‘So the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.’ 1 Kings 17:24
The story ends well for Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and her son. They survive the famine and her son is brought back to life—were we telling it as a children’s story, we would say ‘and they all lived happily ever after (well, Elijah did in the end, after a few more adventures). But what about the people who had no happy ending? What about people whose loved ones died of starvation and disease? Why was there no happy ending for them?
Why is God so odd sometimes? Why does he allow some people to suffer and others to go through life without a hitch?
It’s not as though the good are rewarded and the bad are punished; sometimes it seems the exact reverse applies. Sometimes the bad seem to get whatever they want and good people are left to suffer. There must have been many good and honest people in Zarephath and in the country around who suffered terribly during the three year famine; what had they done to deserve such a fate? There is no answer.
If Jesus had been there, what would he have done? Perhaps it’s a crass question, but it is a valid one. If being a Christian means anything then it must mean taking the life and teachings of Jesus as a reference point for our own behaviour.
Jesus himself gives an answer to the question in Saint Luke Chapter 4, “I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” It’s not really an answer; more a repetition of the question. Jesus seems to be saying that this is the way the world is; that the world is a unfair place.
Jesus understands unfairness, look at his story.
It begins with Mary, a Jewish teenage girl who is pregnant and is under suspicion. She could have faced being stoned to death. Even Joseph is uncertain about this and is only convinced when he has a vision of an angel.
They are poor and, like all poor people, they get pushed around by people in authority. They are forced to travel seventy miles to Bethlehem because of bureaucracy. When they get there they have to sleep in an animal shed and the girl’s baby is born there. The townspeople couldn’t care less. The only people who bother with them are a gang of shepherds, is this fair?
The child is no sooner born than Herod, the local petty tyrant starts having babies killed because he fears a threat to his power. Mary and Joseph and their baby escape—but what about the babies that didn’t? What about those murdered by Herod’s men? Was this fair?
Jesus and his mother are taken off to Egypt as refugees, by Joseph who has to support them by earning what he can as a carpenter. Herod finally dies and they return to live in Galilee after perhaps two years as refugees. Was this fair?
Read on through the story and there is no fairness. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, a few months older than him, is brutally beheaded because of the drunken lust of Herod who wants to please his lover. This Herod is the son of the Herod who had the babies killed. Was any of this fair?
Finally, Jesus himself is executed because the religious and the political powers didn’t like him asking questions all the time. He was too dangerous and had to be destroyed.
There must have been moments when Mary railed against God over things that happened. There must have been moments when she stood and she shouted, ‘God, this is not fair’. Countless millions of people down though the centuries have had cause to say those words, ‘this is not fair’.
Life is not fair and life would be senseless if it were not for the man who lived though unfairness after unfairness. At the age of 33 he lies dead in a borrowed tomb. Then on a bright spring Sunday morning he walks out alive, destroying the power of death.
Life is not fair—but God comes and shares our lives with us. Jesus goes to the town of Nain and he sees a widow mourning the loss of her only son. Perhaps he remembered Elijah at that moment, perhaps he remembered the story of Zarephath, perhaps he felt a sense of all the unfairness of the world. ‘When the Lord saw her’, says Saint Luke, ‘he had compassion for her’. An unfair story has a happy ending.
Jesus understands unfairness.
When life is unfair and without explanation and there is nothing left but to stand and rage, Jesus understands us.