The Lord Upholds the Orphan and the Widow
The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
Canada’s social safety net, while not perfect, does aid many people at vulnerable times in life. Our health care is accessible to every citizen. Our laws regarding inheritance give high regard to the wellbeing of surviving spouse. So, when we read Bible stories about widows we may not readily understand their plight. In these patriarchal societies a woman’s security and wellbeing was determined by relationship to a male—a father, husband, or son. Hence, a widow was in a precarious place; a widow with no son was in danger of destitution. So much so that the widow’s precarious place became a euphemism along with the circumstance of orphans to indicate the vulnerable who often lived on the cruel edges of society.
1. We bristle at patriarchal systems of marginalization. The Apostle Paul refers to forces for evil as “principalities and powers.” We can see the influence of these destructive powers in the way systems marginalize and render people vulnerable. In this instance of these Biblical widows the system of patriarchal power left widows and orphans in a precarious and destitute place. God’s intervention for these two widows—of Zarephath and Nain—shows us God’s opposition to such marginalization.
The scriptures reveal that God “upholds the orphan and the widow;” God sees the vulnerable and marginalized and acts to support them. The Psalmist also declares, “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” (Psalm 68:5) In God’s indictment of his people through the prophet Isaiah he calls them to “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) The measure of societal good, according to this text, is seen in its care of the vulnerable.
In this same Psalm that reveals God as the upholder of widows the Lord also is the one who “sets the prisoners free.” Recall our Lord’s manifesto from Isaiah that he announced in his home town synagogue; the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to (among other things) proclaim release to captives and to let the oppressed go free. (Luke 4:18-19) The same Lord who opposes the marginalization of the widow also opposes the oppression of people.
In March of 2015 the British Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act. In February of 2016, the U. S. Congress closed a loophole that allowed Americans to import slave-made goods. For those who live in Commonwealth countries like Canada slavery seems a thing of the past. Sadly, this is not the case; slavery today operates in secret, often in isolation. Kevin Bales is a professor of contemporary slavery at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull in England. In his book, Blood and Earth, he describes how people fall into slavery. Some looking for a job discover they are prisoners and can’t get away; some sign bonds that never run out; some are pressed into slavery having blundered into territory controlled by a slave owner’s guards.
Consider the Democratic Republic of Congo, a failed state ungovernable after years of tribal war. It also contains rich minerals. That’s the perfect recipe for slavery. Bales reports on a mountain in the Walikale area of DRC. From above, it seems to be rapidly disappearing as antlike figures swarm over it and tunnel into it. Open pits dot the landscape, filling with rainwater. Closer observation shows that the men and women working in the tunnels are badly dressed, often without shoes, scratching minerals out of the ground with hand tools. They are digging coltan, a mineral essential in many electronic products, such as cellphones. They look sick, which is explained by the wretched diet they are given, their lack of medical care and the demand that they work whether well or ill. Everywhere they go, armed guards watch, to make sure they don’t stop working or try to escape. The guards treat the women as a collective harem, available on demand.
When we become aware of such things we may view our cell phone differently. The powers that gave rise to the systemic marginalization of widows in Biblical times is alive and well enslaving people around the world; systems the benefit some at the expense of others. We need to oppose such things where we can. God has shown us his heart that all such things that destroy or diminish human life he opposes. Our Lord through Isaiah has called us to join him; “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Scripture encompasses a worldview in which the truly significant battle is the ongoing one between the Lord God and the Enemy, who deploys the principalities and powers. (Ephesians 2:2) The defeat of this enemy occurred at the cross when they did their worst to God’s Son and God raised Jesus victorious from the grave. The mop up operation is underway. In the culmination of all things this Enemy will be finally unmasked and destroyed never to molest again. In the meantime, we join God in the mopping up, resisting these powers.
2. So let us move from the global to the particular of these two Biblical widows. Globally we see these two stories as instances of God who upholds widows. Particularly now we look a little more closely at these stories. First, the story of the widow of Zarephath. Her story is part of the narratives regarding Elijah; Elijah is the founder of the school of prophets in Israel (think preachers).
The story begins with Israel’s King Ahab (northern 10 tribes). Ahab, we are told “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.” (1 Kings 16:30) He married Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians and introduced Baal worship to Israel erecting an altar and house for Baal at Samaria.
We first meet Elijah confronting this King Ahab. “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” Of course Ahab blames Elijah for drought and Elijah goes into hiding. It is important to note that the god Baal was thought to be responsible for giving rain to water crops. This story is dripping with irony (pun intended). Ahab worships the god Baal to ensure rain and finds out who it really is who causes the rain to fall.
Eventually God tells Elijah to go hide in Zarephath, which is in Sidon. Elijah is hiding in Baal territory cared for by a Sidonian widow. God’s care for widows is not limited to Israel’s boundaries. Long before Elijah shows up God knows all about her and is purposed to uphold her. When you meet the hurting and marginalized of our world know that God knows their need and his purposes are to uphold, release, and care. There is a tendency from within Christian faith to read scripture as though it were God’s people (Israel and/or Christians) who are under God’s care. Here we note the breadth of God’s mercy.
In the particularity of faith in Jesus Christ it is not said the God has neglected or forsaken people who are non-Christians. Nevertheless it is in Jesus Christ that we learn that God neither neglects nor forsakes anyone. At his hometown synagogue Jesus referenced this story as an instance of how a prophet is not received in his own hometown pointing out that there were many widows in Israel at this time but that Elijah was sent to a widow in Zarephath of Sidon. This widow believed Elijah sufficiently to make the food for him first and then found out that the meal and oil did not run out during the famine that resulted from the drought.
This story teaches me that God goes before us and many are waiting for us to bear witness to our Lord’s love for them.
I note also that when Elijah first meets her she speaks of the God of Israel as “the Lord your God.” God is Elijah’s God, not hers just yet. In the course of your bearing witness to Jesus Christ people will get to know that you are a believer. They will borrow on your faith because they know you believe. So she trusts Elijah’s word about his God and the meal and oil do not run out.
Then things go sideways. Her son became ill such that there was no breath left in him. She loves her son and as well, in her son her future is at stake. She somehow thinks that this happened because Elijah is in the house; God as seen her sin because the holy man is here and she is being punished. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet we too think all kinds of things like this when things go sideways; projecting on to God images driven by our pathologies. Notice God’s great care for her even though she couldn’t be more wrong about him. Elijah prays for the child and he revived; and then the text says, “and (Elijah) gave him back to his mother.”
The widow then says, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” Note the change in her thoughts about God. Form “your God” to speaking of someone she now knows, “I know that you are a man of God.”
3. Secondly, now, to the particulars of the story of widow of Nain. When Luke includes this story of Jesus giving this widow her son back he deliberately connects it to the story of the widow of Zarephath. The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was used in Jesus’ day. Luke quotes verbatim from the Septuagint story of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:23) when he describes Jesus action “and Jesus gave him to his mother.” Luke wants his hearers to know, among other things, that Jesus is a prophet from God in the traditions of Elijah. God spoke through the prophet Malachi “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5)
Both these widows were given their sons back securing their future care. Note God’s great compassion for their life’s necessities, part of what it means that God upholds. I also note that both widows are treated individually in the particulars of their lives. “Widows and orphans” are never merely a classification of people for God; they are individuals in whose lives God is engaged to uphold. It is true that the Bible does not record their names but it is quite clear that their names are known to God.
Please take note what the scripture tells us about our Lord’s attitude towards our suffering. “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.” When I meet people who are devastated by destructive things that blindside and leave them helpless while my ability to aid is extremely limited we know the One is able and whose compassion you can count on. This is why it is always helpful to pray to the Lord of all compassion.
I want to be careful to note with you that all of our Lord’s miracles performed in his public ministry were not designed to make all things well instantly for every last person in the area. As has been noted by many, of all the people in Palestine who died that same day as the widow of Nain’s son, only the one son was raised. And he died again one day, too. For every blind and deaf and lame person whom Jesus healed in the course of his ministry, there were probably many in the vicinity who received no such healing.
These miracles are foretastes of kingdom fullness, not the fullness itself. The miracles (or signs as John called them) were arrows pointing a certain direction, they were not the destination that was being indicated. As C.S. Lewis once put it, only a fool confuses the highway sign for “Chicago” with the city itself. The holy city promised by God in John’s vision will come when he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Instances of healing today point to that great tomorrow that God will bring us to in the fulfillment of all things.
About those unalleviated things. We may not receive the miracle of the widow of Nain in this life but we do know our Lord’s compassion and that he has gifts for us to sustain us. We are invited to pray for them and look for them. In going to the cross to set all things right for us we see that our Lord pours himself out without remainder for our sakes—will God not with him also give us everything else? (In baptism we bring our children purposing that they may know him, nothing greater can be given our children)
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow, Amen.