I first heard the story of the widow’s oil in Sunday school. Found in 2 Kings 4:1-7, it’s an astounding, heartwarming story of divine grace: a widow, utterly helpless and heavily indebted, appeals to Elisha and is miraculously given enough oil to pay off her creditors. What Sunday school teachers tend to gloss over, however, is the depth not only of the widow’s hopelessness but also of the cruelty of her creditors and of the society in which she lives. This is not just a story of God’s mercy; it is, as with so many incidents and parables in the Bible, an indictment of systems which force people to beg for mercy in the first place.
2 Kings 4:1 introduces the widow thus:
The wife of one of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.’
It was perfectly legal in Israel at that time for debtors’ families to be forcibly sold into slavery. The widow, however, asserts that this should not be happening to her: note the “but” between the descriptions of her and her husband’s faith and her creditor’s actions. There is a clear indication that among those who fear the Lord, such actions should be considered abhorrent. The subsequent miracle is not the granting of something extra but the remedying of an injustice.
We might be tempted to write this off as an isolated incident, given that it happened to an unnamed widow. However, no less important a person than David writes in Psalm 53:4 that evildoers “eat up my people as they eat bread.” This is, in fact, the only concrete example of evil that David gives in a psalm which begins with the verse, “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God.’” In contrast, in Luke 9:10-17, Jesus multiplies bread for a notoriously fickle crowd. Throughout the Bible, giving is the default of the Godly and taking that of sinners.
“Don’t be greedy” is an easy moral with which to conclude, but the widow’s story contains one extra warning. Her husband was one of the “sons of the prophets,” a group who worshiped and studied God’s law with Elisha and his colleagues. She was deeply embedded in her time’s equivalent of a local church, and yet she had to go before God to seek help. Even today, it is very rare in many churches to openly discuss financial matters – and even rarer for those choosing a church to ask how it serves its poorest members. We take comfort in stories of miraculous provision, forgetting that we as God’s servants are called to be the means of that provision. Matthew 26:11 promises that “You will always have the poor with you,” and the widow’s story cautions us to look after them carefully. If we do not help them – or, worse, mimic the widow’s creditor’s excuse and say that we’ve done nothing wrong – we commit a sin.
Jesus loved the poor actively, compassionately, and counterculturally. He calls us to do the same.
Michael Kielstra ‘22 is a senior at Harvard in Kirkland House studying Mathematics.