“My Help Cometh from the Lord” – The Story of the Woman with Jars of Oil

INTRODUCTION 

As we, humanity, move through one of the most provocative and disturbing times in recent history, the divine irony of God is evident for the entire globe.  Nature, through the genesis of trees, animals, air, water, and land is making an amazing comeback.  By a forced global sabbatical, God is replenishing the earth without any assistance from humanity at all.  The supply and demand economic principles that propel human activity have all been cancelled, as humanity sits in awe, watching God flex with holy power to show us once again:  The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. (Psalm 24:1).

Believers, even as we move through this pandemic, realize that we will have personal and collective testimonies about the goodness of God, when this global event is finally over.  In fact, many of us already have a testimony or two about how God is keeping us in the age of the Coronavirus.  Our present age stories of God’s provisions connects us to the biblical witness, where God transformed devastation into divine blessings, as the indisputable evidence of God’s sacred and magnificent power.  Even in our days of want, whatever the want is – emotional, physical, spiritual, or all of the above, the undeniable gift for many of us who believe in God’s power, will be an increase of our faith and hope.

Together, we will consider one of these miraculous stories, where a daughter of God is connected to the irrationality of God’s divine provision and compassion.  One of the primary questions of this text is:  “How does a miracle occur?”   This often preached story will answer our queries, if we locate ourselves properly within the story of this woman.  We will work away understanding more about the divine economy of God, the gift of faith, and how we are blessed to be called the daughters and sons of the Most High God.

And now, THE WORD from Our Sponsor…………………………………………………………………………………

2 Kings, Chapter 4: 1-7 (NRSV)

Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves.”  Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you?  Tell me, what do you have in the house?”  She answered, “Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil.  He said, “Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not just a few.  Then go in, and shut the door behind you and your children, and start pouring into all these vessels; when each is full, set it aside.”  So she left him and shut the door behind her and her children; they kept bringing vessels to her, and she kept pouring.  When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.”  But he said to her, “There are no more.”  Then the oil stopped flowing.  She came and told the man of God, and he said, “Go sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest.”

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

About the prophet Elisha:  Elisha is first mentioned in the book of 1 Kings, chapter 19.  Elijah, one of the most important prophets of Holy Scripture and Jewish religious tradition,  seeks Elisha out in a field and casts upon him a mantle, which is a symbol of the prophetic office.  Elisha becomes Elijah’s servant and successor.  Elisha, a great prophet in his own right, is the subject of narratives throughout the book of 2 Kings, where he performs many miracles.  Elisha and Elijah are also an important part of the ancient prophetic guild/order where “their sons” are also prophets and servants of God. (Oxford Guide to the Bible, pg. 183).  The widow’s husband in the text (2 Kings) was a member of their prophetic guild.

In the story of the woman who receives a provisional miracle from God, the first thing we discover about this story is the woman’s social status.  She is a widow.  Her husband has died (without explanation) and she and her sons are now destitute.  We can assume her two sons are young, as there is no ability for them to save themselves from the existing threat of being sold into slavery to pay the family’s debts.  Due to her husband’s relationship to Elisha, as a servant of the prophetic guild, this woman, who is unnamed in the text, goes to the prophet Elisha for assistance.  She is a desperate housewife – she has nothing in her home but “a flask of olive oil.”  This flask is NOT a vessel of oil.  Most likely, this very small amount of oil could not be used for anything outside of anointing the body.

While Elisha is the great prophet of second Kings, this narrative is clearly about the widow:  her desperation, her plight, her faith, her hope, her determination, her efforts, and her outcome.  The movement of the story revolves around this widow’s firestorm femininity:  “she cried out; she poured; she did; she filled; she sold.”  The extent of this widow’s miracle, in part, was determined by the actions of her faithful and hopeful efforts.  While Elisha was the man of God who instructed how to receive the miracle, it was this widow’s participatory actions, connecting with God’s sacred power, that produced the miraculous results.  Unlike many of the miracles of Scripture, where the actors are told to stand back and see the glory of God unfold (Moses, Joshua, Gideon, etc.) this woman receives a different instruction.  Her breakthrough comes from the empowerment of knowing she must activate her faith to produce the miraculous results.

Elisha, the prophet, prompts the miracle for the widow by asking a series of questions, instead of “doing” something for her and her sons.  He says to the widow, “What can I do for you?”  Interestingly “his doing” is instructive and not proactive.  He follows with the question:  “What do you have in the house?”  This query becomes the catalyst for the widow’s miracle.

God teaches her [and us] the release of divine movement is often contingent upon what we are willing to do with what we ALREADY HAVE!  Elisha doesn’t give the widow anything but advice.  Her miracle comes from using the resources that God has already provided.  Her miracle occurs in the midst of the ordinary.  The oil, although a miniscule amount, is the metaphor for the divine economy of God.  In God’s economy, unlike that of the world, it’s not the amount of what you possess; instead, it is WHAT YOU DO WITH WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE!  God’s miracles frequently make use of the resources we have right in front of us. 

 Elisha assists the widow in experiencing a divine teaching moment by reminding her of what she possessed instead of what she lacked.  We can imagine the widow’s anxiety melting away like butter, as she focuses on the idea of plenty, instead of the idea of want, even though the oil she has would not have lasted her but one day!

The second miracle of the text is less obvious, but just as powerful – IT IS THE MIRACLE OF COMMUNITY.  Much like the miracle of the fish and loaves in the New Testament, the widow’s plight is connected to the compassion and generosity of her neighbors and friends.  God does not miraculously filled the bottles without the participation of the community.  In fact, the miracle is activated when the sons go out of the house, into the community to “borrow” the vessels.  This is not an act of charity.  Instead it is an act of solidarity.  It is a social justice project.  The widow and her sons are not beggars.  The vessels are to be used and returned to the community, when the widow becomes whole and prosperous.  The widow and her sons work within the community to obtain the jars, fill the jars, pour the oil into the jars, and sell the increase.

The second miracle of the text teaches us how important it is for community to participate in the transformation of the widow and sons’ dire circumstances.  As Audre Lorde once observed:  “Without community, there is no liberation.”  The joyful willingness for this widow’s community to participate with her in the deliverance from her poverty, is as important as the miracle of provision.  In fact, without their participation, the miracle could not have happened.

Lastly, the text teaches us that there is no end to God’s generosity when we believe.  The amount of oil the widow receives from God is contingent upon her faith and hope in God.  Elisha’s advise is cautionary, as well as instructive:  “Borrow as many empty jars as you can from your friends and your neighbors.”  Oftentimes, our faith is not big enough to hold the blessings of God because we limit the outcome with a faith that is too small.  

This thought is clearly a critical lesson of the text.  Obviously, the widow instructed her sons to obtain as many vessels as possible.  Again, the willingness of the community to uplift the widow’s plight is important.  Her faith connects to the power of God whose provisions are limitless, and the willingness of the community to extend an open hand. These elements all work together for the good of the widow and her family.  “There are no more jars,” her sons tell their mother.  We know the great faith of this woman has released an outpouring of blessings from the Lord.  The widow pays off her debts and has enough resources to take care of the needs of her sons and herself into their future.

Again, our social location to the text teaches us something about faith:  “Now, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrew 11:3).  Our spiritual “faith eyes” are not those of natural vision.  Instead, God teaches us that oftentimes our miracle is in the middle of our ordinary existence.  When we look for help from God, we must look through a different lens – a spiritual lens, the prism of hope and faith, which informs us that all things are possible when we partner with an omnipotent, holy, loving, and compassionate God.

Questions for our discussion and consideration

What is ONE THING the Lord has done for you in this time of distress that reminds you of the widow and her plight?

How does this story connect with stories of our elders/ ancestors who also experienced miracles in the time of want?

How do faith and hope connect to produce a different [spiritual] lens for that of the believer?

  OUR SENDING PRAYER

Oh Lord, like the woman with the jars of oil, raise our vision beyond our daily routines and existence.  Let us no longer walk through the world with self-centered doubts and disregard for Your miracles.  Instead, increase our faith to see a world of endless possibilities and goodness, where miracles occur in the midst of the ordinary.

Help us, Oh God, to open up our hands and give the vessels of generosity and plenty to those in need whom you send to us.  Allow us, Oh God, to have an active and participatory faith, like that of the widow, which produces love, deliverance, transformation, and liberation for the kingdom of God.

In the Precious Name of Jesus, we pray.  Amen!

The enclosed materials are the property of Maxine E. Garrett and Tabitha’s Daughters Bible Empowerment Series.  They may be used with our permission, which may be revoked at any time.  All copies of the materials must include the following:  This material is Copyright [2015] Maxine E. Garrett and Tabitha’s Daughters and is distributed with our permission.

 

One thought

  1. Angie,

    This is so timely! My Ohio pastor, Dr. RA Vernon taught this exact same text last week.

    Will this be our next QC TD study? Do we have a date & time scheduled?

    Love & blessings! -Reina

    >

    Like

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