Saturday, November 11, 2006

The widows' gifts (1 Ki 17.8-16, Mk 12.38-44)

Nothing focuses your mind quite so much on the value of something as when you’re running out of it.

Like water.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember ever thinking much about water at all, until we started to hear the doomsday predictions that the country was running dry.  We always used to think of water as being, just about free, like air.  A different story if you lived out in the bush, but for us city folk it’s a new thing to switch on the TV and see advertisements, like I did the other day, for water tanks.  They come in all different shapes and sizes, the traditional corrugated steel jobs, plastic ones designed to look like a section of your garden fence, even one called an Aussie Bladda like a great big water-bed that you squish under your front porch.  In a drought, water is the most precious thing there is, and we’re all of a sudden waking up to the fact that we really do have to change our thinking, find new ways of collecting it, new ways of making sure we don’t waste it.  New houses routinely come with water tanks, even in the city. I guess the water tank has become the new icon of guilt-free gardening.  Even splashing around the bore water like it’s never going to run out raises a few eyebrows, nobody wants to even talk about the Toowoomba option, your very own tank full of rain water collected off your own roof is your licence to have as green a lawn as you want.  An Aussie Bladda full of water means that no matter how blue the sky is tomorrow, your garden gets to drink.  Water represents life, it represents hope in the future, and even for a country like Australia that relies less and less on farm production, the prospect of their not being enough water to go around strikes at our sense of security.

Elijah the Tishbite, God’s argumentative prophet, was living in the middle of a drought.  In fact, Elijah had caused the drought, a few verses before where we started reading this morning, calling it down on the head of King Ahab to show him who was boss.  And God had set Elijah up to sit the drought out at the Wadi Cherith, a billabong east of the Jordan, where ravens would bring him food every morning and evening.  Which was a good plan, except that because of Elijah’s drought, the billabong dried up.  And so God sent him on to the widow of Zarephath.

Now the widow had water – we don’t know how much, but she didn’t have much else - a jar with a handful of flour left in it and a jug with a little oil.  The jug and the jar are like the Aussie Bladda full of water that you keep under your verandah, they mean that tomorrow you’re going to eat.  I guess in country like that drought was a fact of life, and because they didn’t have pipelines or desalination plants, drought means there aren’t any crops that year.  So the widow’s source of food, gathering up the grains that fall to the ground when the workers are bringing in the local farmers’ crops, has also dried up. There is no leftover food, I guess over the days and weeks she’s been watching the level go down in the jar, and she’s now gathering sticks to make the fire to bake a last loaf of bread with the little bit she’s got left. Widows are literally at the end of the food chain – with no social security, if she isn’t blessed with an extended family that want to take her in, she is the first one to drop off the perch when times get tough.

So God says to Elijah, ‘off you go to Zarephath.  The widow’ll feed you’.  Can you figure that?  Better off than the widow would be the day labourer, who at least can look around for a bit more work.  Skilled craftsmen are a bit more drought resistant again, because they’ve got something other people need.  The tenant farmers will struggle through, because they probably have a few pottery jars full of wheat in the back shed, they can slaughter the animals they keep as an insurance policy, maybe even got a few of last seasons figs and dates lying around.  The scribes and the priests, well, priests generally do pretty well for themselves.  So God sends Elijah to the widow.

Why would God do that?  To somebody who’s just watched the last of her jarful of hope run out, who’s just watched her future, and her son’s future, run out – why would God send along a useless prophet to take away her last scrap?  And here I think is where we need to remind ourselves what the almost empty jar of flour stands for.  If God is prepared to ask this widow to hand over her almost-empty jarful of hope, the last trickle out of her water-tank – what’s God got planned for my jarful of dreams? 

I think we all have one of these – I hesitate to stretch the metaphor any further in case I end up telling you that you’ve all got an Aussie Bladda full – but you know what I’m getting at.  I read somewhere that the children in the World War 2 Nazi death camps used to sleep at night if only they could go to bed holding a scrap of bread, because that meant that tomorrow they would have food.  It’s like we’ve all got a reserve tank full of reassurance.  ‘At least I’ve got a hundred dollars in the bank.  At least I’ve got my health.  I think my job’s secure.  Anyway, the kids’ll look after me.  The rivers have slowed to a trickle, Mundaring Weir hasn’t gone over the top for about a hundred years, the farm’s turned into a dust-bowl, but I’ve still got my Aussie Bladda.’

Except, what happens when you haven’t?  Because, that sometimes happens.  Your Aussie Bladda’s sprung a leak and run empty.  Your doctor tells you, actually, you don’t have your health any more.  You look and you haven’t got a hundred dollars in the bank.  The kids don’t want to know.  Stuff like that happens.  And sometimes, like the widow, we haven’t got any better plan than to just light a fire and scrape up the last few crumbs and after that, who knows? 

And then Elijah says something breathtaking in its presumptuousness, ‘oh, never mind.  Don’t be afraid.  Just make me a cake first.  You’ll be right.’  Is that going to inspire you with confidence?  I don’t have to spell out the connection with the widow and her two copper coins, do I?  You’ve already worked it out?  ‘That’s it, that’s all you’ve got?  Chuck it in anyway!’

‘Dare you to act as though you really believe that the real ground for hope in the future is not the little bit of flour in your jar, not the two copper coins that you’ve been guarding with your life, not your Aussie Bladda full of water under the deck or any of the reserve plans that are running through your heads right now.  I dare you (says God) to act as though your real hope is me.’

And both the widows do dare.  Really, the point isn’t whether the Temple was even worth the two copper coins – in fact, according Mark the Temple was already a doomed institution – the point isn’t whether Elijah was a worthy charity case or even whether you think All Saints can get on alright without your two cents worth.  The point is whether we are going to dare to trust more in God’s resources, which never fail, or in our own.

The stories are a little bit different – Elijah’s widow teaches us something about risky generosity.  You know, when I’ve got ten dollars in my pocket and somebody on the street asks me for change and I put my hand in my pocket and feel around to make sure I don’t get any of the two dollars coins, and I pull out 75c – that isn’t risky generosity.  That’s putting the stranger’s needs somewhere between the price of a postage stamp and the cup of coffee at Miss Maud’s that I might just fancy when I’ve finished my shopping.

Jesus’ widow – as a religious professional who wears long robes and likes to sit in the best seat in the church I do need to be careful what I say about her – I don’t, for example, think the point is that you should put the last of your pension money in the collection plate and in fact part of the point just might be that any religious system that relies on ripping off the poorest and the weakest members of the community maybe should be doomed – but we do need to recognise in her something of the character of Jesus himself.  Remember this story takes place, according to Mark’s sequence, a couple of days before the end of Jesus’ life.  No safety net.  No Aussie Bladda.  Taking a punt on the foolish notion that giving it all away in love is the only way to experience and to share the extravagant fullness of God. 

Two widows, one lesson on the wisdom of insecurity.