Sunday, April 10, 2016

Prophets And Kings, Day 63. Elisha And The Miracle Of The Oil

Prophets And Kings
Day 63
Elisha And The Miracle Of The Oil

Today the prophet Elisha does somethin for a widow thats similar to what the prophet Elijah dids.

2 KINGS 4:1-7
"The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, 'Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my boys as slaves.'" (2 Kings 4:1) There was a law given in Leviticus by which an Israelite could redeem debts by becoming a servant to his creditor. Following the death of this woman's husband, she became bankrupt without his income. Her sons must still be quite young, too young to be hired for work. The law stated that the servant must work for the creditor for a period of six years and on the seventh year the person was to go free. (Deuteronomy 15:12) The law also stated that the Israelite who sold himself to repay his debts could not be treated like a foreign slave (without citizenship rights) but must be treated like a hired servant (a full citizen with all the rights that accompany citizenship). (Leviticus 25:39-40) So what this woman is facing is the loss of her sons for a period of six years, during which time they will work as servants and she will be left alone to scrape by somehow or end up on the streets.  

The prophet Elijah also helped a poor widow woman but there are some differences between that story and this one. The widow Elijah helped was of the region of Sidon, a pagan nation that practiced Baal worship. Her dead husband was not of the godly prophets of Israel. She had only one son and the two of them were about to starve to death. Unlike the woman today, she didn't appear to be in bankruptcy with creditors knocking on the door and her son was in no danger of being taken for debts. Either her husband died with his debts paid off or else they were so poor and without collateral that they had never borrowed any money.

Elisha is quick to help his fellow Israelite woman, quick to honor the work her late husband did for the Lord. "Elisha replied to her, 'How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?'" (2 Kings 4:2a) We see something interesting here in that the Lord is going to take something the widow already has and multiply it. Of course the Lord is powerful enough to make something out of nothing: He created the universe that way. He also raised the dead, calling back life that had already departed. The Apostle Paul called Him, "The God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not." (Romans 4:17b) But I think God asks for the one little thing this widow has that represents money in order to strengthen her faith. Sometimes the best method of strengthening our faith is to allow us to participate in the work of God. She is going to be asked to hand something over and see what God can do with it. This calls for a leap of faith but it will teach her that anything she places in the hands of God is safe.

"'Your servant has nothing here at all,' she said, 'except a small jar of olive oil.'" (2 Kings 4:2b) The widow that the prophet Elijah helped had oil and flour, just enough to make one final meal. This widow of Israel has even less. In the original text, the word translated as "jar" indicates a very small container, perhaps a little flask containing anointing oil. It won't sell for much money if she tries to sell it, certainly not enough to pay off her debts. It's not enough to cook a meal with and even if it was, she has no other ingredients to put with it. But when we feel things slipping away from us or slipping out of control, we tend to cling even more tightly to what is left, even though it can't save us from our troubles. It's human nature to hold onto whatever we have, whether it be little or much. But God, the Maker of all that exists, the Provider and Sustainer of life, asks the widow to take the leap of faith of putting everything in His hands. He asks her to put all her eggs in His basket and trust Him with them. Clinging to the tiny flask of oil wasn't going to profit the widow. Handing it over to the Lord is going to change her life. 

In the Bible we find a number of instances where the Lord asks the person to trust Him with what little they have. The boy with the loaves and fishes gave Jesus his lunch basket and saw Him multiply the food to feed thousands. The widow that Elijah helped made him a small cake with the last of her oil and flour and he multiplied it, providing for her all through the years of famine, and when her son died unexpectedly he raised him back to life. Sometimes we feel like we are down to the dregs, that there's nothing left, that we have too little left for the Lord to use. But as the saying goes, "Little is much when God is in it."

My late mother had a story that goes along well with today's passage. At some point in their marriage, before I was ever born, Daddy had been out of work for a while and they were in a desperate place on this particular Sunday morning. Daddy wasn't much of a churchgoing man in his youth. He usually drove her to church and came back to pick her up after the service. On that Sunday morning when he dropped her off at church, the two of them were down to their last two dollars. Since Daddy was always the type of man to split whatever he had with Mom, she had one dollar in her purse and he had the other dollar in his billfold. Sitting in church as the collection plate was passed, she did something that would probably seem crazy to someone not of the faith. She put her only dollar in the plate, feeling compelled to trust the Lord with it. Now I'm not advocating giving all our earthly belongings to the church or sending all our money to televangelists who say they can multiply our donations a thousandfold. I do not hold with these "prosperity gospels". The Lord doesn't promise to make us wealthy; He promises to meet all the needs of those in Christ. (Philippians 4:19) I don't think if we are about to lose the house we are called to go down to the bank and withdraw every penny and give it to a ministry. The Lord has called us to be good stewards of money and I suspect it's extremely rare for Him to ever tell anyone to give everything away. My mother felt like the Lord was asking her to trust Him, to put that dollar in His hand and see what He would do with it. The very next morning my Dad was offered a job and my mother always believed if she hadn't obeyed the Lord things might have gotten a lot worse before they got better. Her situation was much like the situation of the widow in today's passage. What if the widow hadn't obeyed the word of the Lord through the prophet Elisha? I think her sons would have been taken for her debts, just as she feared, and she probably would have ended up on the streets. 

"Elisha said, 'Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don't ask for just a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side." (2 Kings 4:3-4) The widow is called to stretch her faith even further. She is to go to all her neighbors and borrow jars. Not a few jars, but many. She's to collect these empty jars on the promise that the Lord is going to fill them. I can't help but wonder whether she felt slightly insane while obeying this command. I'm sure her neighbors thought she was. They probably whispered after she was gone, "That woman is down to her last few drops of oil. What use can she possibly have for all these jars? Everyone knows her sons are about to be taken for her debts. She must have gone mad from her troubles." 

"She left him and shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring. When all the jars were full, she said to her son, 'Bring me another one.' But he replied, 'There is not a jar left.' Then the oil stopped flowing." (2 Kings 4:5-6) The Lord isn't wasteful. He stops multiplying the oil when the widow runs out of jars to put it in.

"She went and told the man of God, and he said, 'Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left." (2 Kings 4:7) The Lord supplies her needs. She is able to pay off the debt and live on the remainder until she and her sons can get back on their feet again. Her growing sons will be old enough to earn money by the time the oil runs out. Once they near the teen years they will be able to earn wages to support the household. 

If the widow's faith had been too small, she would have clung to the tiny flask of oil. If her faith had been too small, she wouldn't have gathered such a large number of vessels. But because she knew Elisha spoke words directly from the Lord, she mustered the faith to do what God asked her to do. This woman, spiritually speaking, walked on the water. She did a more excellent job of it than the Apostle Peter who wavered in the faith, looking about at the fierce wind in fear so that he began to sink. She saw this thing all the way through. 

The Lord doesn't often ask anyone to relinquish all their worldly goods. I would question anyone who tells you He does. He didn't ask the widow to give everything, for she still retained her personal belongings such as household items, clothing, and any other odds and ends. He didn't ask my mother to give everything, for she still retained all her household goods, clothing, furniture, sentimental items, hers and Daddy's one vehicle, the other dollar in Daddy's pocket, and various odds and ends. The Lord simply asked both these women to hand over one small thing, something that represented an item of security, an item they trusted in, and let Him make something bigger out of it. To the widow who had no coins left, the tiny flask of oil represented a few pennies. Those few pennies wouldn't be enough to help her, but while she held onto the flask she was trusting more in it than in the Lord. That one dollar in my mom's purse was the last dollar she had in her own possession. It wasn't enough to help her, but while she held onto it she was trusting more in it than in the Lord. 

There have been times I prayed desperately for the Lord to intervene by changing a person or changing circumstances. But I was clinging so tightly to the person or the circumstance that He couldn't get at the problem without literally wrestling it from my hand. And God doesn't do that. He doesn't force us to submit ourselves or anything in our lives to Him. Instead, He calls us to step out in faith and hand it over. We can't change people. We couldn't even change ourselves because it took the Holy Spirit to remake us into new creatures in Christ. So why burden ourselves down by believing it's up to us to save a person or redeem a circumstance that's too big for us? That's the work of the Lord. Our job is only to bring that circumstance or that lost person to Him in prayer, to let go of the feeling that we can do anything other than live a godly life in the sight of those who don't know Christ. I've been there and I know the load gets heavier with every step when we try to help a person in our own strength. I am not God. You are not God. We are called to follow Christ, to love as Christ loves, to treat our fellow man as Christ would treat them. This is our flask of oil. This is the one dollar in our pocket. God will do the rest. 

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