Entering into the experience of the oil

August 20, 2017

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace using 2 Kings 4.1-37 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 20th August 2017, the Tenth Sunday after Trinity.

This morning I’m going to focus on one particular and rather lovely miracle of Elisha; the miraculous multiplication of oil. It’s a beautiful story: a widow is saved from having to sell her sons into slavery.  The story is a reminder of many things. Firstly that miracles have always been part of the story of the people of God, they are not a modern phenomenon. Our own cathedral has many stories of healing attached to it, as pilgrims flocked to touch the bones of Saint Swithun and left their crutches behind.  Aelfric tells that the monks of Winchester, who were charged with getting up in the night and singing praise to God for every healing, grew rather tired of having to break their sleep to sing the Te Deum three or four times every night because so many were being healed. Secondly we need to remember that, although healings happen all the time, truly spectacular miracles are unusual: unusual enough to be worth writing about. The third thing to remember is that miraculous happenings such as Elijah and the oil are signs. The gospel miracles of Christ each had particular significance beyond the event itself, and the miracles of the apostles acted as divine signatures proving that their testimony was true. They don’t need to be rationalised or explained any more than a butterfly’s wings are improved by being laid on the dissection table.  They need to be entered into, encountered and experienced in the heart and the soul.

So let’s enter into and experience this moment in  Elisha’s life. Elisha was a prophet of the ninth century BC whose  name literally means “My God is salvation”. Throughout the second book of Kings Elisha brought that salvation to a number of people in trouble. The fourth chapter of the second book of Kings has four stories reporting five miracles worked by Elisha: the miraculous oil, the miraculous birth and resurrection of a son, a stew made edible and the multiplication of bread and grain.

The particular story gives us some insight into the way of life of Old Testament itinerant prophets, whose needs were modest. This widow’s husband probably gave up his material goods when he started following Elisha as his disciple. Then he died leaving family in debt. No wonder the widow comes to Elisha, she feels, quite rightly that he has a moral obligation to help her, because without him the family would not be in their current financial mess.

Widows relied on the support of their sons in order to survive. If the widow has no sons because they have been sold she herself faces ruin. It may seem odd or cruel to our ears that the woman’s sons were to be sold to pay the debt, however Mosaic Law did allow this to happen, but only for a limited amount of time. The sons would have to be freed in the seventh year, but that would be too long for this poor widow to survive on her own.

Elisha cannot help her materially, however he must feel the moral obligation to help and he does have the gift of being able to work miracles. So he asks her what she has in the house, to which the woman replies.

“Nothing  –   Apart from a small jar of oil,”

Commentators tell us that the Hebrew word used for this is more along the lines of perfume jar than kitchen container. The amount of oil that this woman has is therefore tiny.

But no matter. Elisha is going to work with that.

So he tells the woman to take that one, minuscule bottle of oil and pour that out in faith into the borrowed vessels. Now just imagine for a moment that you are that widow. Would you do it? Despite all you know about the size of the vessels and the size of the oil. Would you step out and try this thing in the hope, in the possibility that something might happen?

She must have felt ridiculous as picked up the first pan she had borrowed from her neighbour and started to pour.  For that matter she must have felt ridiculous borrowing pans from her neighbours when she has nothing in the house. In my imagination I wonder what sort of excuses she came up with to borrow the utensils. They know she’s a widow and doesn’t have large numbers of relatives coming around for family parties. Did she tell them about the oil? Did she tell them the size of the bottle she was about to decant?

Yet she does step out in faith, or perhaps she steps out in desperation and obediently follows the instructions of the prophet, even though the instructions are difficult and embarrassing. Sometimes I do believe God honours our willingness to simply look stupid for him.

Yet as she begins to pour the oil miraculously kept pouring from the original vessel until all the borrowed vessels were filled. At the end of it, she has a lot of oil and her problems are solved.

We notice that Elisha made her do this task herself. Perhaps Elisha was tempted to gather the vessels and pour the oil himself, but he knew that she had to be the one to step out.

The vessels also had to be empty before they could be filled with oil. It did no good to bring the widow full vessels. Perhaps there is a lesson for us there. Sometimes we need to get rid of our excess baggage before we can enter into the experience of God’s power. Sometimes we need to create some room, some empty space for God to fill as he wishes.

The oil did not pour out on the ground or simply flow about. It was intended for a prepared vessel. Each vessel had to be prepared by being gathered, by being assembled, by being emptied, by being put in the right position and by staying in the right position. When there was no more prepared vessel, the oil stopped. Perhaps you could say the same thing for us too. We need to gather, to prepare, to experience the wonder of an encounter with God.

Curiously if the woman had borrowed only a few vessels, she would only have received a little oil. She was the one to decide how much she would receive.

Ultimately the message of this miracle is one of provision, but it is not provision divorced from our everyday lives and our own gifts, because in this miracle God, through Elisha, uses what the widow already has. He asks her “what do you have in the house?”

If she had said almonds, or olives,  or even fruitcake

then the prophet would have used those things to work a similar act of multiplication. It is a sign that whatever we have to offer to God, however small, however feeble we think that it is, can be multiplied.

“What have you got?” This is the question that God is constantly asking us too.  We are not expected to acquire something out of the blue from elsewhere, or be someone that we are not. Rather we are constantly called to offer what we already posses in honesty, even our doubts fears and cynicism  and give those things into the hands of God to take and transform into something that brings life, health and joy to the world around us.  It doesn’t matter if we don’t have very much. It is our willingness to share and work with what we’ve got that can make all the difference in this needy world.