There are several stories in the Bible describing gifts of mercy that God provided to widows. One of the earliest describes two widows who play a role in the family genealogy of Jesus, Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth.
The prophet Elijah is fed by a widow during a famine when she makes him a meal with the last bit of flour and oil that she has (I Kings 17). God blesses her faith by causing the small jar of oil and her store of flour to miraculously continue unabated until the rains finally return. Later when her son dies, Elijah brings him back to life.
Elijah’s disciple, Elisha, has a similar encounter with a widow who is seriously in debt. He prays over her small cruse of oil so that she is able to fill several large jars, sell the oil, and pay her debts (II Kings 4). The creditors had intended to take her two sons into slavery, so Elisha’s intervention rescues them as well.
There is an echo of these stories in the life of Jesus when he comes to the town of Nain.
Luke 7: 12. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out–the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her.
13. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”
14. Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!”
15. The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
Jesus taught us that, when we pray, the first thing to ask for is God’s will. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) Jesus followed his own instructions while praying at the Garden of Gethsemane. He was frank about what he wanted and didn’t want. But he still was willing to let God’s way prevail.
We can ask for other things and, indeed, are encouraged to do so. James notes, quite reasonably, “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” (James 4:2) But James goes on to warn that if our prayer is not answered it could be because, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives…” (v. 3)
What is interesting to me is that Jesus didn’t always wait to be asked. He gave the lame man lowered through the roof more than the man intended to ask (Luke 5, Mark 2). He also acted to raise the widow’s son before anyone asked. No one would have thought or dared to ask for that.
Even while dying on the cross, Jesus took time to set things in order for his own widowed mother, turning responsibility for her care over to John (John 19:25-27). In doing so, he saw to it that Mary would have another son to look after her. (And church tradition reports that John indeed had Mary with him when he later moved to Ephesus.)
What has recently been puzzling me is the treatment Jesus gave to another widow. Luke has this story and so does Mark.
Luke 21: 1. As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.
2. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.
3. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.
4. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
(See Mark’s account in Mark 12:41-44.)
Although Jesus noticed her, commended her, and praised her, he did not speak to her. He let her go back to wherever she came from, to continue what appears to be a life of lonely poverty. We’re still talking about her today, but it would certainly seem nothing changed for her that day in the life she had to live.
Is this a case of “you have not because you ask not”? Why didn’t Jesus take initiative and do something for her without waiting to be asked, besides mentioning his admiration of her to the disciples?
The question crosses my mind as I pray, once again, for my own healing. And for Melanie’s. And for dozens more names on our prayer list. I’ve asked. I’ve knocked (see my bruised knuckles?). Are my wishes really that different from what God is wanting? From what I thought He had promised?
One answer was suggested to me in a devotional Melanie read while we had breakfast. It reviewed Paul, Silas, and Luke’s visit to Philippi (Acts 16:12ff). Paul won converts there. Then he cast a demon out of a girl being used by her owners as a fortune teller. Upset at their loss of business, these men dragged Paul and Silas before the town authorities who had them beaten and thrown in jail.
If the story stopped there, we might feel justified in wondering why God didn’t intervene to save them.
But Luke, the faithful historian, tells what happened next. While singing in the darkened jail that night, there was an earthquake that caused all the prison doors to pop open. Next, Paul stopped the panicked jailer from killing himself and baptized the man’s household. And he refused to leave town until the city authorities apologized for arresting him.
So God did intervene. Just not at what seemed like the moment of greatest pain and need.
Who knows, maybe the widow that Jesus saw at the Temple returned home to the care of loving neighbors. Maybe she continued to be a blessing to them since she was obviously a faithful, godly woman (she had learned enough to trust God with her last two coins).
Maybe Jesus was holding off openly rewarding her until he could do so in front of all the hosts of Heaven. And until she had carried out whatever further witness God had prepared her to give.
In other words, until God’s will was fully done in her, through her, for her.