Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Widow’s Jar

I have written a previous blog entry offering my interpretation of the Greek myth of Pandora’s jar as signifying a wish for fulfilment that can never be realised. The theme of women’s jars associated with fulfilment reminded me of a Biblical story I remembered from my childhood. I decided to find and re-read the story of the widow’s jar of oil. So much of what we take for granted in the world is based on ideologies of success through having. From my perspective, striving for something more often than not produces the experience of lacking. Most of what we want and need is readily available when we ask for it. However, we also have limitations in the physical world. What follows is my personal interpretation of the story of the widow’s jar as I think it beautifully illustrates the concept of abundance.

The story (appearing in the book 2 Kings 4) is of a woman approaching the prophet Elisha because her husband is deceased and she fears the creditors will enslave her sons as repayment for debt. The widow claims to have nothing in her house except a small jar of olive oil. The prophet instructs her to ask her neighbours for empty jars and fill them with the olive oil. From her small bottle she manages to fill all the empty jars. When she has filled the last jar, the oil stops flowing. The prophet tells her to sell the oil and use her money to pay her debts. He tells her that they will be able to live on what is left.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. Author: Hans Bernhard
Where Pandora embodied the gifts of the gods and her jar is associated with the evils caused by desire, the story of the widow is about freedom of enslavement in the midst of sorrow. The woman asks for help and it is given, both by the prophet and her neighbours. She uses what she has available. As she does so, the oil keeps flowing, giving her what she needs to free herself and her boys of enslavement. To me this story communicates that when we are willing to ask for help and use our abilities, there will always be enough for our needs. Interestingly the olive has various symbolic associations with peace, again contrary to all the evils flying out of Pandora’s jar. It takes no genius to realise that if everybody adopted the approach of the widow and her neighbours in using what they have, taking only what they need and recycling what they don’t need, every person’s needs would be met. If that was the common attitude, I believe peace would be the natural outcome. No studies, policies or displays would be needed to improve the situation for all humans.

The myth of Pandora contains warnings of being consumed by what we desire. Looking at the world I cannot help being amazed at how we seem to be ruled by an ideology according to which most of our efforts should go towards having more. One aspect of it is that no matter how much one has, it is never enough. Another aspect of it is the fear of being unable to make a living; in that sense literally not having enough. Sadly I think the former produces the latter and that they are flipsides of the same coin. Personal experience of the mind-set will probably depend on where one falls on the wheel of fortune at any given point in time. Unfortunately I also think that the latter produces the former: I doubt whether abuse, greed and exploitation would have been easy if everyone devoted their efforts to what they loved doing rather than trying to survive.

Both these stories contain wisdom, asking us to look at ourselves and how we collectively create the world through our ideas and interactions with the world. The widow’s jar of abundance is no instant route to riches, but a rather bleak portrayal of God’s grace in the harshest of circumstances. A woman who is at the mercy of her circumstances finds an impossible way out of her predicament. To me, this story asks us to question our assumptions of what is possible or not in terms of survival and enslavement. More than that, however, it points the way to the true source of abundance. The widow’s oil was not something she had to obtain or fight for, but something from her own home. Perhaps the antidote to being consumed by Pandora and her jar – the riches outside of ourselves - is the realisation that what we have to begin with is enough to make it work for us.