The attempts on Jesus’ life started early. He had barely even begun his ministry when a crowd of people tried to throw him off a cliff. And it seems to come out of nowhere. One minute, everyone loves Jesus and praises how gracious he is. Then he makes passing reference to a story about a widow and the next thing you know they are hauling Jesus out of town in order to throw him off a cliff. Why does everyone get so angry?
There is more to this story than meets the eye. The story of the widow of Zarephath is buried deep in the muscle of the Hebrew Bible, in 1 Kings, when the primary concern of scripture is whether or not the people of God are structuring public life according to divine law. Is the king a good king or a bad king? Is public life running how God wants it or not? This is the focus of the books of the kings.
God had made a straightforward deal. The people would enjoy peace and prosperity, as long as they followed the law of God, worshiping God alone and making God’s priorities their priorities—care for the widow and the orphan, welcoming the stranger and lifting the downcast. But if they strayed from that, God promised, their prosperity would end. That’s how it worked, God told them. It was a moral law built into history.
The people liked the peace and prosperity, but they didn’t like that the price of God’s favor was ordering their common life such that God’s blessings were shared by everyone. Respectable people, the kind who were enjoying at LEAST their fair share of the prosperity and would like a bit more. Respectable people started ignoring God’s commandments for justice, hoping that maybe they could have God’s favor and also ignore the plight of the suffering. People didn’t like that the worship of God required generosity and justice, and so they chased after other gods that offered easier, softer ways, hoping their prosperity would stick around. That didn’t happen, God had instituted a moral law of history and because some had too much too many had nothing at all a terrible drought came onto the land. God said that the drought was a punishment and the drought wouldn’t end until God’s priorities started coming first.
People were hungry and thirsty and they were crying for God to do something to help. And God did do something. God provided endless food and drink…for one woman, a widow from Zarephath. Generally accepted opinion at that time was that widows were useless drains on society. And if God helping a useless widow weren’t bad enough, this woman was a foreigner! Zarephath was way past the border over by the sea. God would rather help a foreign born drain on society than lift a finger to help respectable people who’s only crime was looking out for themselves. At any rate, that’s the story of the widow of Zarephath, God will send help to the needy and will send suffering for those who made the needy be so needy in the first place.
But back to Jesus. Here he is at a religious service, surrounded by respectable people, in his home town. These respectable people had heard a lot about Jesus, that he was full of God’s blessings and that he could do share those blessings with anyone he wanted. So Jesus stands up and says:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
This all seems great, so far so good, the respectable people are eating this up. Who wouldn’t like the idea of the year of the Lord’s favor? It seems like they stand to benefit. But then Jesus goes and ruins the mood. He says he knows what they want, they want him to bless them, to do for them what he did in other towns for the laborers and the fishermen, the downtrodden and the sick. It’s not going to happen, Jesus says. His blessings are like God’s blessings. Jesus says his blessings are for people like the widow of Zarephath, for poor people, for the lowly, for foreigners. For respectable types, the best he could offer them was a drought.
They didn’t want any of this to be true and so they laid violent hands on him to make him shut up. The crowd that had adored him moments before makes an attempt on his life, because Jesus told them that his priorities are God’s priorities. This story see a truth that echoes throughout scripture. God’s promises are good news but not everyone is going to feel like they are good news.
God promises release to the prisoner. That means freedom for those behind bars, but to the jailer, God’s good news means unemployment, lost wages, an unwelcome need to change their whole life.
God promises good news to the poor. That means food for the hungry and home for the dispossessed, but to the greedy, God’s good news means their riches will be taken from them, and they will go without the opulence they care about more than their neighbor.
God’s good news is not going to feel like good news to everyone. So it’s understandable why people might hope they could have their prosperity and still ignore the plight of the suffering. That would be more convenient, if there were an easier, softer way people would take it.
But there isn’t. That’s what Jesus means when he says God has sent me to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ That’s what Jesus means when he says “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. Jesus means that what God has resolved to do, no human person can stop. God has resolved to lift up the poor, no human system of oppression can keep them down. God is God, and I am not.
There is a moral law in history, that prosperity—when shared with all—shall flourish and spread, but prosperity hoarded will bring nothing but suffering to everyone. That’s how it works. There is one way to ensure that the work of my life will come to nothing. There is one way to be certain that everything I try to accomplish will fail. The one way to waste my life is to try to stand against God’s good news. If I build structures that keep poor people poor, God will tear them down. If I build prison after prison to warehouse black and brown people, God will tear the bars apart like tissue. If I forge deadly weapons meant for nothing but killing God’s children, then God will melt them like candle wax. It may not be while I am alive, but my life is short and God’s reach is long and whether God tears down my wicked works tomorrow or in a century makes no difference, it still winds up a rubble heap. God is God and I am not, and so unless I like the idea of the work of my life amounting to nothing, I had better join the winning team.
Because, Christians, the inverse is true too. There is one way to be absolutely certain that the work of your life will be successful. One way to be certain you work will be prosperous. That is to work in service of the good news. If you give up a morning to cook and hand out hot meals to people living on the street, God will take those meals and build them into an end to all hunger. If you work to keep one teenager out of prison for a youthful mistake, God will turn that one free child and turn them into a just society that restores rather than avenges. It may not be while you are alive, human life is short and God’s reach is long, and whether God’s completes the good works you do tomorrow or in a century makes no difference, in the end God will get what God wants. That’s how it works.
I would not advise you to simply take my word for it on this, however. This is far too important for that. I would advise you to try it out. Do something that you know to be beyond your ability to accomplish on your own. Do something which will take far longer than your lifetime to achieve. Do something that sings of the good news to your spirit. Do something great and high and holy, and see what God will do.