas the neighborhood, collect every empty jar she can find, go home, and shut the door so she and her sons can fill the jars with oil to sell. Now this raises a lot of questions, namely, “How will that work? There’s not enough oil to fill one jar, let alone dozens of them.” Fortunately, as a prophet’s widow, familiarity with prophets' ways encourages her to do as Elisha says. Empty jars keep coming and the oil keeps flowing. She’s able to discharge the debt in full, with extra money left over to support her and her sons.

More Than Enough

“Little is much when God is in it,” the great gospel hymn says. And like the widow, we may look at our slim resources and abilities as insufficient to meet the enormous challenges we face. Yet when God enters our situation and we obey His instructions, the little we have becomes more than enough. As humans, our mathematical capabilities are limited to simple addition and subtraction. We pick things up and put things down, running a tally as we go. In contrast, God is a multiplier; He works exponentially. In the parable of the sower (Mark 4.1-8), Jesus says when we seed God’s word in our hearts, it produces a crop “multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.” A little oil, a single seed, a boy’s lunch—we see God’s power to multiply over and over and over. So why do we insist on focusing on what we don’t have instead of seeing what we’ve got is plenty for God to work with?

Wisdom from Widows

We often miss a crucial aspect in the widow’s story. Once she and her sons gathered every jar they could find, she poured all she had into the empty vessels. She didn’t reserve a few ounces for her needs and work with what she could spare. There were bigger issues at stake than baking bread and heating the house; saving a little—less than a little—oil meant nothing compared to losing her sons. In her wisdom, she realized giving everything was the key to keeping everything. And God rewarded her faith by leaving her with more than she had when she started.

Another wise widow surfaces in Luke 21. Jesus watches a line of rich people contributing to the temple treasury. The widow steps up and gives two small coins. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus says, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” The line of people who outrank us in knowledge, talent, power, wealth, and so on stretches past the horizon. How we compare to them doesn't matter, though. Wisdom from widows teaches us it’s not what we have but what we give.

The world runs rampant with empty jars—hollow lives once full of love and joy and peace, unfed stomachs and minds and spirits, discarded children and forgotten elders. We think we’ve barely enough love and energy for those nearest to us, when in fact there’s more than enough. Gather every empty jar you can find—more than a few—shut the door on doubt and criticism, and start pouring!

The world is full of empty jars. With God's help, the little we have is more than enough to fill them.

(Tomorrow: Overflow)

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