Sunday, June 6, 2010

Helping Helps Us

Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.” (1 Kings17.13)

No Sense at All

I love the story of Elijah and widow because nothing in it makes sense. If you don’t know it, here’s a quick recap. After Elijah’s told a drought will strike Israel and passes the word to King Ahab, he’s instructed to wait out the drought beside a brook flowing through the Kerith Ravine, east of Jordan. He’s to drink from the brook, while ravens bring him food every day. This makes no sense at all. The drought is meant to draw Israel back to God, yet its prophet is sent away. The ravine sits in a desolate region, with nothing to sustain the prophet. Instead, he’s to rely on ravens—one of the most voracious bird species—to feed him. Elijah has no guarantee the brook won’t dry up, but he obeys anyway. As promised, ravens show up twice a day to drop off bread and meat, though where they steal them from is anybody’s guess. Then the brook runs dry.

So he’s sent further afield, to Sidon (Lebanon), also enduring famine, where God says a pagan widow will care for him. When he meets her, Elijah tells her to bring him some water and, while she’s at it, a piece of bread. The widow replies, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.” (1 Kings 17.12) Elijah says, “OK. Don’t be afraid. Go about your business. But make a small cake for me before you cook your last meal.” Why would a pagan woman take food out of her child’s mouth to feed a Jew? Why would a hungry man ask for a small cake? No sense at all.

But Elijah believes God, and the widow believes Elijah, who tells her: “The God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.’” (v14) And it is so. She houses Elijah in her spare room. She, her son, and the prophet ride out the famine together—which surely must raise a few eyebrows and stir up some hostility among neighbors who are burying loved ones. Then, when the drought ends, her son suddenly turns ill and dies. The widow believes that’s really why Elijah’s there: to visit calamity on her for her sins. The insanity of the situation grieves the prophet. He takes the boy’s corpse into his room and questions God’s purpose in all of this. He lay against the lad’s body three times, pleading with God to restore his life. God answers Elijah’s prayer. The son revives and the widow says: “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.” (v24) Evidently, she was as confused as Elijah. Now it makes sense to her. But what sense are we to make of it?

Every Reason Not to Help

This story has enough messages on the loose to fill at least a half dozen posts. From Elijah’s perspective, there’s total faith, trust and obedience, daily provision, and compassion. From the widow’s side, there’s resistance to fear, availing ourselves to God’s purpose, welcoming the stranger, and struggling with doubt and disappointment. The son’s story is all about renewed life. As for God’s role, there’s unnatural providence, guidance through hardship, wisdom in apparent nonsense, reward for obedience, faithfulness, and mercy. Yet as I reread it, something I’d not noticed before struck me. The widow gets help she needs because she helps Elijah.

She has every reason not to help the prophet. Although it’s highly unlikely she’s aware of it, Elijah’s the agent of her suffering; it’s at his word that drought descends on the region to jeopardize her and her son’s lives. He’s also an enemy, a prophet who condemns people like her as sinners. She doesn’t have to help him. Why should she? Why isn’t he bothering a Jewish widow, taking food off her table? Not only is he arrogant. From the sound of things, he’s also intimidating, since Elijah tells her not to be afraid. Furthermore, his promise that her flour and oil will outlast the famine could be no more than a ruse to con food from her. Then, after she complies, that’s not enough. He wants to stay with her! Finally, adding insult to injury, once everything works out as Elijah predicted, relief that she and her son survive gets stolen from her. The prophet will move and she’ll be left with no son to help her survive. What kind of God is this?

An Interlaced Plan

With no logical excuse for the widow to obey Elijah, there’s only one explanation for why she comes to his aid. She’s moved to help him. When God sends the prophet to Sidon, He says, “I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.” (v9) The widow acts on God’s urgency. She may not understand why she helps the prophet. She may not recognize where the prompt in her spirit comes from. But she heeds the command in defiance of everything that makes sense. It’s not until she encounters worse hardship and experiences God’s mercy that she knows what’s happened. She's played a key role in an intricately interlaced plan—a grand design that comes together to fix Israel’s problem, provides for its prophet, and places him with the widow to restore her son’s life. We don’t know the nature of his illness, only that it’s not famine-related. Had she extricated herself from God’s plan and not helped Elijah, when her son fell ill, she would have been left alone, without hope. The help she needed wouldn’t have been there.

So often in God’s mysterious ways, just as ravens bring food instead of devouring it, people who seek our help are actually sent to provide it. It makes no sense at all to help someone who causes problems for us, condemns us, and asks of us what they won’t ask of their own people. But we are commanded to help, and when we obey, we enter God’s interlaced plan. He often places us with people who, by all rights, we shouldn’t help so we can receive help for ourselves.

So often people who reach out for our help are actually sent to provide help for us. If we rationalize why we shouldn't or can't help them, we extricate ourselves from God's plan.


TomCat said...

Another interesting analysis, Tim. For me, it's simple. Helping is selfish, and that's OK. When I help, I like the me I become. When I don't, I don't.

Sherry Peyton said...

YOu know it's funny. When I read that passage my first reaction was anger--how dare Elijah order this woman, a perfect stranger around! And I also was angry that she would be so gracious especially in the face of her son's obvious need. Yet, you are most right that it is the faith of both that calls to us. Faith by Elijah that God will provide in the unlikeliest of ways, and faith on the part of the widow that somehow, hospitality is still the best way. The lesson is huge for us all. Perhaps in the anger, we learn the lesson even more deeply--it gets us to see that indeed, we must extend it, even when the person asking or demanding rubs us exactly the wrong way. Therein is the face of Christ I suspect we miss most often.

thanks Tim. Your insights are so great. Your gifts so huge.

You have left a slew of comments on my blog, and please never feel the need to comment so much. We are all busy as heck. I am lucky some weeks to visit anyone more than once, other weeks I get around often. I appreciate of course all your remarks because you always force me in a new direction and more
Blessings dear friend.

Tim said...

Tom, I tell people this all the time: the best way to bless me is to let me help you. It opens the floodgates of God's goodness and mercy. It is selfish and selfless at the same time--a contradiction, and thus in total keeping with the nature of our God!

Sherry, "therein is the face of Christ I suspect we miss so often." I like that! It's so true. Helping those we'd rather not gets us outside ourselves to see the reflection of unconditional love and mercy in our lives. This morning our pastor paired Elijah's widow with the one in Luke, who's on her way to bury her son and encounters Christ. She called it "bumping into Jesus," and reminded us when that happens, we're bound to be surprised. I think you and she are on the same page!

Blessings to both of you,

PS: Sherry, I always promise myself I'm going to scoot by your place--same for you Tom--see what you're up to and move on. But you guys both get the wheels turning. So it's not a compulsion, per se, but a joy. I hope I'm not making too much work for either of you (or the other blogs I comment on)!

TomCat said...

Thanks for the compliment Tim. It cwertainly rings true for Sherry.

claire said...

I have just written about this. I like your educated take on it. I need to read it again.
Ah what a treat to come here!

Tim said...

Claire, thank you! I'm headed your way to discover what you found; it's always a feast over there. And I can't resist saying, What a treat to have you here!

Blessings, dear friend,