Year C Proper 5: if I make my bed in the grave

The fact that the stories we hear today, which echo one another so clearly that these two women might have been related, one the great-great grandmother of the other, a sister several times removed; the fact that these stories revolve around widowed women is not coincidental. Indeed, we read the Bible and we hear so often about the plight of widows and orphans, the motherless and the fatherless and those who live alone, and we think about the situations of poverty, of precarious social standing, of vulnerability that these labels imply, but I was reminded this week in my reading that in fact, whenever we read about widows in the Bible, we should prick up our ears and pay attention, because so often, these women are indicators not of helplessness and poverty but signs that God is about to do something a little special, a little out of the ordinary.[1] God seems to have a particular relationship with these widowed women, a nudging, secret language with them that lets them know that God is with them, that they are the signs of God’s love for us all. We should be a little bit careful about writing them off as helpless and powerless, because they tend to be the vehicles for amazing grace.

Think of Judith, the widow of Manasseh, a profound prophetess who used both her feminine wiles and weapons of war to rescue God’s people from oppression. (The book of Judith is found in the Apocrypha, or the Intertestamental readings, those chapters which are sandwiched in between the Old and the New Testaments; it makes for some kind of racy reading). Think of Naomi and Ruth, widows both, who became matriarchs in the Davidic line, the royal family whose heritage Jesus shared. Jesus told the story of a dishonourable judge who had no fear of God or man, but a widow woman was the only one who could wrangle justice out of him. Or think of Anna, a bride for seven, then a widow the rest of her eighty-four years, who broke into song and prophetic speech in the Temple of Jerusalem when she first saw the infant Jesus, when she was among the first to greet him, the first to recognize him (Luke 2:36-38).

These are not weak characters. They are no shrinking violets; and while biblical widows may indeed be particularly vulnerable to the economic tides of society, and to the dangers of isolation and exclusion, they are by that very token the conscience of the people, the barometer of the fairness and faithfulness of the community – both in the Old and the New Testaments the people of God are instructed especially to care for the widowed and the orphaned, and for the alien in the land: those at risk of poverty, of loneliness, of exclusion and isolation, of poor health outcomes and lower educational opportunities. We would do well to take note, especially when we consider the impact on the economically vulnerable or the alien in this land of our own society’s policies. Such people are firmly fixed and secure in their standing within God’s loving and abundant care, and their standing in our society is a barometer of our own faithfulness.

Of course, none of that special grace and favour makes it any easier, day by day, to live with the grief and hardship that go with widowhood, either then or now. If God could save the widow from starvation, save her son from death itself, at least for the time being, because there will come a time when he will die, there will come a time when she will pass on from this life to the next – but if God could save them once, she might argue, then why is she a widow at all? What was the need to leave her lonely? Why not another miracle, and another, and one more, so that life becomes easy and a never ending joy, in this life, now?

Anger, fear, doubt and distrust: all are pretty reasonable responses to the realities of life and death.

Funnily enough, Jesus had already talked about this story of Elijah, the one in which he lived with the widow when God saved her and her son from death by drought, and brought her son back from the brink of death, or perhaps even beyond.

Jesus, when they were surprised at him in his hometown, referred to the prophets and said that of all the widows in Israel when that drought fell upon them, the only one Elijah was sent to was the widow at Zarephath, the one whose son was saved (Luke 4). It is almost as though he had her on his mind, that story haunting him, long before he saw the widow in Nain weeping for her own dear, dead son.

The widow in Zarephath, has her life restored twice, first when she is facing death from starvation, and then when she is near to being destroyed by the loss of her son. She responds first with doubt, even after days of the feeding miracle, the grain and the oil that refuse to run out, she accuses Elijah – “What have you against me, man of God, to bring my sin to remembrance and cause the death of my son?” But when God’s abundance overflows even into the breath of her son, she responds with faith, “Now I know that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

It made them angry, when Jesus talked about it in Nazareth. They formed a mob to throw him off the cliff, but he slipped away, lived to talk and heal another day.

The people who witness the miracle during the funeral procession outside the city of Nain are also gripped first by fear, but instead of becoming angry, they celebrate God’s mercy in their midst.

Anger, fear, doubt, gratitude and celebration: they are fairly basic and reasonable responses to the basic realities of life and death, scarcity and drought, relief, illness, bereavement and restoration.

Psalm 146, the one that we prayed together this morning, reminds us to praise God at all times, praise God no matter what befalls and no matter how we are feeling, because God loves us whether we are strangers or orphans or widows, because God looks for opportunities to release those who are imprisoned and oppressed, who are hungry and thirsty, who need a little extra help. When the widowed women and men who are widowers, when any of us is mourning the loss of a partner or a parent or a child, we are assured of God’s grace, of God’s compassion for us; and when we see those vulnerable to loss and hardship, we are called by God’s commandments to compassion for them.

Another psalm, Psalm 139, speaks directly to those sons of widows whose lives hung in the balance between life and death, who fell down on the side of the grave and were pulled back by the grace of God.

“Where shall I go from your Spirit?” asks the Psalm, “Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in the Underworld, you are there also.” (Ps 139:7-8)

Sometimes the stories that we hear, that we read in the name of the Word of God, leave us with more questions than answers. What really was going on with these two women, and their sons? Why does one woman have her son restored to her, when you just know that there were other funerals taking place that day, which Jesus did not encounter and derange? What tales did the two boys tell their mothers about their time apart?

At the heart of these two stories, the stories of these two women and their sons, is assurance; is the assurance that nowhere are we beyond the reach of the living and loving God made manifest in Jesus Christ; not in the land of the living nor even beyond the grave. At the heart of these stories is the assurance that no one is beyond the reach of God, no one; and there is no such time as too late in the eternity of God’s saving grace and love.

These two women had suffered more than one loss in their lives, and they were weary with grief and sorrow, but God looked upon them and had more than enough compassion for them both. Not only the grain and the oil, but God’s love and compassion never gave out, never ran dry.

God’s mercy, as yet another psalm says, God’s mercy endures forever.

[1] “It seems that Jesus has a special fondness for widows, perhaps because his mother was one for most of her life. When he does something remarkable or finds something remarkable in the community, it is often connected to a widow.” Megan McKenna, Not Counting Women and Children: Neglected Stories from the Bible (Orbis Books, 1994), 147

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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