Living in Abundance
Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
These words, by Thomas Hardy, come from a poem he wrote to commemorate the end of the First World War. The First World War ended on November 11, 1918. 100 years ago today.
The Great War, as it was called, was so terrible, the loss of life so great, that at the time, many assumed the memory of the war alone would be enough to usher in an era of lasting peace.
But we all know that wasn’t the case. With every war, we honor the sacrifice of our veterans. With every war, we honor the lives of those who died. And with every war, we stand with the widows and orphans who grieve.
The call of Remembrance Day is a call for lasting peace. For what better way can we remember those who have died and honor our veterans and our widows than by making sure we never fight another war again.
Widows feature prominently in Scripture. In the Ancient Near East, the norm was for Widows, Orphans, and Strangers to have nothing. Women weren’t supposed to own property. And so, if a woman’s husband died, her son inherited her husband’s wealth. If there was no son, it passed to the nearest male relative.
So beyond the grief of losing a husband, Widows lost whatever wealth and status their husband provided.
Widows are mentioned specifically almost 100 times in the Bible. As individual people, widows are often portrayed as examples of abundant generosity and righteous faith. As a “category” they show up as part of a triad: widows, orphans, and strangers. Widows, orphans, and strangers existed on the margins of society. And, as we hear, again and again, God loves to spend time in the margins.
Scripture makes it clear that God has a particular concern and care for widows.
The Torah contains many laws stipulating the various ways Israel is required to provide for widows, orphans, and strangers in their midst.
The Prophets repeatedly rebuke Israel for neglecting these laws. Neglecting to care for these members of their communities.
One day, Jesus and his disciples traveled to the city of Nain and Jesus saw a funeral procession for the son of a widow. Without even being asked, Jesus interrupts the procession and raises this woman’s son from the dead and returns him to his mother.
The implication is clear: God cares deeply about widows, orphans, and strangers. And we are called to do the same.
The story of the Widow of Zarephath would have been familiar to Jesus’ followers. Jesus specifically mentions the stories of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath in Luke’s Gospel.
Elijah was a prophet who lived during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel were, shall we say, less than ideal rulers. And so, God punished them by sending drought. A drought that lasted for over three years. During this drought, God sends Elijah to a widow with a young son and tells Elijah to ask her for food and water.
Imagine her shock! Elijah wasn’t exactly the most presentable figure in the bible. And yet here he is, a stranger, asking this woman for water in the middle of a drought. And when she agrees to bring him some he says, “Well, while you’re at it, if you could bring me a bit of bread, that would be great…”
She has nothing. She replies with one of the most poignantly melodramatic lines of scripture: “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.”
After a little prodding from Elijah, she changes her mind. She remembers the rules of hospitality. She shifts her focus. Initially, she’s focusing on what she doesn’t have. But when she reorients to look at what she does have, everything changes.
She welcomes Elijah into her home and, we are told, she, Elijah, and her son share several meals together. And, as Elijah said, her oil and flour lasted throughout the drought.
Scarcity and abundance.
When we look at the world from a place of scarcity, there is never enough. With a scarcity mindset, I can never have enough wealth, resources, friends, love, grace, self-worth, power. There isn’t enough to go around. I need to hoard whatever I do have in case someone comes to take it away.
Picture dragons in Norse mythology. Dragons are imagined as amassing huge mountains of gold. The catch is, they’re dragons! They can’t actually do anything with the gold other than sleep on it.
When we shift our focus and look at the world from the perspective of abundance, we see that there is enough. Of course, this doesn’t mean that reframing our thoughts will magically make us rich and powerful. It doesn’t mean that those of us living in poverty simply need to adopt a new mindset.
But it does mean that we can relax our grip. We can look at the things we do have and recognize that we don’t need to hoard our wealth and resources. To be willing to share what we have with others - and accept help from others as well - allows us to watch our gifts and treasures grow into something new and wonderful.
This is what Jesus was getting at when he commended the widow’s mite. In spite of the oppressive system supported by the scribes, this woman has looked at her finances and said “I have enough. I can share what I have with God and the community.”
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once defined sin as, not so much an issue of “bad behavior” so much as an issue of focus. Sin, he said, (and believe me: I’m paraphrasing big time here) is that impulse that causes us to turn our attention inward. That causes us to turn our backs on God and our neighbor in order to focus entirely on ourselves.
Are we pouring our energies into the love of self or love of God and love of neighbor?
That’s hard! No wonder sin is still around. No wonder we still need Jesus.
It’s hard to say “I have enough” and it’s hard to turn our focus from our own needs to those of the community. And yet, as members of the Body of Christ, we are called to share a common life.
And the good news is: we don’t have to do it alone.
Ours is a God of radical abundance. God creates, gives, and loves with a reckless, abandon.
God created the whole universe and then gave it to us. Think about that.
God loves us so passionately, that God was willing to live and die and rise to new life as one of us. To make it clear, once and for all, that we are fiercely loved.
It’s hard to imagine God being capable of loving that much. And yet, that’s who we know God to be. God’s abundant grace and love are showered on each of us with a reckless abandon. No matter how much money we have, no matter who we voted for, whether we won the war or lost it.
The question is, when we receive that Grace, what do we do with it? Do try to hoard it up for ourselves? Or do we turn around and share it with others?
Who are the widows, and orphans, and strangers among us? How can we redirect our attention to sharing our abundance with them?
For we must do so, so that one day, we can finally say again: “There [is] peace on earth and silence in the sky.”