This Sunday’s readings pop up like water in a dry stretch: both the Old Testament and the Gospel reading are about widows and sons. In both readings, when the mothers are in deep despair over death and approaching death, the sons are granted new life and health.
Here’s the first story:
The widow of Zarephath. An outsider, a woman, and a widow, she’s a person without power times three. And knowing Jesus, that’s probably why she went straight to his heart—and stayed there. She’s the first person he cites after his forty days in the wilderness (Luke 4). She provided a powerful foreshadowing of Jesus’ own ministry after all, she poured out all she had to feed another, just like Jesus himself would pour his body and blood out on the cross.
Because of God’s anger toward Jezebel and others who have been worshipping Baal, the countryside has been suffering a famine for almost three years. A few can afford to buy precious grains for bread; some have died, others are so close to death that they almost don’t feel the flies scurrying on their faces. One of those is the widow of Zarephath. Month after month, day after day, she has put away whatever grains she could find, whatever drops of oil she could save. Now, with her son near death, she expects to bury him—then waste away herself, ignored by all but birds of prey.
It hurts to walk. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to walk away from her boy, knowing that he may not be breathing when she returns. Nonetheless, she must find firewood to prepare their last meal together, so forages outside the city gate, searching for a few sticks.
Mirage-like, a man appears in her path. She recognizes him as man of God because of the mantle that is wrapped around his shoulders. He, too, is emaciated, but God has cared for him, commanding ravens to share their food with him twice a day. Rotting flesh is better than no food at all. At least it has kept him alive.
If the woman had come earlier or later to the town’s gates, she would not have seen the prophet. If she had searched for wood in another part of town, she would not have seen him. Intuition? Coincidence? More likely a “God-moment,” (See 1 Kings 17:8-9) even though she is not an Israelite.
Elijah is there because his own water supply has dried up, and because God has directed him to the heart of this Baal-worshipping country, where God has told him that a widow will provide food.
“Give me some water,” he says. As she leaves to get it, he tells her to bring some bread back as well.
“I have no food, sir! What bits I have left I will give to my son so that he may live another day!”
“Do not be afraid,” he answers. “Cook a biscuit for me first and then you will both eat—for God says your grains and oil will not fail you.”
Somehow, she summons the courage to do as Elijah asks—and remarkably her containers stay full, brimming over with grains and oil.
But the crisis has not ended—for instead of recovering, her son deteriorates to the point of no return.
She snaps. “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to cause the death of my son!”
Elijah gathers the boy into his arms, takes him upstairs (where the woman has provided lodging), pleads with God, then stretches his body on top of the boy’s, begging God to fill his lungs with air.
And God does. The woman is overjoyed.
The Gospel story
The Gospel story is much like the first, only that the woman’s son has died. Luke describes Jesus and the disciples approaching the town of Nain, where he encounters a death scene: a young man has died, his body is being carried out of the town, and his mother is overcome with grief. What strikes me about this scene is that Jesus steps in, unbidden. He feels compassion for the widow, knows he can bring the son back to life, and does.
Clearly, miracles abound in these stories. And Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, adds to that sense when speaks of his vocation being a miracle as well. He tells of how he persecuted Christians, leading them to their deaths. But then he is found by God, found by the One who “set him apart before I was born, and called me through his grace, revealed his Son to me.”
Miracles and grace
Miracles. Grace. The unexpected presence of God, times three: the healing of the widow of Zarephath’s son; the bringing-back-to-life the widow of Nain’s son; and God’s saving Paul’s soul, turning him toward work in the kingdom instead of bringing death upon new Christians.
God can’t be contained. We don’t know when miracles will occur, or if they will take place when we hurt the most. And that’s part of the nature of miracles: they are of God, and not us. But what we can know is this: We too have been set apart since before we were born, called into relationship with God. And that itself is the daily miracle that we most often forget.