1 Kings 17:8-16
8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah. (NRSV)
The Order Of Things
As a child, my favorite Old Testament stories were those of Elijah and Elisha. For some reason they captivated me, and I would read them over and over again. I would even hide under my covers with a flashlight to read them after my parents thought I was asleep. Maybe it was because they tell of miraculous deeds that seem beyond our own reality. I like stories like that. That’s why I read and write fantasy and Sci-Fi novels.
In this story, God sends Elijah to Zarephath. First, it seems odd because Zarephath isn’t in the land of Israel; it’s in the territory of Sidon. The people of this region worshipped Baal, not the Lord. It’s stranger, still, that Elijah would be sent to Sidon because another Sidonian woman named Jezebel, who was Israel’s Queen at the time, plays a prominent role in the story of Elijah. She was the champion of Baal and the murderer of the Lord’s prophets in Israel.
The Lord tells Elijah to go to Zarephath because he has commanded a widow there to feed him. Now, understand that widows almost always represented the poorest of the poor in ancient middle-eastern culture. So the idea that a widow could feed and care for a complete stranger is absurd. What’s more, the Lord has appointed this widow to feed Elijah, but apparently the widow doesn’t know it. She has been chosen by God for purposes of salvation, but she doesn’t have a clue about it yet. All she can see is her own poverty and desperate plight. The widow encounters Elijah at the gate of the town while she’s gathering sticks for a fire. Elijah asks her for a drink of water, and this widow simply stops what she’s doing to get it for him.
As she’s going to get the water, Elijah says, “Bring me a morsel of bread too.” It’s this second request that causes the woman to stop. She doesn’t have any bread to give. In fact, she is about to give up on life itself. Her future is as empty as her hand.
She replies to Elijah, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.”
You see, there was a famine in Sidon and Israel at this time. All this poor woman could see was scarcity all around her. She had lost her husband, so she had no one to provide for her. Her jar of meal was almost empty, and there was no chance of refilling it. Her jug of oil was almost empty, and there was no chance for her to buy more. She had no hope of living much longer because the sustenance of life which sustained her was at its end. There was nothing more. And she had no hope for her son. All she could see was the imminence of a slow death of starvation.
The widow was going home to make her last supper. She was going to share it with her son, and then she would wait until death took them both.
This is a reality that a lot of people face every day in our world. For those of us in this sanctuary, our situations are not nearly as dire as the widow’s, but for some reason, even in times of abundance our worldview is generally one of scarcity. It’s the way individuals in our culture are shaped from birth to death: we’re told we can never have enough, so we think we never have enough to get all that we think we need. When it comes to our own resources—especially money—we see scarcity instead of abundance.
No matter how much a person makes, almost every American believes that if they made 20% more than their current income, they would have some breathing room. All we can see is what we don’t have. So it’s understandable that, when we hear God wants us to give 10%, all we can see is how horribly that would set us back. If we give 10%, then we’ll need to make 30% more to have breathing room, or however the math works out there, because it’s all proportional. But the truth is, unless we’re going home to cook our last meal and die, we’ve never seen scarcity.
Like the widow, who, when she was asked to give a morsel of bread responded by saying that she didn’t have enough, most Protestant Christians respond to God’s request for a tithe—for 10% of our income—by saying that we don’t have enough. We know what we have, we’re on a fixed income, and if we give what God is asking us to give, there won’t be enough for us to live on. It’s impossible to give 10% of our income and still expect to live a satisfactory life. I’ve heard those words uttered in the halls of church buildings. And, when we take a look at the way people live in this country, you’ve got to admit it’s a fair assumption.
Here are some recent statistics. Half of all Americans spend more money than they earn in a given year, carry a monthly debt balance of $15,611 across multiple credit cards, and have decreased charitable giving as a percentage of income every year since 1968.
People in the lower economic strata actually tend to give a higher percentage of their income than people in the higher economic strata. Which means the more money we earn, the less money we think we have to give.
I know from personal experience that it isn’t easy to look at income verses expenses and come to the conclusion that giving 10% to church is even a doable option. We see scarcity. So most Christians give what they feel they can afford to give, which on average is less than a quarter of a tithe. United Methodists give an average of just under 2% to God. Now, that’s an average, so it includes tithers and non-tithers. The statistic says that the vast majority of people in any given congregation do not give God 10%.
Now, let me be clear about something. I’m not preaching on this in order to make anyone feel guilty. We don’t give because we feel guilty. We give because we love God. We give because God asks us to give proportionally according to what God gives to us. And we give because we want to support ministries that make a difference in the world around us. If you don’t tithe, I don’t want you to feel guilty about it. But I do want you to think about what you give and how you give. After all, if you do not tithe, you are in the majority.
I realize that many people confuse our self-worth with our financial-worth, and so any talk about money is a difficult subject. In fact, most people don’t want their pastor to talk about money at all because they don’t think it has a place in the church. The church is a place where we should talk about spiritual things, not things like money. And if you think that, that’s ok, but I’m going to respectfully disagree with you. As I said last week, I firmly believe that financial giving is absolutely integral to spiritual wholeness. Money, possessions, and what we do with them are spiritual matters that Jesus talked about a LOT. These things are spiritual matters.
So how do we break the false cycle of scarcity and start to see the reality of God-given abundance in our lives? Perhaps Elijah and the widow of Zarephath can help us. After saying that she did not have enough, Elijah says to her, “‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and for your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’ She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.” (1 Kg. 17:13b-16).
I think those first words of Elijah to the widow are probably the most important: “Do not be afraid.” When we can only see scarcity, we’re gripped by fear and anxiety. This fear makes us feel like we can’t give all that God asks us to give because we won’t have enough for ourselves. How will we be able to pay our credit card bills, our mortgage, our car payments, our insurance fees, our utility bills, our property taxes, and still buy groceries if we give a full tithe? It’s a very real and fearful thing to think that we might not have enough. But Elijah says, “Do not be afraid.” It is important that we stop being afraid, that we stop allowing the fear of scarcity to overcome us. Do not be afraid.
The next thing Elijah says is also very important, “go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” (1 Kg. 17:13). You see, God knows what we need to live on. God knows we have bills. God knows we need money to buy food and pay for our expenses. So God says through Elijah, “Go and do as you have said.” Make some food for yourself and for your son. Use your money to pay your bills and buy food. “But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” (1 Kg. 17:13).
But first set aside your tithe and bring it to God, and afterwards pay your bills and buy your food. You see, if we put ourselves first by spending our money on our wants and needs first and then give God the leftovers out of our paycheck, we will never have 10% left to give to God. We’ll never have enough to give what God is asking of us. But if we put God first, and we give to God our tithe first, give it right away, and then afterwards take care of our expenses, we will always have enough for both ourselves and for God.
Now, it might mean that we have to change some of our spending habits, but that’s probably not a bad thing. Remember that statistic about half of Americans spending more than they earn? The spending habits of a lot of Americans need to change because they are unhealthy and unsustainable.
Now, a little word on credibility. I can preach this message to you because I do it. I’m not saying that to brag, I’m saying it so you know your pastor isn’t trying to suggest that you do something that I don’t do. Joy and I tithe on our take-home pay and then some. We made a commitment to tithing when we were first married, and we have continued in that practice.
It wasn’t always easy. When we got married in October of 2001, our financial situation was not pretty. I was a full-time student in seminary, she worked full-time. We both had student loans from our undergraduate degrees and auto loans. We both wondered how on earth we were going to pay our debt off. We wondered if we could afford to tithe. But we had committed to tithing, so we did it.
And you know what? There has always been enough for God and for us. We actually paid off our debts faster than we expected, and we attribute that to tithing. It seems counter-intuitive. But when we put God first, like the widow of Zarephath did, God changes our thinking about money and possessions. We reprioritize our financial lives so there is always enough. We have enough. We simply need to open our eyes to see the abundance of God rather than scarcity of our fears.
The last bit of this is important too. After hearing the words of Elijah, we are told that the widow “went and did as Elijah said.” (1 Kg. 17:15). The widow put her fear aside. She gave first to God. Then she made something for herself and her son. And listen to the result of her faithfulness, “she, as well as he and her household ate for many days. The Jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.” (1 Kg. 17:15-16).
We might not have a miracle in a jar, but in the widow of Zarephath we do have an example of faithfulness that we can follow. We can choose to give to God first. When we become tithers, God works a miracle in us. We stop seeing the world in terms of scarcity, and start to see the world in light of the awesome abundance that God has provided for us. We begin to see generosity as a way of life: generosity in what we receive and in what we give.
It starts by putting that fear aside and doing what God asks of us. Like the widow, God has called each of us for purposes of salvation. Maybe we don’t see it yet. But our giving supports ministry which changes lives in this building, and across the world. What the widow gave fed God’s servant, Elijah. What we give keeps ministries going: ministries which feed the bodies and souls of our community and the world. It goes towards efforts to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ here and across the planet.
It takes the resources God has given to us in order for mission, ministry, and public worship to happen. That’s why God asks us to give a tithe. All we have to do is put God first.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV).