Reading one morning in the sacred text I came across the familiar story in 2 Kings 4 of a poor widow who finds herself in crisis and goes to the local missionary/prophet and explains her situation.
Living in Jubilee, Haiti this was a familiar story to me. I heard it several times a month. Desperate mom, rent was due and she had no way to pay it so she was about to lose her home and her kids. So I read this familiar passage as I’ve never read it before. It had my FULL attention.
The widow comes to the prophet with her impossible situation. Needing help. Needing to be rescued. Needing some cold hard cash. But what does he say? How does he respond to this desperate situation?
“Lady, what do you HAVE?”
This is what you say to someone in a dire situation? This!?!?
What do you HAVE?
I’m thinking, dang. Man’s got some kind of nerve! Because the only question I was asking day and night was, WHAT do you need?
But never this question. Never, What do you HAVE!
I read on.
And she replies, “Nothing.”
I can hear the Haitian mamma say it. Pa gen anyen. The Kreyol way of saying, I have nothing, as she slaps the backs of her hands to her palms. Over and under. The universal sign for Anyen. Empty. I got nothing.
And then these few cautious words slip out of her mouth.
“Except I do have a tiny smidgen of oil.”
Great! I can practically see the prophet’s face light up with too much hope. An explosion of joy. You DO have something. More importantly, you can SEE that you do have something. And we can work with that.
“Here’s what you do,” said Elisha. “Go up and down the street and borrow empty jugs and bowls from all your neighbors. And not just a few—all you can get. Then come home and lock the door behind you, you and your sons. Pour oil into each container; when each is full, set it aside.
She did what he said. She locked the door behind her and her sons; as they brought the containers to her, she filled them. When all the jugs and bowls were full, she said to one of her sons, “Another jug, please.” He said,“That’s it. There are no more jugs.” Then the oil stopped. She went and told the story to the man of God. He said,“Go sell the oil and make good on your debts. Live, both you and your sons, on what’s left.”
I’d like to point out a few things here:
1. Point for the missionary/helper/prophet person. This is not an easy question to ask of someone in need. It does not make them adore you or depend on you or include you in their testimony of how their life was changed. Other fellow helpers can misunderstand you or judge you or call you selfish. It happens.
2. Point for the widow. She had to have eyes to see that she did have something. I am a firm believer that the economy of heaven is both abundant and at the same time never wasteful. Extravagant and Responsible. Seems we need to use what we have before receiving more. And we can’t use what we have if we don’t see and admit that we have it. She saw.
3. Point for the kindness of heaven. A mom’s greatest terror is losing a child. Can you even imagine how terrified this mom was when the authorities were threatening to take her sons and make them slaves until she could pay her debt? Being a mom of many, I know that that threat throws your psyche into a whole new universe. It is the last thing.
I love the way the story is so particular to point out that he said:
“Then come home and lock the door behind you, you and your sons.
Instead of losing them, they were pulled in close and started a family business together! Oh, how I love this.
4. Another point for the widow. She listened to the advice. And she took it. She didn’t give up. She threw herself into action. What faith! Surely the neighbors shook their heads, whispering “bless her heart” as they watched the drama play out. She likely looked a little unhinged collecting her neighbors’ empty Tupperware containers but she did it anyway.
And the result? The oil couldn’t help itself. It multiplied in that environment. I think that is the way of heaven. Standing on tiptoe at all times waiting for an opening. Any tiny opening to pour into. The woman cracked open the door and the sweet ways of heaven rushed in. She filled all the containers. Sold them back to her community and paid her debt.
She likely then launched her own Oil business, hired several single moms, franchised to Egypt, and sent her sons to good schools in Mesopotamia.
The big takeaway from this story for me is that when we change the question from what do you need to what do you have, it flips everything. It shows respect. It acknowledges that everyone has something.
I think it is the single most important thing I have learned.
And I think it is a critical piece for the world of helpers and the helped today.
Until we as helpers understand that the person across the table from us needing help has something of value to bring to the equation, we will most likely do harm with our helping.
Please understand I do not mean when we are doing relief work after an earthquake or storm. In those situations, we are giving, giving, giving! Generously, quickly and with great intention. I am talking about communities that exist in systemic poverty, in generational situations of perpetual need.
We must begin to change the question.
From: What do you need?
To: What do you have?
I had the honor of sitting with the two talented artisans who oversee one of the basket guilds. They are brother and sister and have been making baskets for over 20 years. I wish everyone could sit and look into their faces and know them a little.
They called me into a meeting and asked if we might be able to raise the price a bit on a few of the baskets, citing the cost of materials had gone up and gotten more difficult to find in the aftermath of a destructive hurricane.
I said I would look and see how it would affect our customers and get back to them.
And I began to feel this tension.
If we paid them more, it would cause our customers’ price to go up too. How would that work? Most people that shop with us are stretching their dollars as it is.
These talented artisans were very happy to have orders coming in. They would continue to work at whatever price we said we could pay. It is the nature of living at the “bottom of the pyramid.” It is why companies take their work “offshore.” Labor is plentiful and it is as cheap as you want it to be.
It is as cheap as you want it to be.
Are you weeping yet?
Because I really am?
It’s no wonder ancient texts warn us, the rich, about taking advantage of the poor. Because we can. And God, the father of all of us, feels pretty strongly about that kind of behavior.
I sat with them and decidedly told them:
If we aren’t walking justly, we need to close our doors. Period.
So I asked that they be open with me about the time it takes to make them and what is a good and just price. They talked and I took notes.
I went back into our inventory system and I looked. I saw how these changes would affect our customers. These people chose us when there were cheaper brands of baskets out there.
And I worried a little, will we keep selling them? The last thing I wanted to do was to bring fewer orders to this group of skilled makers.
I decided to do it. I decided to raise the price so we could pay the artisans more. So we could pay them what they believed was a fair wage. I believed it too.
A few days later we made this announcement to our customers:
We’ve raised our prices on our baskets!
The bargain for our customers was that when they bought one at the new price, they knew that they were paying a just price. A fair wage. And I was betting that is actually what our customers wanted from us more than anything else. And I was right.
Find justice based gifts that make a difference at the RLC Marketplace of Missional Businesses. Mother’s Day is April 8th and you can shop from the special gift guides at 2nd Story Goods and Thistle Farms.