There’s an interesting thing that the lectionary does from time to time regarding the texts to be read for the week. Alongside one of the scripture passages that is to be read, there are sometimes parentheses that contain additional material that could be read and studied. This week is an example of that with the 1 Kings story about the prophet Elijah and his encounter with the widow and her son in Zaraphath. The reading, the prescribed story, is chapter 17, verses 8-16, the part where these three unlikely partners survive the drought of the land by eating from a jar of meal and a jug of oil that never run out – it always has enough for one more day’s food. But the lectionary also gives, in parentheses, verses 17-24, a second story occurring after this when the widow’s son stops breathing and is believed to be dead. Elijah takes the boy, restores his life, and gives him back to his mother. This story is optional. Not necessarily the main focus of the day – just there for study if you want to go for it.
You noticed – hopefully you noticed – that we read both stories, as well as the bit leading up to those stories that told about Elijah’s words to King Ahab about the beginning of the drought and Elijah’s survival before the waters all dried up, which led him to seek bread and water elsewhere.
I’m interested in this notion of stories that happen inside of parentheses – this idea that some stories, and also some people, are optional. Not necessarily the main focus. In defense of the lectionary, there’s just too much Bible to fit it all in in the three year cycle. Way too much. We already skip over whole chunks of scripture that didn’t make the cut. So I’m really thinking more broadly here about situations and people in general that we consider not all that important or of consequence.
It’s noteworthy that the overall theme of the Bible itself, one of the very core messages that we get from listening to the collective weight of all of these stories, is that the parenthetical, the marginal, those on the outskirts who never make it into the main big narratives that we might deem important, are the very people who are remembered and honored. The ones that God holds as absolutely central to God’s care and God’s attention.
The Psalm reading for this week is Psalm 146. It’s a Psalm about placing one’s trust in God rather than rulers or princes or mortals who are never quite as reliable as we would have hoped, and who are mortal just like everyone else, turning to dust. Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham writes that verses 8 and 9 of Psalm 146 are the presupposition of the entire Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourner; he upholds the orphan and the widow; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”
In other words, the presupposition of the entire Hebrew Bible, which is carried over into the New Testament, is that God loves parentheses and lives considered parenthetical to the main narrative we like to tell ourselves about what’s sigificant and what matters. God’s eye is on the orphan, the widow, immigrant. The hymn says, God’s eye is on the sparrow, which, tends to be a small bird.
Elijah, by any way you measure it, is not a small bird in biblical lore. He’s one of the leading prophets of Israel who shows up at a pivotal point in the nation’s history and his legendary status has remained strong up to the present. Part of the reason for his unique status is that according to 2 Kings, rather than dying a natural death, Elijah is swept up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Because Elijah did not officially die, he is alive to those of us who still walk the earth in significant and often unpredictable ways. The prophet Malachi, prophesying hundreds of years after Elijah and included as the last book of our Old Testament, proclaims “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” Jewish belief still holds that before the Messiah comes, Elijah will be sent to prepare the way. In New Testament times there were already clear expectations that Elijah would come to do this. Multiple times Jesus is asked if he is Elijah, and it is the Christian understanding the John the Baptist was the one who came in the Spirit of Elijah to prepare the way for Jesus. There are numerous Jewish fables about the prophet Elijah coming to visit the Jewish people and give them instruction or perform a miracle or send a message. During contemporary practices of the Passover Seder there is a cup of wine dedicated to Elijah and toward the end of the Seder the door is opened as an invitation for Elijah to come.
It’s a wonderful mystical kind of tradition, that the prophet is still speaking – with some parallels to our understanding of Christ still speaking and appearing at unexpected times.
In the Bible, the books of 1 and 2 Kings where he appears, Elijah is a part of the prophetic tradition that was finding its voice in Israel. The original hope for the people of Israel was that they would be a people set apart, not like the other nations. Rather than having a king, they would give their allegiance to their God who had delivered them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, brought them through the wilderness, and given them the Torah, the teaching of the covenant. But Israel wanted a king to lead them into battle so God grants that they can have a king. And with the rise of the kingship in Israel, also comes the rise of the prophet, those individuals who would keep the king accountable to his job description – executing justice through fairness, protecting the most vulnerable – the widow, the orphan, the stranger. The king and the prophet were sort of the people of Israel’s version of checks and balances in government. The kings rarely lived up to their role and the prophets, if they were faithful prophets speaking for God, would always let him have it.
When Elijah does appear in the Bible, in the time of King Ahab, it is rather out of the blue. With no warning or background or prelude given, we are told, “Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except at my word.’” Elijah’s sudden and fairly unorthodox burst onto the scene reminds me a little bit of Seinfeld episodes when Kramer famously bursts through the door and announces his often uninvited presence.
Elijah is a star in the biblical memory, but the focus on him rather than the person of the king Ahab is already a shift toward the margins. The word of the Lord is rarely found coming out of the king’s palace. Instead, it’s out of the mouth of this prophet from nowhere who spends his days living by a river bed getting fed by birds.
And then, the river bed dries up and the birds stop coming. So, as the prescribed text of the day says, “Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, ‘Go now to Zaraphath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’” Lest we be taken in by this struggle between the titans – the mighty king Ahab and the powerful prophet Elijah, the narrative shifts to the hinterlands, outsidethe border of Israel, beyond Ahab’s jurisdiction and beyond Elijah’s typical prophetic stomping grounds. In order to be sustained, he will depend on the hospitality of a foreign widow and her son.
In a patriarchal society, widows were especially vulnerable. Without a husband to economically care for them, they depended on other males in their extended family to ensure their security. This widow is apparently without any kind of social safety net at all. The draught has reached into her land and she is collecting a few sticks to make a fire to make a meal for her and her son in what she believes will be a last supper for them. It’s a devastating kind of scene, almost hopeless. I can’t imagine a more desperate feeling than not being able to provide food for your own child.
When Elijah meets her, it’s a surprising exchange. Being the famous man of God that he is, one might expect her to ask him for some food to keep her and her son alive another day. But instead Elijah asks her for a handout, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” Not happy with just water, while she going to get it, he says, and “bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” What’s going on here? Maybe this was the common expectation of hospitality to strangers in the ancient near east, but Elijah seems to be a little out of line expecting this widow to take care of his needs. On the other hand, unlike the way we do most charity work these days, Elijah doesn’t burst onto the scene like a messiah and give her everything he thinks she needs. He’s the one asking to be saved. He invites her to share whatever resources that she may have, even if it’s just a morsel.
She tells him about the last supper part, that she expects to die soon and her son with her, but does share part of her little cake that she has made. That’s when they all start to experience the miracle of the little bit of meal never running out and the little bit of oil never drying up. They always have just enough to sustain them through the drought. God provides for this mighty prophet and this unnamed widow and her unnamed son.
This is a story that we read and shared at Jan Abel’s memorial service last October. Jan wasn’t a widow but she did experience a lot of the losses of this widow and she was the kind of person who gave what she had, even when it was very little, and she always had just enough. One of my favorite stories with her was when Judy Vander Henst was visiting her in the hospital after Jan had been diagnosed with cancer. They talked and prayed and Judy was about to go when Jan called the nurse into the room and asked her to bring her some shampoo. The nurse brought the shampoo, left the room, and then Jan gave Judy the shampoo as a thank you gift for having been with her. So Jan would find something to give, even if she didn’t have anything to give. She assured Judy that this wasn’t stealing. It’s OK she said, you just take it, it’s for you. I had similar types of experiences being with Jan and visiting her and Stan when they were living in the tent on the tracks just a couple blocks from here. I understand Jan’s generosity and her difficult life as being parenthetical to the forward march of civilization, but absolutely central to the loving heart of God, the story that God is writing for the world which is based on such things as gratitude and generosity.
The parenthetical widow and Elijah story, the optional one, happens on the heels of this other one. The boy’s life has been saved, but, tragically, he becomes ill and, as the text says, “his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.” Here’s a chance where we could exult the prophet for his role. Elijah takes the boy, cries out in prayer, “stretched himself upon the child three times,” which sounds like some ancient form of CPR, and the boy is revived. God, through Elijah has saved the boys life twice, first from famine and now from illness. Heidi Neumark, who pastored a church in a poverty stricken neighborhood in the Bronx, makes an interesting comment here. She says: “We could say that Elijah, the male prophet, does this and therefore deserves the spotlight in the lectionary text. After all, he raises someone from the dead. But the widow raises a child–without a husband, without a safety net, without welfare or workfare. She does it in a time of idolatrous national arrogance, famine and drought. Raising the dead requires a single act of trust and prayer from Elijah. Raising a child requires countless acts of trust and many prayers, especially for a single mother.”
So again, we are being taught to see God at the periphery, in the parentheses, the part not always clearly visible, but always the story behind the story. Rather than allowing a single miracle to capture our awe, we are in awe of the way we are witnesses to God’s abiding presence to sustain people’s spirits in their striving and struggle to stay alive, and keep others whom they love alive.
I guess it’s a little ironic that we have a story about the miraculous continual flow of oil during a week when the real miracle we were all hoping for was that the continual flow of oil be stopped. If Elijah were to make one of his famous unexpected appearances right now we’d ask him to do a reversal of the miracle for the widow and her son, do some deep sea diving and put a stop to the gush of oil making its way into the gulf. It would have a similar effect of protecting those most vulnerable, including the wildlife of the area, and adding to the flourishing of life.
But we know that even if an Elijah were able to stop the flow of oil at this point, it would not be our complete salvation. The Messiah would not have come. We would still have a lot of work to do, a lot of clean up, a lot of time to nurse the gulf back to health, a lot of soul searching to do for how to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future and maybe, just maybe, asking ourselves once again how dependent we really want to be on fossil fuels. In many ways it is still a story of thousands and millions of unnamed lives, struggling to survive, doing what they can to care for the people and land that they love.
I’m grateful for those whose powerful minds and powerful positions help them do great things. I’m also grateful that in the eyes of God, there is no such thing as a parenthetical life. Someone who is optional to the wellbeing of the world. Someone whose struggle to keep alive and nurture the ones they love will be forgotten. God’s eye is on the sparrow, the fish in the gulf, the Jan Abels of the world, and those of us who ever wonder if we have anything of value to contribute to the grand human narrative, which is, really, all of us. Thanks be to God.