From the time I arrived in Cote d’Ivoire in 1987, I received requests from friends and strangers alike for money or material goods. How the person approached me with his or her request, my relationship with the person, my current ‘generosity’ reading, as well as what I had available at the time, all influenced my responses. I did not have the means to honor everyone’s demand. Even if I could have honored every request, of course, the trap of ‘dependency’ (those to whom I give becoming dependent on me) lurked in the shadows.
Much later, and after taking some excellent courses that equipped me to promote church-centered savings-and-loan associations, I looked for biblical stories of people whose financial or material needs were met by God through the use of their own resources and social associations, without ‘outside’ funding intervention. My model story is found in 2 Kings 4:1-7. It has become a favorite texts for my infrequent preaching on Sunday mornings, in talks to Christian women’s groups, and as I promote church-centered savings-and-loan groups in local churches. Christian leaders here love its message. I will explain why.
The passage in my Bible entitled Increase of Widow’s Oil tells that the widow of a man from the company of [God’s] prophets who found herself in dire circumstances cried out to the prophet Elisha. Her husband had left unpaid debts behind him, and his creditors threatened to take her two sons as slaves to reimburse the debts.
Elisha reacted by asking how he could help her. Now if Elisha was a modern-day West African prophet, apostle, bishop, evangelist, pastor, elder, deacon, or other church leader (or any one of us), he might have answered his own question by doing any of the following:
1) reach into his pocket and offer her some of the money owed to the creditors,
2) offer to go talk to the creditors in hopes that they would write off all or part of the debt,
3) go see the widow’s relatives to ask them to pay the debt,
4) assure the widow that he will seek God for a solution and get back to her,
5) call a special church leaders’ meeting to discuss ways of meeting the widow’s need,
6) pray with the widow, asking God to intervene and deliver her from her husband’s creditors.
All these responses are good, and they are more or less scripturally sound. However, Elisha did not do any of the above. After asking the question of how he could help her, he immediately asked another question: “…what do you have in your house?” If I was that widow I would have felt like an instantly inflated, then deflated, balloon. My hopes would have been up as soon as Elisha implied he could help me, and I could have suggested to him numerous ways to remedy my problem. To me he was saying that he could take care of my problem. But no, he threw the ball back into my court. He did not even give me the chance to answer his first question but immediately asked another—one that demanded something of me. How could I possibly have anything if all I have left are two children who will be taken from me because I have nothing else?!
No matter how the widow felt, she answered Elisha’s second question with the facts. She had “nothing…at all [at home] except a little oil.” However, the little which was a half-empty container to her was a half-full container to Elisha. He instructed her to collect empty jars from her neighbors.
At that point I would have said, “Most honorable Prophet Elisha, are you not the one who changed Jericho’s spring water from bad to good? And did you not transmit God’s message of victory over Moab to the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom? Can you and God not just rid me of these creditors by yourselves, without getting me and the little that I have involved?”
Fortunately the widow did not question Elisha’s strange instructions. By faith she and her sons poured her oil into all the empty jars that she got from her neighbors. God himself could have produced jars for the oil just as miraculously as He multiplied the oil, but He did not. Why did He bring the widow’s neighbors into this? It shows us that, even for a miracle, she needed others: her neighbors, her family, her community. Additionally, she was able to pay off the creditors and have something for her and her sons to live on afterwards only in direct proportion to her positive relationships with her neighbors. It was the jars they gave her that received what she needed. When I have only one jar of a little oil, it is not worth much. When I associate with others by pooling our resources, for example, we end up with volume that can more easily turn a profit.
The widow’s faith and submission to God and His prophet amaze me. When the oil stopped flowing I would have jumped up and down, shouting “Halleluiah!” I would have thrown open the door to my house and declared to all the world that I had just witnessed a miracle. Even if the miracle happened behind closed doors (God did not want this made public), I would not have been able to contain my joy. This widow, however, controlled her emotions and did not assume anything. She went to tell the man of God that the oil had stopped flowing.
He could have told her, “Good job. Give me that oil and I will take care of your debt for you. You can relax.” But no. He told her to sell the oil and pay her debts, and then that she and her sons could live on what was left.
She was not let off the hook. The miracle did not absolve her from responsibility for her husband’s debts or from work. That is why Christian leaders here love this story. They realize that they do not have to be the answer or provide the answer to every person’s problem. Rather, they can help those in need to see value and possibilities in the little they have, encourage them to associate with others in order to maximize their potential, and let the responsibility for the problem and the work needed to solve it rest with the person.
May the Lord give us His love, compassion, wisdom, and discernment for every needy person He sends our way. May He also throw some miracles into His solutions to people’s problems—that will make our day!