Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

February 2002
Out of bread, out of hope
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Comment on this column IT'S AMAZING HOW THE inflections of the reader can bring out facets of the biblical story you've never heard before.

This week, one of the lessons in our church was 1 Kings 17:8-16. A familiar story, probably: Elijah met a widow and her son who were out of food until she offered to help Elijah. After that, he promised, her jar of flour would not be used up and her jug of oil would not run dry.

I'd known that they were out of food, but I never really paid much attention before to just how completely the widow was out of hope. That's what the reader's voice made vivid this time.

In verses 10 and 11, Elijah asks for a drink of water and for a little bread. In verse 12, well, you have to imagine the resigned sigh in the voice that reads the widow's reply. "As surely as the Lord your God lives, I don't have any bread... only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and for my son, that we may eat it... and die."

Alongside those words in my mind's eye I could see TV news footage of mothers in famines or refugee crises – the eyes of those who struggle to live and expect to die very soon, but who are walking and struggling anyway – gathering sticks to make a meal in the face of obliteration.

HOW TRUE TO LIFE the story is: how world-weary this woman was. And sometimes, with much less cause, I feel just a bit like her. Gathering sticks, outwardly going through the motions of preparing a meal; but inwardly bracing for tragedy. On one level we're all carrying out these futile gestures in the teeth of impending death.

And her salvation? Her salvation was not that she prayed for divine intervention and expected it; not that she lived her life in hope, "named it and claimed it". Her salvation came about even in hopelessness, but because she was willing to give to someone else at such a time.

"Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" is, of course, one way of looking at it. Another is "since we all die soon, there's no real point in holding back from each other."

Nor does Elijah chastise her for expecting to die – how small your faith is, woman! Instead, in verse 13, he is surprisingly gentle for an arrogant prophet of God: "Don't be afraid and don't let me interfere with your plans, but first, would you do this for me?"

And she? She not only was willing to give up her food, she was also willing to give up her hopelessness. Often we Westerners foolishly cling to both, deriving our identity from our fashionable designer angst over cappuccino grande and pain chocolat.

Free refills, anyone?

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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