But when your creditors are pounding down your door demanding that you turn over your children so that they can work off a debt; when you have nothing to offer in exchange for their servitude except a little oil in the bottom of a jar, it really is of little importance who’s fighting whom in some faraway conflict on a foreign battlefield. The immediate and the urgent take precedence over everything else.
The story is recorded for us in 2 Kings 4:1-7. The woman is the widow of one of God’s prophets. We aren’t told how the family got into debt. It wasn’t unusual for the time. In fact, Leviticus 25 gives the rules to be followed when a member of the community sold himself to another because he couldn’t provide for his family any other way. And whether it was the prophet’s own debt, now to be paid off by his sons, or debts that accumulated after his death as the widow tried to look after her family, we are not told. But she was in a desperate situation.
So the widow went to find the prophet, Elisha. She explained her problem. And she includes the statement: “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord” (4:1). Did she wonder if “revering” the Lord was enough, considering that the Lord her husband had revered had not protected her children from the possibility of indentured servitude?
Elisha asks: “what do you have in your house?” What little she may have had to pay off the debt was already gone. She replies: “your servant has nothing there at all...except a little oil” (4:2). The comment reminds me of the answer the disciples gave to Jesus when asked by the Lord to feed the crowd. What do you have? Nothing—a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread, but that’s not enough to feed all these people.
That all depends on who has his hands on the fish, and the bread, and the oil. And what happens to all these “few” depends on just how far the possessors of the “little” are willing to trust God. Elisha instructs the widow to collect all the jars in the neighborhood. He specifically tells her: “Don’t ask for just a few” (vs. 3). How far was this widow willing to go? She and her sons collected all the jars they could find and then shut themselves up in their house and went to work. Elisha’s instructions were to fill all the jars. We don’t know how many jars there were, but she filled them all, and she filled enough. And when the last jar was filled, that “little” bit of oil stopped flowing (vs. 6).
The story goes that the widow was able to sell all the jars of oil, pay off her debts, and still have enough to live on afterwards (vs. 7).
What would have happened if the widow had ignored Elisha’s instructions to collect the jars, thinking him crazy to suggest such a project? What would have happened if she had not collected all the jars, or if she had grown weary and decided not to fill them all?
Her complete faith, her unqualified obedience, her tenacity in not giving up in the face of a humanly impossible situation, provide us with huge lessons that we can learn. When our situation is desperate, when we only have a “little” or a “few”, when the pressure is on us and we don’t know what to do, God leaves a little story, in the middle of “bigger” stories, to remind us that faith exercised in absolute obedience will always be responded to by the Almighty God in whose hands we rest.