The story of the widow of Zarephath will be read in some congregations this Sunday. To refresh your memory, it’s from 1 Kings in the Hebrew scriptures. During political turmoil and a severe drought, God sent the prophet Elijah to sojourn with a widow and her young son in the foreign town of Zarephath. A single man living with a woman not his wife would not only be unthinkable, it could lead to death. Even worse, living with a foreign woman in a foreign land. But that’s what he did. In the story, the widow had no food except for a little oil and some flour. She intended to make bread for her son and herself, then lie down to die. Elijah convinced her to make the bread for him instead, promising that the jars of oil and meal would not be used up as long as he stayed with her. And so it was.
Like several Elijah and Elisha stories, it reads more like a fairy tale than scripture, and it can entice naive believers into magical thinking. Magical thinking among religious believers is the expectation that the right prayer, said in the right way, with enough faith, will result in the outcome one desires. Magical thinking is also what many non religious people believe is what religion is all about. For them, Christianity is simply another backward made up folk religion not much different from that of ancient Greeks or remote Amazonian tribes. If magical thinking has any reality, maybe the Wiccan have it right.
It may be impossible to know how the Elijah and Elisha stories were meant to be understood when first written. Within the context we now have they illustrate the in breaking of God’s power, manifested through God’s chosen persons, to demonstrate the foolishness of belief in other deities and their magical rites; as signs of God’s supremacy over the greatest of human authority; and as indicators of God’s presence with and for all persons, even non-believing enemy aliens.
Elijah and Elisha could not manipulate the world about them according to their own will, but could only serve, as they were called to do, as vehicles through which God’s will was enacted. It’s the very opposite of magic in which the “witch” entices the gods to do his or her will. It’s not an easy lesson to learn. Humans are forever trying to bend the spiritual powers of the universe to their will. The most common expression of it is the oft said prayer for an open parking spot to be where we want it to be. Believer and non believer alike are said to utter it without a second thought. Golfers and bowlers are enthusiastic practitioners. It’s a staple on both sides of football stadiums. I know a couple who effused over their new car. They’d asked God for one and he delivered when they won it in a raffle. It was proof to them that their faith was stronger than almost anyone else in church.
The lesson Elijah has to teach is just the opposite. Surrender yourself to God and let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps God will call you to some amazing feat, perhaps not. Perhaps you will be chased across the countryside by your enemies. Perhaps you will live in comfort with your loving family. In the midst of famine, hungry, near to death, you may be called to do the impossible, or you may die. It doesn’t matter which. If you’re going to follow where God is leading, follow and quit trying to lead. For what it’s worth, there was only one Elijah and one Elisha. Everyone else was just everyone else, like you and me. No one else was called by God to do what they did. They were called by God to be messengers, beacons of God’s presence. We’re not called to be like Elijah. We’re called to pay attention to the message and follow on the path the beacon has lighted.