As a child, I went to Sunday School faithfully at 9:45 every Sunday morning from the time I was 3 years old. I don’t remember much from the first few years. The earliest memory I have of Sunday School was sitting around a small table with all the other kids while the teacher told us a story. Then she sometimes gave us a picture to color or another craft to do, like folding construction paper into a basket or something else. At the end of the hour, the teacher gave us a “Sunday School Paper” to take home with us – basically an 8-1/2 by 11 sheet of paper folded in half like a booklet. The front page was covered with a full-color picture that illustrated the Bible story of the day. The rest of the “Paper” was the story itself. I loved getting my “Sunday School Paper” to take home with me. My mom read the story to me again before bed that evening.
I thought about my childhood Sunday School memories one day last week because I read a Bible story designated in the “Christ in Our Home” devotional booklet published by Augsburg Fortress (following the revised common lectionary). It was the story of Elisha and the poor widow from 2 Kings 4:1-7. I don’t remember reading or thinking about that story since I heard it in Sunday School back in the 1950s. I remember clearly the picture on the front of that week’s “Sunday School Paper.” (See below for a similar picture.) Here’s the story in The Message paraphrase.
One day the wife of a man from the guild of prophets called out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead. You well know what a good man he was, devoted to God. And now the man to whom he was in debt is on his way to collect by taking my two children as slaves.”
Elisha said, “I wonder how I can be of help. Tell me, what do you have in your house?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Well, I do have a little oil.”
“Here’s what you do,” said Elisha. “Go up and down the street and borrow jugs and bowls from all your neighbors. And not just a few – all you can get. Then come home and lock the door behind you, you and your sons. Pour oil into each container; when each is full, set it aside.”
She did what he said. She locked the door behind her and her sons; as they brought the containers to her, she filled them. When all the jugs and bowls were full, she said to one of her sons, “Another jug, please.”
He said, “That’s it. There are no more jugs.”
Then the oil stopped.
She went and told the story to the man of God. He said, “Go sell the oil and make good on your debts. Live, both you and your sons, on what’s left.” [2 Kings 4:1-7 MSG]
Once I got beyond the Sunday School memories, I started thinking about this story from the perspective of how God solves our problems for us.
Typically, my first approach to solving a problem is to try to look at the situation rationally. What are some possible solutions? Which solution is best, given the circumstances? And then, how can I go about implementing the solution? If I were in the situation of this poor widow, I’d try to reason with the lender, appeal to his mercy, and try to barter some services that my sons or I could provide over time. This assumes, of course, that I would have the power to negotiate – a rather unrealistic assumption for a woman in Bible times (actually in our times, as well, if the villain in the story is an institution like a bank or the IRS). Relying on my own approach, I’d probably lose my sons.
Mim confesses that when she is in a terrible situation where she doesn’t see any solution, she finds herself wishing the antagonist dead. She would never do anything to make that happen, but she just wishes that they would somehow die accidentally or of natural causes. She realizes it’s just wishful thinking, and if she were in this poor widow’s situation, her approach would have the same result as mine – she’d lose her sons.
This widow had a much better approach, which is probably why the story found its way into the Bible. She went to Elisha, a man of God, for help. Elisha and God had a simple solution for her – get her sons to round up lots of empty jugs, and fill up all the jugs from her little flask of olive oil, and then sell all the oil to pay off the lender. God would keep the oil flowing until all the jugs were full.
This solution focused on God and God’s people helping the widow meet her needs. My solution and Mim’s solution focused on addressing the demands of the lender, a subtle difference.
As I think about this story from the perspective of the widow, the message is clear – TRUST GOD. Obviously, God loves the widow and will take care of her. She just needs to ask for help.
When I think about the story from the perspective of Elisha, one of God’s people, the message is just as clear, we need to HELP THE PEOPLE WHO NEED HELP, whether it’s making donations to a food pantry or helping out in a homeless shelter. God’s people need to be available to those in need, just as Elisha was.
The picture on my “Sunday School Paper” told a very important story. I’m glad I was reminded of the story last week.