She left and did as Elijah had said. She was able to eat for a year, and Elijah and her son as well; the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, as the Lord had foretold through Elijah.
1 Kings 17:15-6
Just so your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly father.
It is said the the Italian hostess or host has one great fear: that there will not be enough food. One of the greatest sources of anxiety for us as human persons is that there is not and we are not “enough.” It is this fear and anxiety that is the source of much of our selfishness. As a result the foundations of our economies and of God’s economy are very different.
In the familiar story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath we see that the person God has chosen to provide for Elijah is one whose store is down to “a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug . . . .” So impoverished is she that she is readying to prepare what she is sure will be the last meal for her son and herself. We know of the centrality in ancient cultures of the value of hospitality. The summons of that call, we see in this story, extends even to that place where we are down to our last handful of flour and drop of oil. As we see repeated throughout the scriptures, God has provided plenty for all of us. Famine is not God’s doing; it is ours. It is our refusal to practice and live hospitality that is the source of the desperate lack of many in the world.
In his book written in the light of the financial crisis of 2008 and following, Jim Wallis quotes an ancient Pelagian tract used in the early church:
Some people are indigent for the very reason that others hold a superfluity. Take away the rich person and you will find no pauper. No one should own more than is necessary but everyone should have what they need. A few rich people are the reason why there are so many poor. (Rediscovering Values, p. 115)
The evangelical counsel of poverty is, quite simply, living the truth of our dependence on God and not attempting to fill our spiritual lack with material goods which, in their very nature, truly belong to everyone. Everything we have that is more than we need is taken away from what God has provided and always continues to provide for all.
As long as we live by withholding from others, by hoarding for ourselves, we shall never know the bounty of God. But the truth is that to be hospitable requires of us to confront the lie that we never have or never are enough. Jim Wallis quotes from a study conducted by PNC Advisors which illustrates that “rich people almost never feel secure in their wealth.” When recognizably wealthy persons were asked how much they would need to feel secure, almost all give as the requisite amount twice their net worth or income. So those with a net worth of half a million to 1 million dollars would say 2.4 million. Those with a net worth of 1 to 1.5 million would say 3 million. Those with a net worth of 10 million or more said 18 million. In short, we can never feel secure by accumulation of wealth and possession. According to the scriptures it is only possible to know that we are secure by sharing what we have with others.
During the worst days of the recent financial crisis, a friend mentioned to me that she had hopes that the experience could be a turning point for our culture. Her hopes lay in her noting that so many more people were asking each other, even total strangers, if they were all right. Similarly, Jim Wallis points out that the highest rate of charitable giving per capita in the United States was in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. Yet, a few relatively minor adjustments to banking regulations aside, it appears that the values of consumerism and unbridled capitalism proved far more intractable that some had hoped.
It is fear of our own poverty and lack which is the core of our difficulty with sharing and giving away our possessions. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s version of the beatitudes that we read today reminds us that it is this same fear that keeps us from offering to the world all of who we are as persons. At one level Jesus’ call to let our light be seen by others can seem a striking contrast the the consistent call of the traditions to humility. Yet, it is not only consistent with the call to humility; it is humility which makes it possible for us to let our light shine for all to see.
To one degree or another, the person we present to the world is a product of our own sense of impoverishment and lack. To the extent that we feel fearful of others, we attempt to dominate them. To the degree we are insecure at our very core, we shall behave arrogantly toward others. As much as we fear our intellectual abilities, we shall flaunt the little that we know. The more violently we project that self-image on the world the more our light is hidden. To live, as we do, in a culture that is a cult of personality and not person is to find ourselves increasingly unable to truly recognize and appraise real character in people, to recognize the light when it is shining forth from someone. We are rather more inclined, or perhaps better put indoctrinated, to buy “the goods” a person is selling rather than to “see . . . [their] good deeds and glorify . . . [our] heavenly father.”
The challenge of Jesus’ words, however, must be personally received by us. Do we let our own “light shine before others” that they may “see our “good deeds” and glorify our “heavenly father”? There is a risk involved in this transparency comparable to the risk involved in sharing our last “handful of flour and little oil.” The light we are, the true light that gives glory to God, seems minimal and inadequate to us. In a recent conversation with two friends, I listened to them reflect on an experience they had many years ago of attending a lecture by and meeting with Jean Vanier. Their spontaneous response him was: “This is a real Christian.” Most of us have had at one time or another such an encounter. What we recognize in such a person is a life, a body, mind and soul, that expresses the person’s inner life and light. To encounter a “real person,” that is one who, as Nathaniel in the gospel, is “without guile,” is to recognize the gift of his or her life, in that reflected light the gift of our own authentic life, and in both the reality of the Giver of that life. Jesus calls on us to be such a light to others. This requires of us, however, that we reject the lie that the one whom God has created us to be is “not enough.” We tend not only to hoard the world’s resources and goods but also the light of God’s love and mercy expressed in our own lives from others. As God has created us, we are a unique source of that light and love for the world. In this sense hospitality includes our being hospitable to our own truth, as lacking and impoverished as that may seem, and our then giving it away, in humility and without shame.
The counterfeit forms we present to the world will never lead others to praise our heavenly father. Yet, as surprisingly and mysteriously as the small amount of flour and little oil that never runs out, our own limited and poor lives can be a source of enduring nourishment to others and eternal praise of God when we let our own true light shine forth in the world.
In this final stage of following, I do not, so to speak, follow Jesus. Jesus makes me follow Him in my most original way—a way He knows infinitely better than I do because it is hidden in Him from eternity.
I am no longer active in the sense of actively managing. My activity is a passive following of or flowing with the activity of Jesus in me. My presence to Him is immensely simplified. So too is my active willing and striving. The managing me is held in the poverty of not managing, not knowing, not striving. Without any solicitude whatsoever for my self, I am present in and through and with Jesus to the Divine and His mysterious Will in which all creation is immersed. My whole original life, all my deeds, feelings, willing, and planning begin to grow from that Presence.
Christ, the Eternal Word, is the first and foremost originality of all creatures. After my clumsy active attempts to purify my originality, I allow Him to purify it and to restore it to what it was meant to be from eternity. This purification by Christ is a sharing in His detachment, passion, and death. My death is the anguished loss of a false self so that my true self may arise and be divinized. Christ in me is the divination of my original self that was from eternity in Him.
Adrian van Kaam, C.S.Sp., On Being Yourself, pp. 190-1