Year B, Proper 27
Once…long ago…there was an old woman who lived in a village by the sea. She was a fisherman’s widow. Life was not easy and she was quite poor. The people of her village were very poor. Beaten down by their hardships they were not inclined toward generosity or friendliness. So the widow lived an isolated life and survived on what she could catch from the sea or gather at the seashore.
One day she was fishing when she saw that a wounded hippocampus, a water horse, had been stranded on the beach. Now a hippocampus is part horse and part fish. They are beloved companions of the mer people, mermaids and mermen. There was a circle of young girls from the village surrounding the water horse. The animal could barely raise its head, yet these girls were teasing it and throwing rocks. The fisherman’s widow rushed to defend the animal and shooed the girls away. She cradled its head in her lap and did what she could to bind its wounds. After a time it began to revive. Finally it was able to speak.
“Good woman,” said the water horse. “You have saved my life. I am strong enough now to return to the sea. In return for your kindness I would like to offer you three wishes. I will grant you whatever you ask.”
The widow replied, “Anything?!”
“Yes,” said the stately creature.
“I would like for you to make my village prosperous so the people do not have such hard lives.”
As she said this, the widow lifted her eyes to look over the sand dunes. She saw the village change before her very eyes. The houses were transformed from shacks to cottages with gardens. The once dismal marketplace became bustling with commerce.
“And the second wish?”
“I would like you to transform the people of my village into good and kind people. Generous of heart. No one will ever be turned away from their doors again.”
With that wish, the old widow saw the faces of the young girls on the beach turn from sullen and frowning to joyful and full of compassion. The girls gathered around the woman and the water horse in concern greeting the old woman with respect and honor.
“And your third wish? You have asked for two wishes that were for others. What do you want for yourself?”
“I wish, Water Horse, that you would bring me death.”
There was a gasp from all the girls. The water horse, too, was concerned. It said, “Why do you want death? Your village is now prosperous and the people are kind and good. Life will be much better for you here.”
“No,” said the widow. “I have lived my life. I am old, tired and sad. Life is very lonely. There is nothing left for me here.”
“I cannot grant you death,” said the water horse. “If you are set on this wish you must come with me back to my home below the sea to meet the Prince of my people.”
The girls of the village cried out in alarm and tried to convince the old woman not to go on such a dangerous journey. But she would not be deterred. So putting her hand on the shoulder of the water horse she walked with him into the waves, down into the depths of the sea. …
Read the ending of this story from Greek folklore at: http://www.pantheon.org/areas/folklore/folktales/articles/fishermans_widow.html
The widow is a biblical story character that illuminates the plight of the poor and the oppressed, the outcast and marginalized throughout Hebrew scripture and the New Testament. It is also a well-known character in folktales across the world, though the widow is not always poor and not always trusting or generous as many biblical widows seem to be. (Check out this widow story, “The Widow of Stavoren” at http://hollandtour.org/widow-stavoren.html). In our texts this week we have an abundance of widows – two in the book of Ruth, one in I Kings and one in the gospel of Mark. I think we should pay attention! What are we to learn from these widows?
All of the widows we encounter this week are indeed poor. Naomi and Ruth find a way out of their poverty through Ruth’s marriage to Boaz. Using the traditions of the community harvest celebrations of their time, as well as of marriage and inheritance, they gain status the only way they can – through family connection to a man who is kin to them. As we read last week, Ruth, a Moabite, has been extraordinarily faithful to Naomi, her Hebrew mother-in-law. She could have returned to her own family but she comes with Naomi to share in her plight in Bethlehem. She professes to adopt the god of Naomi’s people, Yahweh. Her faithfulness is noticed, rewarded and ultimately blessed by God as she becomes gives birth to Obed, who will be the grandfather of the shepherd king, David.
The widow of Zarephath also trusts in God in extraordinary ways by trusting God’s prophet, Elijah. What Elijah asks makes little common sense, yet she follows his instructions and she, her son and the prophet are fed throughout a long period of famine. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus notices a widow who follows in the footsteps of Naomi, Ruth, and the widow in I Kings. She is trusting God that through following the old laws of giving back to God from the abundance that God has given her all will be well. We do not know her livelihood circumstances but we can surmise that they are meager. She may make her living through begging if she does not have sons or a brother or uncle to support her. Yet in trust and humbleness she freely gives of what she has. Jesus lifts up her generosity in opposition to the showy and not so generous offerings of the rich.
Psalm 127 holds a key phrase that highlights the imagery of the widow characters we meet this week. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). Unless we trust completely in God in the building of our lives it will be in vain. We only produce “anxious toil” (Psalm 127:2). There is a wonderful woman in my church who collects frogs because she loves the acronym, F.R.O.G – Fully Relying On God. The widows of our texts today fully relied on God and in doing so influenced others to do the same. They can sing with psalmist “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God…who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry…sets the prisoners free…opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…loves the righteous…watches over the strangers….upholds the orphan and the widow…(Psalm146:5,7-9).
This week you have a wealth of Biblical stories to tell. If you are preaching on I Kings you might want to tell Mark 12 as a children’s time story. Or vice versa. You might tell each of those scriptures from the standpoint of the widow. As the widow of Zarephath what is your first impression of this “crazy” prophet? What does he look like? What is he wearing? Does he smell funny? Can you describe the smells of the cooking bread, the taste of the water? The wonder of pouring out the oil into the meal and then seeing the oil fill the jar again? Or the meal fill up the bin again? How does it feel to see your son grow nourished after being on the verge of starvation? To see his cheeks fill out and his energy for play return? Can you imagine a conversation with the prophet as the famine continues?
these coins? Did you have to beg for them? What have you been doing in your day thus far and what urged you to come to temple worship? What are you wearing and what have you had to eat today? Do you have any family or friends? What experience(s) in your life gives you the assurance that you can give all that you have at this moment to God? What are the sights, sounds and smells of the temple? Do you see the rich putting in their large sums and if so how do you feel about this? Have you ever heard about this rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth? Enjoy your tellings! And blessings on your story journey,
- “Welcoming the Widow” peace statue in Northern Ireland; photographer, Jane Anne Ferguson
- “Three Women Nanda” http://journalism.missouri.edu/2013/03/ma-student-featured-in-kashmir-exhibit/
Ruqayya, 23, sits along with her two sisters behind a translucent curtain in their home at Sheeri village in Northern Kashmir . Her 24 year old husband, Nazir Ahmad, a baker by profession, was killed during protests against Indian rule on 24th August, 2010. The year 2010 witnessed the severest popular anti-India revolt in Kashmir leading to the death of 113 people mostly teenagers and children. Her two elder sisters Shamima and Zarifa also lost their husbands in the 20 year old conflict. Samima’s husband Ali Mohammad was the member of the counter-insurgency group of the Indian police and was blown up by militants in an IED blast in 2002. Zarifa’s husband was killed by unknown gunmen in 1995. The three sisters never married again and live together with no man in their home.
- “Love God with All Your Might” from http://www.jameschristensenart.com