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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 2 – Year C

Today it’s all about the widows – two readings, two stories of miraculous healing, two widows who have their sons restored to them.
Widows are not uncommon subjects in the Bible. Besides these two stories they appear numerous times in scripture and often in the context of teaching about compassion and right behavior. The prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Zechariah all declared that a person who took advantage of a widow was evil. Jewish law, as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, strictly ordered that great care and hospitality must be shown to travelers, orphans, and widows. Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, extolled the generosity of a widow as he watched her put her “mite,” her only penny in the Temple’s collection box. In the book of Acts, we read that the earliest Christian communities took extra care to make sure that proper provisions were made for the care of widows.
Why so much talk about widows? In the ancient world a widow was perhaps the most vulnerable member of society. As a result, the widow was often used as a metaphor for the poorest of the poor. You have to remember that in ancient Israel there was no social security, life insurance, or retirement home. Women had no rights to inheritance and therefore a woman whose husband died was completely dependent on her family for her survival. If a widow had an only son and that son died then she had nothing and no way to make a living in the world. She would be utterly destitute.
In our lessons for this morning we read first about how Elijah cared for the widow of Zarephath. He miraculously provided a constant supply of bread for this mother and her son after the widow was generous enough to use the last of her flour and oil to make bread for Elijah. We learn that her generosity brought about this miracle where, “the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail.” Then, in a second display of God’s power and mercy, Elijah revived the widow’s son who was so close to death that Scripture says, “there was no breath left in him.”
This story from 1 Kings about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath serves as background for our lesson from Luke’s Gospel. Here Jesus brings back to life the only son of a widow from Nain. In part Luke wants to make the point that Jesus is a prophet like Elijah but greater than Elijah. Elijah heals the widow’s son only after she comes to him. He acts because she requests his help. However, Jesus is not asked to heal the son of the widow from Nain; instead he simply encounters the funeral procession coming out of the city. Jesus acts purely out of a sense of compassion for a woman who has lost everything. Moreover, Elijah only revived a son who was close to death. Luke wants us to know that Jesus brought a son back from death. The first is sick and made well. The second is dead and brought back to life. Clearly Luke is declaring that Elijah may have the power to heal, but Jesus has power over life and death.
Two stories, two widows, two sons restored to their lives and their mothers. What are we to do with these pieces of scripture? How are they to speak to us this morning?
When I was a little boy growing up in suburban Alexandria, I only remember knowing one widow who wasn’t what I thought of as an “old grandmother.” Her name was Bea and she was a marvelous lady. Her husband had taken his own life but only after he tried to take hers as well. She survived but her face was badly disfigured. Bea had kids the ages of my brother and me and every Sunday we drove Bea to church. The doctors told her she shouldn’t drive, so she rode with us. However, Bea was not in any way what I would call a helpless widow. She had suffered greatly in life but she was proud and determined and deeply faithful. She always seemed to be a fixture around the church and I know she found great comfort in our parish community. For years she taught Sunday school and I loved her for her simple faith in God’s goodness and her love of us. She was a special person in our family and in our church. The church cared for her during an absolutely unimaginably tragic time in her life and thereafter she spent years teaching the faith to successive generations of young people. By her very presence and personality she was a witness to us of the power of God to heal, of the power of God’s love.
What are we to take away from these lessons today? Well two things, at least. First, Kingdom living (living in ways that bring about God’s Kingdom, living like Jesus) requires that we care for those who are most vulnerable. Elijah did it, Jesus did it, and we are called to do it. That person may be a widow, a homeless man, a single mother, a mentally ill person, a neighbor struggling with disease, a clinically depressed friend, or a street person who sits down in our pews on a Sunday morning. Whatever the case, Kingdom living requires that we care for them. When Elijah and Jesus healed the two sons they restored for these widows the security and hope they had for the future. We are to do the same. We are to help people find hope. We are to assist people in making their lives more secure.
Second, when you and I are the most vulnerable (and sooner or later we are all among the most vulnerable) we can trust that Christ in his compassion will draw near to us. Faith means trusting that God will not abandon us when we need God the most. The widow of Nain was walking out of town in a funeral procession to bury her son. Jesus was walking into town with his disciples. But our Lord saw her need as he passed by, he saw her anguish, he understood her pain and he responded to her. In the same way, we can trust that when we are most in need Christ will respond to us. We may not receive the same kind of miracle as that mother did, but our Lord will be with us and will give us his grace. I believe and I have seen how God always draws closest to those most in need. Bea found God’s compassion when she needed it most. She found it expressed in the loving care of her parish family. It was a love and concern that saved her when the tragic events of her life threatened to destroy her and her family.
Caring for others who are most in need is the truest work of our faith. Trusting that Christ will raise us up when we need it the most is the deepest promise of our faith. Simply put, to work for Christ and to trust in Christ is the definition of what it means to be a Christian.

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