Both the first reading and Gospel feature widows – one of the most vulnerable groups in Israel and the ancient world. When there is no social safety net, widows relied on other family members and the wider community to provide the sustenance that they could not earn themselves. Their lot was even worse when times were bad – such as during the ninth century BC famine that is the setting of I Kings 17 and the general destitution of life under the Roman Empire in the early first century AD.
At the end of I Kings 16, we are told that Ahab, the son of the evil king Omri comes to the throne of Israel in Samaria, and he also does what is evil in the eyes of the Eternal One. Not only that he is in fact the most wicked King of all the wicked kings who went before him. To make matters worse, he marries the even more wicked Jezebel, daughter of the Phoenician king Ethbaal. One of the first acts that Ahab does is to make a shrine to the god Ba’al Hadad in Samaria. Soon afterwards a drought occurs resulting in widespread famine which spreads beyond the borders of Israel to include parts of Phoenicia. Chapter 17 opens with Elijah escaping to the Wadi Cherith east of the Jordan River, where he finds refuge and is able to sustain himself with water from a spring and food provided by ravens – bread and meat both in the morning and the evening. It is interesting that the Lord chooses to use an unclean bird to sustain Elijah: crows and ravens are listed among the many unclean animals in the Torah in Deuteronomy 14:14 and Leviticus 11:15. When the water runs dry he falls into a depression (a common state for our hero Elijah). Verse 8 opens with the word of the Lord being addressed to the prophet: “Arise, go to Zarephath in Sidon and stay there. Look, I have commanded a woman there, a widow, to sustain you.” So, in response to this word from the Lord, Elijah travels into the foreign territory of the Ba’al worshipping Sidonians, where he encounters an unnamed widow gathering sticks near the gate of the town, to prepare a final meal with the last of her meagre food supplies before her inevitable death from starvation.
Elijah bizarrely asks this woman for two things – rather than offering her assistance. First, in a request that we hear as an echo of the one that Jesus makes to another foreigner, the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4), Elijah asks for a drink of water. Then, in an act of black Jewish comedy, he asks her to bake him a small cake after she announces that she only has enough food for her son and herself to ward off starvation for a few more hours. The fact that the woman responds in generosity shows something of her true character. Although she has nothing to give, she is prepared to make this incredible sacrifice, trusting somehow in the graciousness of a God that perhaps she has only just met through the words of this strange prophet of the God of Israel.
Likewise, when the praiseworthy widow in our Gospel is reduced to two lepta – the smallest of the coins in circulation in that day – she chooses to offer them to the Lord as an act of worship. Although her small offering cannot compare to the large and noisy contributions that the rich men are making, the Lord observes that they are giving from their excess and abundance, but she is giving all that she has to live on even though it is so insignificant, meagre and pathetic.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am; 7.30am
Sunday 32, Year B
I Kings 17:10-16; Mark 12:38-44