2 Kings 4:1-7
Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves.” Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” She answered, “Your servant has nothing in the house, except for a jar of oil.” He said, “Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbours, empty vessels and not just a few. Then go in, shut the door behind you and your children, and start pouring into all these vessels; when each is full, set it aside.” So she left him and shut the door behind her and her children; they kept bringing vessels to her, and she kept pouring. When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” But he said to her, “There are no more.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She came and told the man of God, and he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest.” (2 Kings 4:1-7 NRSV)
My attention to this passage was drawn by its mention at a recent Salt conference. (Salt is the fast emerging Christian Aid business network). One workshop focused on the plight of people living and working in conditions of economic slavery. Here we have a biblical story where children are threatened with slavery. It begins with the widow of a prophet crying to Elisha: ‘Your servant my husband is dead…a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves’. Perhaps this prophet was a quasi-colleague of Elisha: it’s interesting she calls him ‘your servant’. Anyway, his premature death has left his wife destitute. No Church of England pension payable on this church worker’s death! The widow is not just poor; she’s in debt. The only way she sees herself able to survive is through selling her two children into slavery.
This is an all too common situation today, especially in the Global South: India and Cambodia are two countries among many where desperate parents sell their children into slavery: sometimes as servants, sometimes doing gruelling physical work, sometimes as child prostitutes.
The widow in our story is confronted by a creditor who is determined she should pay the family debts. We might assume the creditor was cruel and heartless, but this wasn’t necessarily the case; there was a social expectation that debts should be paid, and the creditor might have returned the children once the widow had done so. Elisha was certainly not afraid to confront people who abused power, but his response is not to ask to see the creditor and give him a piece of his mind.
A Jar of Oil
Elisha’s response is fascinating. Various stories about him reveal that he had a keen and sympathetic interest in people’s economic welfare, and was quick to find practical solutions to problems. But he doesn’t immediately offer the woman advice. He begins with a rhetorical question ‘What shall I do for you?’ which shows that he wants to help, and then asks her: ‘Tell me, what do you have in the house?” Yes, she’s poor; yes, she’s in debt; but does she have any assets she can put to good use? The answer is that she has one: ‘Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil’.
Oil was a staple commodity in biblical times, and still is. Oil is useful for all sorts of different purposes: lighting, heating, cooking, anointing, healing, even cosmetics: Psalm 104:15 commends the use of ‘oil to make the face shine’. A jar of oil was a definite asset. The Sunday school version of this story assumes it was a little jar, in order to emphasise the miraculous nature of what follows, and it may have been; but not necessarily. It could have been a large jar of oil, well capable in an entirely normal way of filling several smaller vessels. Whatever the size of the jar, Elisha sees it as replete with potential: an answer to the widow’s problem. As a man of God (which is how he’s repeatedly described) he believes God can stretch this asset to provide all the widow’s needs.
Notice the way he suggests she make use of this asset. She could simply have sold the jar as it was. But it’s unlikely that a single sale would have made her enough money to clear her debts, and it would have left her without any oil which she and her children needed as much as anyone else. So Elisha now gives his first piece of practical advice: ‘Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbours, empty vessels and not just a few’. The answer to the widow’s problems doesn’t lie with her alone; her neighbours have a role to play. After all, the Jewish law told people to care for the widows in their midst. They supply the vessels that she and her children fill with oil.
An Entrepreneurial Community
In essence, Elisha creates an entrepreneurial community within which the woman is able to start a small business. She enlists her neighbours’ help, even if they may have been only dimly aware of what she was up to; filling the jars goes on behind closed doors. In addition, she enlists her children’s help. They go out to the neighbours and ask for vessels. A shrewd move: the neighbours may have been more likely to say yes to a child’s request. It is the widow’s son who reports when there are no more vessels to collect. Only at that point does the oil stop flowing. Whether by natural means or miraculous means, the oil had kept filling the vessels up to that point.
What does she do with all this oil that has accumulated? Here Elisha gives his second piece of practical advice: ‘Go, sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest’. That is the end of the story. We assume the widow did that and the family were able to survive intact. Perhaps the widow sold some of the oil to the neighbours who had lent her their vessels, so that they actually got their vessels back.
This is a story which speaks extremely powerfully to single women bringing up children, often on their own, in the Global South. Poor women who nevertheless have something. The all too tempting solution – and one towards which they’re often pressurised by men – is to sell their bodies for sex. But alternatives exist. They may have a cow or two which produce milk. They may have a skill in braiding hair or applying make-up which other women may prize. They may breed maggots which can be fed to chicken and pigs. Africa and Asia are full of resourceful women running small businesses and giving moral support to each other in doing so. The overwhelming majority of loans made by micro-finance organisations go to women, most running small businesses from home. The women organise themselves in groups and encourage each other to be disciplined about paying back the loans little by little and on time. And often they’ll use their children to perform tasks which contribute to the micro-business.
A Challenge to Us All
This is a story, however, which has a much wider relevance. All of us, rich or poor, whatever the sector we work in, are into the business of asset evaluation. We may feel that we’re down on our luck or have little to offer; our resources are decidedly few. But there may be an asset somewhere in your possession or that of your company or congregation which is going neglected. There may be the equivalent of a jar of oil that actually represents unseen riches, and could be the answer to your problems. It’s time to start drawing from that jar. Pray that God will open your eyes to it or send an Elisha who will help you to see it.
- Try to identify what is the jar of oil that could be put to good use
- Think how it could be put to good use
- Pray to the God who can do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine (Eph 3:20)