How does the prophet respond? What does a man of God do in this situation?
Does he condemn the woman for being in debt? Does he write her a check? Does he invite her to the sanctuary for prayer?
"How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?" he asks.
Hmmm. Not the response I'd expect. Funny timing on this passage from 1 Kings 4:1-7 because in the past two weeks since arriving in Memphis I've had several men come up to me to ask for help and for money. I've been caught off guard after living the past four years within the world of campus ministry. But I suppose I had this happen in that context, too. Maybe it was, "I just failed my exam. My mom is not listening to me. I feel so alone. Help!" But, here in Memphis, I've had people approach me with tangible needs and I am sad to say I've felt full, no room for compassion. My knee jerk response is not compassion and mercy, but rather, "not now."
So at work today when we opened this story from the pages of God's Word, I recognized the helpful timing of this story.
Elisha genuinely wants to know how he can help, but he doesn't help in the way we'd expect. He first wants to know what the woman already has. It's a response which affirms her dignity as a woman made in the image of God. She is not a sorry charity case. She is a woman with faith, with poverty of spirit, with something already in her hands which God can use.
"A small jar of olive oil."
Okay, God can work with this, Elisha thinks. He commissions the widow to turn around and go to all of her neighbors and ask for help: "Please, do you have any extra empty jars I could have?"
Wow, that's vulnerable. Go to my neighbors? Ask for help? Well, God's man told me to do it, and by golly, I've got nothing to lose!
There's part of my problem. I have so much to lose, or so I think. I don't want to look undignified. I don't want to lose my time. I don't want to get used. Lord, help me. It's so much easier to feign ignorance, incapacity or to just fork over some change.
So, the woman obeys. She collects jars. Her dearth of olive oil transforms to an abundance.
Of course, Elisha is not the hero and neither is the widow. It's the God of Elisha and the God of the widow. The God who always has enough to go around, especially for a widow of faith who doesn't want to fall under the tyranny of injustice which threatens her sons freedom, her own well-being and the last shred of her dignity.
But, we can learn from Elisha and from the widow. Stay calm, focused, remembering that we worship a God who wants to act on behalf of widows. Don't be too quick to offer a casual handout of charity. Remember that God can involve the recipient of our "help" to use what they already have. He'll take it and multiply it.