Preparation vs. Payoff
I re-read this story in my quiet time recently. It’s always been one of my favorites, but this time I saw something I’ve never noticed before:
Now the wife of one of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.” And Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me; what have you in the house?” And she said, “Your servant has nothing in the house except a jar of oil.” Then he said, “Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not too few. Then go in and shut the door behind yourself and your sons and pour into all these vessels. And when one is full, set it aside.” So she went from him and shut the door behind herself and her sons. And as she poured they brought the vessels to her. When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” And he said to her, “There is not another.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She came and told the man of God, and he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your sons can live on the rest.” – 2 Kings 4:1-7 (ESV)
Do you see what happened? Elisha encouraged the widow to borrow jars, jugs, tubs, pitchers, bowls, and Rubbermaid containers from all of her neighbors. And then he adds four words that are vital:
“…and not too few.”
Why did Elisha say “and not too few”? Because he knew what was coming at the end of the story: when the vessels ran out, the oil ran out. This newfound endless supply of oil did end, and it was in correlation to the number of containers the widow had gathered.
Now to be clear, this is not meant to be an expositional breakdown of this passage. I didn’t go back and study the original texts to check the meaning of the word “vessel” or the average size of an Israelite Rubbermaid container. But there’s a principle here that I think is important for us to learn:
The widow’s payoff was in proportion to her preparation.
(I’m gonna pause for a second while somebody says amen.)
Here’s how the math works out in 2 Kings 4: many vessels = much oil. Few vessels = little oil. Run out of vessels = run out of oil. Had the widow not followed Elisha’s counsel to gather “not too few” vessels, we have to assume that she would be limited on her “endless” oil supply. On the flip side, had she made a trip to the local market and bought out every decorative spice jar at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, we have to assume that she would have had more oil than a Middle Eastern super tanker.
Here’s how I’ve seen this work in ministry: my payoff is often in proportion to my preparation. When my volunteers are well-trained and understand their why, our guests seem to have better experiences and remark on how kindly they were treated. When I walk into a weekend with a completed task list and I’m ready to simply be present with people, things seem to go smoother. When a big event is coming up and I’ve made my list and checked it twice no three times no fifteen times, it’s easy to go with the flow.
Maybe you’ve seen that work similarly in your ministry. If you have classroom ratios for your kids ministry, the number of kids you can take is in direct proportion to the number of leaders you have. If you have 500 people who are desperate to get into a small group, yet you’ve only raised up five small group leaders, about 450 of those people are going to be sorely disappointed.
I believe there is a rich payoff for what we do in our lives and our ministries. But I wonder how many times we miss it because we’re unwilling to put in the preparation.