When Jesus taught about his own purpose, he frequently referenced two Old Testament figures: Moses and Elijah. These two embodied the Law and the Prophets, standing for the traditions that Christ both fulfilled and transcended. It was Moses and Elijah who appeared at Jesus’s transfiguration, ratifying Jesus’s messianic role with their own authority. And Moses and Elijah were and still are evoked in the Passover feast, which in turn typifies Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
As Christ’s ministry and preaching demonstrated his fulfillment of the Mosaic law, Jesus’s teachings and actions also followed patterns found in the Elijah narrative of 1 Kings. Elijah’s struggle with the corruption that had taken over the Israelite government of his day prefigured Jesus’s contention with the corrupt scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem. Likewise, Elijah left the courts and cities to commune with God in the wilderness, mourning the wickedness of his people and setting the pattern for Jesus’s forty-day fast in the wilderness, preparation for his own role as redeemer of the house of Israel. Many of Jesus’s contemporaries wondered if he was Elijah himself come back to earth. In this, they recognized the preparatory messianic role described by Malachi, who said that Elijah’s return would signal the “great and dreadful day of the Lord” when all things would be restored and made right (Malachi 4:5).
But there is another way in which Jesus follows the pattern of Elijah. In Luke 4, Jesus speaks of the people’s rejection of his authority and ministry, recalling Elijah’s own exile from his homeland: “Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country. But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow” (Luke 4:24-26).
Jesus could have referenced any of several confrontational encounters between Elijah and the corrupt court of Israel. But while Elijah engages in many demonstrations of miraculous power, this visit to the widow of Sarepta (or Zarephath, as it is identified in 1King 17) is one of the few stories in which he finds an ally in faith. What qualities did the widow of Sarepta have that were worthy of Jesus’s mention?
Directed by the Lord, Elijah arrived at her home as a beggar in need of food and shelter. At this point, the woman’s faithful heroism overcame two legitimately reasonable objections. A widow living in poverty, she could have simply insisted that her circumstances were too precarious, and she would have been justified in turning Elijah away. She was also a foreigner, a woman who had made no covenants to believe or support Israelite prophets. But she did not follow the example of her compatriot, the Baal-worshipping prophet-persecutor, Queen Jezebel. Although this widow could have seen Elijah as her enemy, she was receptive to the Lord’s injunction to help him (1 Kings 17:9). Although she did not belong to the house of Israel, she nonetheless offered her hospitality, believed in the efficacy of divine promises, and by her faith allowed miracles to happen.
Like Elijah, Jesus was also nurtured and protected by many women disciples. Some were widows, some not. Most were of the house of Israel, but some were not. He cited the story of Elijah and the Sidonian widow early in his ministry and while preaching in his own home region of Galilee, but Jesus later journeyed northwest to the neighboring Sidon, following in the footsteps of the exiled Elijah. There he met a local woman who begged him to heal her daughter. When he replied that he was sent to minister only to the house of Israel, she was persistent, and he relented: “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour” (Matthew 15:28).
Jesus’s ministry was limited by geography and time, but his interactions with women, whether foreigners or Israelite, privileged or destitute, was telling. These encounters resulted in miracles of spiritual and physical healing. The women he met were quick to recognize Jesus’s divinity and to exercise faith in him. He in his turn was quick to recognize their worth as souls, quick to give blessings in exchange for their ministry of hospitality, and always ready to tell their stories and insist on their value when he taught his own apostles.
What can we learn? The faith of these women can be emulated by anyone. We don’t need status, privilege, or property to be attuned to the Spirit and to exercise great faith. But Elijah and Jesus show a kind of faith as well. Their faith is not in traditions, hierarchies, or ethnic boundaries but in the human spirit at its most vulnerable and most pure. They received the ministry of those of humble means and had the discernment to recognize humanity’s capacity to love and believe. They recognized the worth of these souls and acknowledged them as women of faith and power, workers in the divine ministry of God. And both sides were blessed.