There Were Many Widows in Israel

Jesus healed many people during his earthly mission. In fact, his healing words and deeds never failed. He did not, however, heal all the sick or demon possessed in Galilee. He left towns while people were still looking for him. When the people of Nazareth demanded that Jesus do for them what hid for Capernaum he said, “I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed–only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:25-27) His reply made people angry. I suspect that not very many people today would like it, either.

The Old Testament reading for Sunday (1 Kings 17:8-24) tells the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. Israel was experiencing a severe drought and a resulting famine which, according to the author, was the result of King Ahab’s unfaithfulness. All of Israel was suffering greatly. It was at this time that God sent Elijah to the home of a poor widow and her son. Elijah presented himself to her as a prophet and asked for the woman’s hospitality. He asked her to feed him just at the time when she only has provisions for one more meal. “I’m on my way to eat my last meal,” she said, “and then I’ll just die.”

“Don’t worry,” Elijah told her, “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” The woman believed Elijah’s word and did as he said. Elijah stayed with her for several days, and his word proved true. The rations were meager, but they did not run out of food. Still, the woman’s son soon became ill and died. Elijah was greatly distressed, and he prayed passionately for the boy’s life to return. The Lord heard his prayer and the boy revived.

Drought and famine have caused untold billions of deaths throughout history. The death toll in North Korea’s famine from 1995 to 1998 alone is estimated at 3 million. The 1932-33 famine in the Soviet Ukraine killed twice as many.

Each life is precious. Are we then to believe that God sent his prophet to save one woman’s life, and that of her son, while thousands died around her? Or that by working his miracles in one town, Jesus bypassed others? Or that people expect God to hear their prayers for healing or deliverance or provision when others languish in disease, captivity and poverty? Jesus seems aware of this issue. “I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time.” But he does not offer an argument in rebuttal. Instead, he just goes about his work, healing many who without his gracious intervention would continue to suffer.

I am reminded of the story of the child throwing the starfish on the beach back into the ocean. A cynical adult chided the child, “Don’t you know that there are thousands of starfish that wash up on to the beach. What you are doing can’t possibly make a difference.”

The child simply picked up another starfish and threw it back into the sea. “It made a difference to that one,” the child replied.

Of course God is not a child on the beach. We use big words like “omnipotent” and “omnipresent” to describe him. Why can’t such a God do for all what we say he did for one? Is it fair to ask him to do for me what I know he won’t do for all?

I know that we live in a broken world with all sorts of horrible suffering. But I also know that Jesus’ ministry offered the world signs of the coming kingdom. Each miracle was a foretaste of the age to come.

I’ve used the analogy of Yellowstone to describe the presence of God’s kingdom now. On the surface, everything looks normal. The buffalo graze. The eagles fly overhead. Beneath the surface, however, a new world is just waiting to burst forth. Here and there, you see signs of the world to come. A steam vent sending a geyser into the air. A mud pot bubbling up. A mist hovering over a pool of water.

The coming kingdom bubbles up in our age in various ways. Mostly, the signs are ambiguous. Still, I pray for the one who opened the eyes of the blind to heal. For the one who calmed the storms to keep us safe. For the one who fed the multitude to provide for those in need. For the one who cast out demons to conquer evil. For the one who raised the dead to, well, raise the dead. I have literally stood by the bed of a dying young girl and prayed, “Talitha cum. Little girl, get up.” She didn’t. Still, I pray.

When I lead worship, I continue to say, “With the confidence of God’s children, let us pray for the church, the world and all those in need.” When people ask me to pray for them in their illness or distress, I continue pray expectantly for their deliverance. Are all healed? Are all fed? Are all injustices righted? Are all dangers averted? Not in the present age. But I will continue to pray for the same “bubbling up” of the age to come that we see in Jesus’ works of power.

And of course the cross of Christ reveals to us that God is also present to his people in the suffering and injustice of this age just as he is foretastes of the age to come. It is not a question of whom God loves more. But to say that God never miraculously delivers his people seems contrary to the experience of Christians throughout the ages and the witness of the New Testament.

I believe that foretastes of the kingdom comparable to the mighty acts of power we see in Jesus’ ministry still take place in the world. Standing on the outside, as an objective observer, I can’t say for certain where they are or where they aren’t, and I will never try to explain to you why something happened or didn’t happen. Since I am neither the messiah nor one of his apostles, I cannot know with certainty why this thing happened instead of that thing.

But when the sick who cry out to God are healed or the hungry fed or the imperiled delivered from danger, should they not thank God? The authors of the psalms praise God for specific acts of deliverance. The authors of the Torah claim that God delivered his people from Pharaoh and from starvation in the wilderness. Who am I to disagree? When I am the one who has been one praying for deliverance in any kind of battle or illness or hardship of any sort, you’d better bet that I am going to follow the example of the Psalms.  “The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.” (Psalm 126:3)

Now such a sentiment can be expressed very awkwardly and many people will comprehend it naively, especially immature believers. People will also create problematic theological constructs with reference to God’s sovereignty. But confidence in God’s saving power is not, in my estimation, the problem.

So, now we are back at the question, “Why?” Why me, and not him? Or why her, and not me? Why the widow of Zarephath and not her neighbor?

There is a profound mystery here which for me boils down to this. “Why hasn’t Christ yet come again to crush death and destroy injustice forever?” That’s what I am waiting for. That’s what I confess: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Why hasn’t he?  “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” When will it appear?

I don’t have an answer for that. I cannot explain God’s ways, but I can join in the church’s earliest recorded prayer. It’s a single Aramaic word found in 1 Corinthians 16:22: maranatha (which means, “our Lord, come”). And I can join the saints envisioned by the seer of Revelation 6:10 and cry out, “How long, O Lord?”

The members of the early church had faith in the one who fed the widow of Zarephath and healed her son, even while they cried out in faith for the day when all will be fed and all will be healed.  May we share in their faith, their endurance and their hope.


Oh, and one more thing. The widow of Zarephath was not an Israelite. She lived outside the boundaries of Israel and talks about “your God” with Elijah. God’s uses his kingdom power even on behalf of those who do not belong to his covenant people.