Just Enough Oil: An Ancient Story Speaks

What can an ancient story about a widow and some oil teach us today?  My mom used to read a volume of bible stories at bedtime.  One has stuck in my mind ever since.

(c) AdobeStock

(c) AdobeStock Photo

It was a story about a mother and some olive oil.

A woman with two sons has been widowed.  In ancient times, it is virtually impossible to support herself.  To make matters worse, her husband’s creditors are coming to take her two boys as slaves.  That would leave her completely alone, and also eliminate any possible means of support.

Imagine how you would feel in this situation.  You just lost your husband.  All you have left is the roof over your head and your two sons.  And both are threatened.  Fear and desperation would likely well up in your throat.  You’d frantically look for any and every possible alternative; try everything you could.  And you’d ask for help.

The widow did ask for help.  She went to the prophet Elisha.  Elisha asked her, “Tell me, what do you have in your house?”

When I read that question, I thought to myself, “WHAT?!?!?  What kind of question is that?  What does the stuff in my house have to do with my problem?  What planet are you on?  What part of ‘my boys are going to be taken as slaves to pay my husband’s debts’ did you not hear?”

Now we don’t know exactly what she thought.  But we do have an idea that she wasn’t confident as she replied.  “Your servant has nothing there at all except a little oil.”  That sounds like code for “Nothing that will help solve this problem.”

But that small bit of oil wasn’t nothing.  It was something.  It was a small bit of oil.  And Elisha gave her some pretty unusual instructions about what to do with that oil.

  1. Ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Not just a few.  Lots of jars.
  2. Go inside the house and shut the door with you and your sons inside.
  3. Pour oil into the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.

Does that sound like the recipe for success?  Does that sound like a great plan?  How is splitting the little bit of oil into several jars going to solve anything?  And, as the oil jug is tipped, it’s likely that some of the oil will drip, thus wasting the precious little she has left to cook with.

But here’s the thing:  SHE DID IT.

Each son held a jar.  One at a time she tipped the oil jug and poured oil into the jar.  The first jar, then another.  And another.  Her sons kept bringing more jars.  And every jar was filled with oil.  When all the jars were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another jar.”  Her son told her that there were no jars left.  And the oil stopped flowing.

The woman went back to Elisha.  If she had been questioning his wisdom before, she sure didn’t now.  She told him what happened.  Elisha instructed her to sell some oil to repay the debts, and then live off the rest.

Whew!  Mind blown.

That must have been a lot of oil to pay off all debts plus provide a living for her and her sons.  I can’t even imagine how their house looked filled with oil jars.  Only a few moments before there was only a small amount of oil and no hope.  Now there was an abundance of oil.  Actually, it was just enough oil.

How often do we think what we have to offer isn’t enough?  It’s just a little oil.  No big deal.  Not even worth mentioning.  We see what we lack.  We believe there’s only so much to go around, and we got the short end of the stick.

But when we offer what we have, like the woman did with the oil, we find that there is more than we thought.  It miraculously multiplies. Not just oil, but money, food, time, love, hope, and joy.  It multiplies enough to help those who need it.  Not overflowing the jars.  Just enough.

I’ve had some of these experiences in my own life.  For example, when I feel pressured by all my responsibilities, I hoard time to try and accomplish more.  Then I find I actually accomplish less.  When I give some of my time away, I get more done with the time I have left.  And there is joy in sharing life with others who matter.

What do you have only a little of that can be used to create abundance?  For yourself and your family.  Or for others.  Maybe it’s time.  Maybe it’s a skill.  Maybe it’s a listening ear.  It could be something that don’t even think is worth mentioning – like a little oil.  But you don’t know what is possible until you offer it.

Get some jars.  Shut the door to your house.  Start pouring.  And watch what happens.

Have you had a time when your back was to the wall like the widow?  When your only resources seemed woefully inadequate?  Have you ever experienced abundance out of using those meager resources?  Please encourage us all by sharing your story below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • I was recently divorced and two of my three children were still underage and under my care. I had put my name on a wait list to get an apartment in a complex I thought my children would enjoy. It had a pool for swimming and lots of trees…a park-like setting. It could be a place for us to heal. It took several months before my name came up…and I had to have the rent and a deposit by that Friday or lose my place in line. I was $100 short. All I had was prayer…no parents to ask…no one to rely on but Jesus. On Wednesday a friend I hadn’t seen in months showed up at my work. She had no idea of my dilemma. She called me outside, gave me an envelope and said, “My prayer group just felt led to give you this, this morning.” Inside the envelop was a beautiful card and a check for $100. All I had was prayer. It was all I needed.

    • Wow, Linda. What an incredibly beautiful story. And such a reminder that sometimes all we have is prayer. And it is enough. And did healing happen in that place?

      • Yes, actually. It was there, at forty-years-old, I learned to windsurf and mountain bike. It was there my children and I did things together we had not had the opportunity to experience with the freedom to enjoy life, and it was there, two years later I met my husband in the parking lot. We will be celebrating our 22nd anniversary next month. :o).