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Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Thomas J Parlette

“Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath”

1st Kings 17: 8-24


In 1994, a 37 year old man named Mike McIntyre decided to confront his fears and the shaky path his life was taking, and he set out on an adventure. He was living in San Francisco at the time, he left his job, he left his girlfriend, he left his apartment – all the trappings of his life and decided to hitchhike across America, heading for Cape Fear, North Carolina, a location he selected for it’s name, which symbolized his fear of many things in life. He put a few things in a backpack, but to help him with this confrontation with his fears, he left behind the one thing most of us would not leave home without – money.

He decided he wanted to find some kindness in the soul of America, so he took with him absolutely no cash, no credit cards, no travelers checks – no purchasing power of any kind. Instead, he decided he would rely on the kindness of strangers. Even from them, he vowed, he would take no money, but would accept food, shelter, rides, and friendship.

As he worked his way across the country, he found it was possible to do exactly that. He made the entire journey without any money. He didn’t eat as regularly as he would have liked, yet he received enough food to get by and was sheltered in people’s homes along the way.

He stayed one night with an older woman who had her hands full caring for her brain-damaged granddaughter – yet she welcomes him, too. On another occasion, he found a sense of family on a South Dakota ranch. Elsewhere, he was taken in by a low-income couple who gave him a tent to take with him, even though it was one of their most valuable possessions. During his journey, McIntyre found that the most generous people, the ones who did the most to help him out, were usually the ones with the least to give. Some of the people who took him in were not far from being penniless themselves.

Oh sure, not everyone he met along the way was kind and generous, but most were. In fact, when he finally arrived in Cape Fear, he decided that the location was misnamed. In his book about the journey, appropriately titled The Kindness of Strangers, he writes, “The name is as misplaced as my own fears. I see now that I have always been afraid of the wrong things. My great shame is not my fear of death, but my fear of life.”(1)

That appears to be what’s happening to Elijah in this morning’s passage – God sends him to a poor widow, a stranger, an outsider, someone with almost nothing – she will be the one to feed him. It appears that Elijah will have to depend on the kindness of strangers.

Our lectionary does an odd thing this morning. We are actually jumping backwards today. Last week, we heard about Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal. That was in chapter 18 of 1st Kings. This morning, we actually jump back to chapter 17, to the start of the Elijah story and hear about the incidents that preceding the big showdown at Mount Carmel.

In chapter 17, God calls on Elijah to oppose King Ahab, the King who married Jezebel, a foreigner who persuaded Ahab to introduce the worship of the Canaanite god Baal into Israel’s life. Elijah first does this by telling Ahab that because he has “done what is evil in the sight of the Lord” and led people away from Yahweh, there will be a drought in the land. Ahab is not happy about this, and Elijah is forced to go into hiding. He has been faithful to the Lord, he has been obedient and done what God asked him to do, so God sends Elijah to live by a stream called Cherith and has ravens bring him bread and meat in the morning and in the evening.

Elijah remains faithful. He obeys God. He trusts in what God has told him to do – and the Lord provides for him.

That brings us to this passage for today. The Lord sends Elijah another message. “Go to Zarephath – there is a widow there who will feed you.”

And Elijah has an experience similar to Mike McIntyre’s. Even though this widow has barely enough to feed herself and her son, she takes care of Elijah as well. And God continues to provide. Even though the widow has very little grain and oil – her supplies don’t run out. All three eat for many days. And when her son falls ill and dies, Elijah calls on God to raise him from death and God comes through. God restores life to the widow’s son and the widow comes to trust in Elijah. “Now I know you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is true.”

Elijah and the widow are faithful. They obey the word of God. They trust God and God provides.

Once upon a time there was a weak and sickly man who was unable to afford a doctor. He lived in the deep back woods in a log cabin he had built himself. Right beside his cabin was enormous boulder. One night this man had a vision in which God told him to go out and push the massive rock beside his house all day long, day after day, until God told him to stop.

So the next day, the man got up early and did what God told him to do. He pushed on the rock as hard as he could. He took a break about mid day, had some lunch and went back to pushing the boulder. Every day he pushed a little harder and a little longer. Day after day he pushed. The days rolled into weeks, and weeks into months as he faithfully pushed against the rock.

After several months of pushing however, the man was getting tired. More like utterly exhausted. All this time, and the rock had not budged one inch. He began to doubt that his vision had come from God at all. He became despondent. He sat on his porch and he cried, because he had invested so much time and effort for nothing. But as the sun was setting, Jesus came and sat down next to the man. Jesus asked, “My son, why are you so sad?”

“Lord, you know how sick and weak I am, and then you give me this vision about pushing this boulder and it gave me hope. But I have pushed with all my might for months and that old rock is right where it was when I started.”

And Jesus said, “I never told you to MOVE the rock – I told you to push against it. Go look at yourself in the mirror.”

The man stepped in front of the mirror, and he was amazed. He had been so sickly and weak, but now he saw muscles where he had never had them before. It dawned on him that he had been feeling better for months, and it was all because he had pushing against that rock. Suddenly he understood that God’s plan was not to change the position of the rock, but to change him, to use the boulder to make him strong and healthy.(2)

That’s how obedience to God works. That’s what happens when we put our trust in God. Our task is not to understand what God is seeking to accomplish. Our task is to obey, simply do what God asks. All things will become clear in God’s own time.

That’s how it worked for Elijah, and for the widow of Zarephath. I’m sure Elijah had his doubts about the wisdom of counting on this widow with almost no food or resources whatsoever to feed him and take care of him. I’m sure the widow was not convinced this was a great idea either. It would have been much smarter for her to say, “Look Elijah, I don’t know you or your God, but look at me. I’m a widow. I’ve got nothing. I can’t feed you. I can barely feed myself and my son. In fact, I’m making our last meal right now, we will surely die of starvation soon. It would be better if you tried somebody else.” Things get even worse when the widow’s son passes away and she blames Elijah.

But because of their faith, because of their obedience and trust in God – God provides. First – food and drink. And then life. God comes in unexpected ways to feed us, nurture us and give us life. God worked through the ravens to bring meat and bread. Then God worked through a widow and her son, two of the most vulnerable members of society, to provide food and life. Throughout this story, God provides in mysterious ways.

Rev. James Hopkins tells a story about a man who attended one of the churches he served. The man’s name was Rufus Watson, and he loved this story about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. Rufus lived to be 99 years old. He was born in Texas, the son of former slaves. He served his country in the military. He pitched in the Negro professional baseball leagues. He made some money investing in real estate. He witnessed lynchings and spent a lifetime wondering how people could commit such atrocities and still go to church on Sunday and call themselves Christians.

But he loved this story. He found comfort in the story of Elijah and this widow. He said if his life was not proof enough, this story showed that God meets people at the bottom of the barrel. “That’s where God meets us,” Rufus liked to say. “At the bottom of the barrel. God meets us when we’ve gone so low that all we can do is look up.”

If Rufus trusted God to meet him at life’s low points, if Elijah trusted God to meet him at life’s low points, if God met Elijah and the widow at the point where the grain and the oil and the rain were running out, I guess we are all well advised to do the same.(3) So today, let us gather at the table and let God feed us once more. Let us trust that God will meet us at the table this morning.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Stan Purdum, Wisdom’s Delight, CSS Publishing Inc, 2006, p249-250.

2.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, p52-53.

3.    H. James Hopkins, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p103.