For the last two days of our Lenten journey we go back to the time of the Kings and to just before we met Naaman’s servant girl. We will reflect on two women who reach out to God through the prophet Elisha, and both of their stories are told within the same chapter of 2 Kings.
Our first woman is only known as ‘the widow with the oil’ and her husband, who had been part of a group of prophets, had recently died. She was left with the household and children to care for; she was also left with his debts. It wasn’t long before one of the creditors came for their money and, as the widow had none, demanded that the woman give him the only thing she had left: her two sons, to work for him as slaves. Alongside the tragedy of losing her sons this would also mean she would have had no hope for economic survival.
The women reached out in desperation to the prophet Elisha. He asks her what she has already:
‘Tell me, what do you have in your house’2 Kings 4.2
She tells him that she has nothing at all, ‘except a little oil’.
Elisha tells the woman to go to her neighbours for help. She wasn’t to ask for food or money which might have been one solution. She is to ask them for empty jars. Not a few empty jars, but loads of them.
She does what is requested, gathering as many jars as she can.
‘Go inside and shut the door behind you and you sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side’2 Kings 4.4
She takes the little oil she has and, with the help of her children, she pours it into the jars: the oil flows until every single jar is full. There is abundant oil, enough to sell to pay off her debts, and to live off the remainder.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness Hebrews 1.9
Oil was a precious commodity in those days. It was necessary for the provision of food, but it has also been used for centuries in Judeo/Christian worship to symbolise holiness and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Moses spoke of oil mixed with spices and burned as incense ‘as a memorial on the altar, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD’ (Leviticus 2.2). Oil was used to make a particular place holy, and it is still used in Christian worship at baptism and at the ordination of priests.
Today is Maundy Thursday and traditionally all the clergy gather at cathedrals for a special service that includes a ‘blessing of oils’. During the service clergy remember their vows and receive oils to use in services throughout the year. This year the services will be live streamed, and we will have to remember that the Holy Spirit is not confined to bottle or to a building!
It is easy to focus on all the things we don’t have at the moment: we miss our families and friends; some of us will miss going to a Maundy Thursday service with the washing of the feet and the stripping of the altar; those on their own might yearn for physical contact; and many of us are struggling financially. Perhaps we feel exhausted and depleted like those empty jars.
Elisha encouraged the widow to look inwards to see what she already had. She had a little oil and that could be used. What do we have right here and now? There will be something to be thankful for. And perhaps we could pray for the Holy Spirit to be present with us, that we would be filled, like those empty jars, to overflowing, and that we would know God’s abundant blessing.
This prayer is often sung during confirmation and ordination services – you can listen to a version here whilst you pray
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire
and lighten with celestial fire;
thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.
Thy blessed unction from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love;
enable with perpetual light
the dullness of our mortal sight.
* I was asked yesterday for more of my husband’s one-liners, so he was given free rein with the subtitle today!