Leading Question: Does God like foreigners?
- 1 Kings 17, God’s intervention on behalf of a foreign widow
- Luke 4:24-26, Jesus reminds God’s people of the foreign widow
1. Does God like foreigners? Some Old Testament passages could give the impression that God does not like foreigners. Moses’ sermon to Israel on the borders of Canaan, for example, tells the people that they are to have nothing to do with the native inhabitants of Canaan: “You must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy” (Deu 7:2).
In rebuking the slow-to-believe in his day, Jesus angered his Jewish audience by referring to two notable foreigners who had faithfully turned to God:
Luke 4:25-27 (NRSV): “There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
One of the most astonishing “universalist” passages in the Old Testament is found in Isaiah 19:18-25. This passage actually promises full equality in God’s kingdom for Israel’s two greatest enemies: The Assyrians from Mesopotamia and the Egyptians:
Isaiah 19:24-25 (NRSV): “On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”
The New Testament reveals how difficult it was for the early Christians to accept foreigners as having equal rights with Jews. And that was in spite of Jesus’ welcoming attitude toward non-Jews: his conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4), his story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), his commissioning of the healed Gadarene demoniac to spread the good news throughout the Gentile Decapolis (Mark 5:1-20), and his praise of the Sidonian Canaanite woman’s faith and the healing of her daughter (Mat 15:21-28). In spite of all that, the Lord still had to take extraordinary steps to convince Peter to accept the Gentiles. In Acts 10, perhaps six to eight years after the resurrection, the Lord sent Peter the three-fold vision of the unclean animals and thus nudged Peter toward his fateful visit with the Gentile Cornelius. But Peter was taking no chances: six witnesses accompanied him! These witnesses were “astounded” that the Gentiles had received the Spirit (Acts 10:45). Accepting foreigners is no easy task!
What is the point of the story of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24)? What a remarkable irony that Israel had allowed Jezebel to import her god Baal from Tyre and Sidon while God sent Elijah to Jezebel’s home country of Sidon to show God’s care for people who were not part of his people Israel.
Faith in spite of dire circumstances. How can we explain the fact that the woman was willing to obey Elijah and prepare food for him first even though she and her son were on the verge of starvation?
Calamity as the result of sin. The widow saw the calamity of her dead son as judgment for sin. Is there any evidence in the story that could help us understand her perspective? Is it possible for us to know when calamity is the result of personal sin?
Miracles that lead to faith. The widow believed in Yahweh because of a miracle: God had healed her son. Does God still work that way today? Or is his ideal for us to be able to believe in the time of his apparent absence?
Our mandate to love foreigners. How should the followers of Jesus relate to foreigners? Is there any solid biblical reason not to be loving and accepting of foreigners?