Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

“Do not be afraid.”

November 11, 2012

First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Kings 17:8-16

“Do not be afraid.”

So say angels in Scripture when they encounter human beings, presumably because the immediate presence of an angel is a terrifying thing to experience.

“Do not be afraid.”
So also says Elijah today; Elijah, who is a crusty sort of angel, a messenger (which is the root meaning of mal’ak, the Hebrew word for “angel”) given to drama, depression, and doom-and-gloom pronouncements. Indeed, Elijah’s message to the sinful leaders of Israel is usually quite the opposite of what he says today: “Be afraid! Be very afraid!” (Therefore Ahab, in the next chapter, calls him, “you troubler of Israel.”) Elijah seeks above all to turn his people back to YHWH their God.

So it is all the more surprising that when Elijah says, “Do not be afraid,” it is not to the people of Israel, suffering from the drought that he prophesied, but to the unnamed widow of Zarephath, a non-Israelite, a woman who comes from the same land as the wicked Queen Jezebel.

“Do not be afraid.”
Easy for you to say, we might imagine her thinking. You’re not the one preparing to cook one last meal for yourself and your son before you die. You’re not the one who has watched your carefully-hoarded supply of flour and oil relentlessly dwindle day-by-day, week-by-week, as the sun bakes the seed in the hard, parched earth and the wadis run dry. You’re not the one who has watched your beloved son slowly grow thinner and more listless. Children are the first to suffer when the rains stop, but drought and famine know no pity.

What business has this man of God to ask her for bread, she who has so little? What business has he, asking her for bread before she feeds herself and her son? There is not enough to go around. There is not enough even for her and her son. The language she uses is the language of scarcity: “a handful of meal, “a little oil,” “a couple of sticks.” There is not enough. And Death waits at the door.

To quote another piece of Scripture: There is nothing new under the sun. You remember the images last year from the Horn of Africa. Drought and famine claimed tens of thousands of lives in southern Somalia, humanitarian efforts stymied by political instability. Or perhaps you, like me, still remember the terrible images from the drought of 1984-85 in Ethiopia that killed one million people. I remember leaving the room as my parents watched the news, sickened by the images of starving children with distended bellies and empty eyes. Those images galvanized a massive international response and eventually helped lead to movements like Jubilee 2000 and the One campaign, which work to address the root causes of poverty and hunger.1

I can’t help but think about those images again as I read this text. You see, I’m living this year in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and I am confronted daily by the specter of scarcity.

Don’t get me wrong. Things have vastly improved here in Ethiopia in the last 27 years. The government is stable and has made great strides (partly with the help of international donors) in the fight against poverty, but the threat of hunger and scarcity still stalks too many lives.

Ethiopia, like many sub-Saharan African countries, is plagued by poverty. Though things have gotten better in the last decade, according to the Global Hunger Index, 41% of Ethiopia’s population is undernourished and 35% of its children are underweight. Almost 30% of Ethiopians live on less than 60 cents a day. Everywhere I go in Addis Ababa, there are beggars, many of them children, or young mothers holding babies.

Even for those with jobs, life is not easy. The lovely young woman, Wengi, who sweeps our floors and washes our clothes lives in a one-bedroom house with her parents and her two adult siblings. They share a pit toilet with two other families. The three grown children cannot afford their own houses, especially in this city where affordable housing is scarce and unemployment is rampant. Wengi herself was out of work for two years before we offered her this part-time job. (And, yes, we are paying her more than the going rate for house help.)

Life here is not easy. At the same time, this land, like much of Africa, is rich in natural resources and in human resources. Wengi told me of her family’s living situation without a trace of self-pity. In fact, I think she pitied me for living so far from my extended family, back home in the States. She is rich with family — parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles — and they gather regularly for celebrations: weddings, baptisms, holidays. She is also rich in faith, like so many Ethiopians. The churches here overflow with worshipers, many sitting outside the church and listening through open windows because they cannot all fit in the sanctuary.

Scarcity … and abundance. The widow of Zarephath speaks of the one — there is not enough. Elijah, that crusty messenger of YHWH, speaks of the other:

“Do not be afraid … For thus says YHWH, the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that YHWH sends rain on the earth” (17:13, 14).

Elijah, that harbinger of doom, speaks a word of promise, a word of abundance: There is enough, more than enough.

And here’s something else interesting to note: When God first tells Elijah to go to Zarephath, God says, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you” (verse 9). But the widow doesn’t seem to have gotten that message. She refuses at first to feed Elijah, operating out of her well-founded fear. So Elijah becomes the messenger, the angel, who speaks the word of YHWH to her: Do not be afraid. God will provide. There is enough. There is more than enough.

That word of God frees the widow from her fear and enables her to step out in faith, trusting the God of Israel who sent this strange messenger to her.

And what about us? We who live in material abundance, who have more than we need, so much more that our houses and the waistlines of our pants have to grow to accommodate it all. Will we be the unlikely angels who proclaim God’s abundance? There is enough for all. There is more than enough.

Will we be not only the messengers, but also the means by which God shares that abundance with our neighbors, those on the other side of town and those on the other side of the world?

Finally, will we be the ones who hear and take to heart this word of God? Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. No need to hoard. No need to fear the neighbor, to close the borders, to circle the wagons. There is enough. There is more than enough. Will we allow that word of God to free us from our fear and enable us to be the recipients of all the abundance (of faith, of experience) that our global neighbors have to share?

I pray that it will be so for you, for me, and for all who hear this word.

Do not be afraid. There is enough. In God’s abundant mercy, there is more than enough. Thanks be to God.

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