Scripture is described as a “living word”. Though it was written many years ago, it still speaks to our contemporary situation. This story from II Kings 4:1-7 is a case in point.
The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.” — II Kings 4:1
Although we might like to think the widow’s experience is archaic, slavery is still a common practice in different parts of the world. Debt bondage is the most prevalent form of slavery in India, where an estimated 150,000 people are forced to work off “debts” in brick kilns, rice mills, and farms. Even here in the United States, both citizens and foreign nationals are exploited for the pleasure and profit of others.
Those with money, given the right cultural and religious values within systems that allow for corruption, abuse and enslave the poor.
This was a grave concern of the prophets, and remains a concern today. Isaiah cries out: “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17 NIV)
Elisha replied to her, “How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?” (II Kings 4:2)
These two questions are important. The first is a genuine concern, a question we ask when we see someone in need. But Elisha resists solving her problem without her participation. The second question invites the widow to be empowered as a participant, to be valued for her gifts and disruptive power to break a cycle of injustice.
This is vitally important. Everyone has gifts, abilities, responsibilities, and also needs. Inviting all to participate is a key–perhaps THE key–to helping our communities heal and thrive. Elisha wants to help her, but he knows she can lead change in not just her story but in her community’s narrative.
“Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a small jar of olive oil.” — II Kings 4:2
It’s small. It’s inconsequential. But it’s all that’s needed.
This is how God works. He takes the little bit we have and uses it for something consequential. We think we need to have the financial resources, be well-educated, and land in the right place at the right time to make a difference. Not true. God can use anyone, anywhere—we just need to be willing and ready.
Elisha said, “Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.” — II Kings 4:3-4
Community members must be at the forefront of solving community problems. True transformation happens not through programs or projects, but through the genuine care of empowered, invited, engaged neighbors. McKnight and Block write:
“Our institutions can offer only service— not care—for care is the freely given commitment from the heart of one to another; it cannot be purchased. As neighbors, we care for each other. We care for our children. We care for our elders. We care for those most vulnerable among us. It is this care that is the basic power of a community of citizens. Care cannot be provided, managed, or purchased from systems.”
She left him and shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring. When all the jars were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another one.” But he replied, “There is not a jar left.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She went and told the man of God, and he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.” — II Kings 4:5-7
The widow obeys. She uses the little she has. Combined with the care of the community, God performs a miracle.
This is how God works. Over and over again. God uses the weak, the disillusioned, the uneducated and unprepared, to do small and big things that make a difference.
How about you?
What small thing do you have that God can use?
Like the woman with the olive oil, are you willing to use what you think is inconsequential to make a difference in the world?
Like Elisha, are you ready not just to give a handout, but to enter into the work and ask good questions?
Are you a caring neighbor who is willing to be part of the solution?
 McKnight, John; Block, Peter (2010-06-14). The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (Kindle Locations 186-188). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Image Credit: Jesus Mafa