At first glance the story about the widow in Zarephath seems a bit harsh, perhaps too demanding. How could God expect someone on the point of starvation to provide what would be their last meal to a stranger? Why would He ask someone to do such a thing? It reminds us of Abraham who is asked by God to offer his only son Isaac. When it is God Himself who asks, obedience must be understood as access to true happiness. God gives us these stories to remind us that we cannot discern what we ought to do without consulting Him, His Word, His prophets.
Discernment is indeed a difficult subject, because God doesn’t ask us to do things because they are hard or because we do not understand. The testing that we experience in our faith is designed to liberate us from the human mode in which we normally operate. If this woman and her son will die of starvation, what is the value of living one more day when it means refusing hospitality to a stranger? Truly, giving up one’s last meal to a stranger is a kind of victory of love: it shows that love and generosity can be preferred to a self-centered worldview. We will all die, what is the value of extending that life for a brief moment when it robs us of our capacity for generosity? God shows the fruitfulness of hospitality and generosity by extending indefinitely the supply of food. We have to trust as well, that our role as salt and light in the world requires us to expend ourselves but extends the life and fruitfulness of the Gospel.
AUGUSTINE (CAESARIUS OF ARLES):
After this, Elijah was commanded to set out for Zarephath of the Sidonians, in order that he might be fed there by a widow. Thus, the Lord spoke to him, “Go to Zarephath of the Sidonians: I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” How and by whom did God command the widow, since there was almost no other prophet at that time except blessed Elijah, with whom God spoke quite plainly? Although the sons of some of the prophets lived at that time, they feared the persecution of Jezebel so much that they could scarcely escape even when hidden. “I have commanded a widow,” said the Lord. How does the Lord command, except by inspiring what is good through his grace within a soul? Thus, God speaks within every person who performs a good work, and for this reason no one should glory in himself but in the Lord. Were there not many widows in Judea at that time? Why was it that no Jewish widow merited to offer food to blessed Elijah, and he was sent to a Gentile woman to be fed? That widow to whom the prophet was sent typified the church, just as the ravens that ministered to Elijah prefigured the Gentiles. Thus, Elijah came to the widow because Christ was to come to the church.1
EPHREM THE SYRIAN:
When he found her barefoot and dressed in rags in the act of gathering some wood, wasted by starvation and made miserably thin, he had the impression of seeing a burned stick, and he himself was ashamed of asking her for bread so that he first asked her for water. Later he added the request of bread. He knew for sure that a jug of flour would not have been lacking thanks to the promise of his Lord.2
AUGUSTINE (CAESARIUS OF ARLES):
Thus, when Elijah came, the widow went out to gather two sticks of wood. Notice, brothers, that she did not say three or four, nor only one stick; but she wanted to gather two sticks. She was gathering two sticks of wood because she received Christ in the type of Elijah; she wanted to pick up those two pieces because she desired to recognize the mystery of the cross. Truly, the cross of our Lord and Savior was prepared from two pieces of wood, and so that widow was gathering two sticks because the church would believe in him who hung on two pieces of wood.3
Salt is useful for so many purposes in human life! What need is there to speak about this? Now is the proper time to say why Jesus’ disciples are compared with salt. Salt preserves meats from decaying into stench and worms. It makes them edible for a longer period. They would not last through time and be found useful without salt. So also Christ’s disciples, standing in the way of the stench that comes from the sins of idolatry and fornication, support and hold together this whole earthly realm.4
The element of water and the element of fire are combined and united in salt. So ordinary salt, made for the use of the human race, imparts resistance to corruption to the meats on which it is sprinkled. And, of course, it is very apt to add the sensation of hidden flavor. Likewise the apostles are the preachers of surprising heavenly things and eternity. Like sowers, they sow immortality on all bodies on which their discourse has been sprinkled. They are perfected by the baptism of water and fire.5
Though they once might have seasoned nonbelievers still foreign to the faith with the word of divine preaching, they instead showed themselves useless. Judas Iscariot deteriorated into this sort of useless salt. After he had rejected divine wisdom, having changed from an apostle into an apostate, he not only did not help others. He became wretched and useless even to himself.6
For, illumined by his very own self who is the true and eternal light, they too become light within the darkness. For since he himself is the sun of righteousness, he rightly also calls his disciples “light of the world.” Through them, as if through shining rays, he poured the light of his knowledge on the entire world. For by showing the light of truth, the Lord’s disciples made the darkness of error flee from people’s hearts.7
One who is pure in heart and a peacemaker, even when persecuted for the sake of truth, orders his way of life for the common good.8
So too every person in the church, possessing the word of God, is called a lampstand. But worldly people are more like bushel buckets, lacking both God and everything that is of God.9
THEODORE OF MOPSUESTIA:
So, what does the Savior mean by the “bucket” under which some people put the lamp? Here by “bucket” he means vice, and by “lamp,” virtue. People who intend to perform some illicit act walk in darkness, avoiding, if possible, the light.10
One must look deeply into the human heart to see in what direction it is turned and on what point its gaze is fixed. Suppose someone desires that his good work be seen by others. Suppose he regards his glory and profit according to the estimation of others and seeks to be elevated in the sight of others. By doing so he fulfills neither of the commands that the Lord has given in this text.
[…] even though one is seen by others in doing good works, in one’s conscience one ought to have the simple intention of glorifying God. It is only for the sake of God’s glory that we should allow our good works to become known.11
Let those you illumine by the light of your words be seasoned by the salt of your works. For the one who teaches and practices what he teaches, teaches truly. But one who does not practice what he teaches does not teach anyone but casts a bad light on himself. And it is better to practice and not to teach than to teach and not to practice. Because one who practices, though he may keep silent, corrects some people by his example. But one who teaches and does not practice not only corrects no one but even scandalizes many.12
The church leader should be equipped with all the virtues. He should be poor, so that he can chastise greed with a free voice. He should always be someone who sighs at inordinate pleasure, whether in himself or in others. He is ready to confront those who do not hesitate before they sin and those who do not feel sorry for having sinned after they sin. So let him sigh and lament. Let him show thereby that this world is difficult and dangerous for the faithful. He should be somebody who hungers and thirsts for justice, so that he might have the strength confidently to arouse by God’s Word those who are lazy in good works. He knows how to use the whip of rebuke, but more by his example than by his voice. He should be gentle. He rules the church more by mercy than by punishment. He desires more to be loved than feared. He should be merciful to others but severe with himself. He sets on the scales a heavy weight of justice for himself but for others a light weight. He should be pure of heart. He does not entangle himself in earthly affairs, but more so he does not even think of them.13
- SERMON 124.2. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (pp. 103–104). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON THE FIRST BOOK OF KINGS 17.2. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 104). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- SERMON 124.3. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 104). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- FRAGMENT 91. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 92). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON MATTHEW 4.10. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 92). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- TRACTATE ON MATTHEW 18.4.1–2. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 93). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- TRACTATE ON MATTHEW 19.1.1–2. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 93). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 15.7. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 93). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 10. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 94). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- FRAGMENT 26. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 94). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- SERMON 54.3. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (pp. 94–95). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 10.23. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 95). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 10. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 95). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.