2 Kings 4:8-37
November 15, 2015
“You’re so lucky. All you do is pray all day.”
“Can you do this thing for me? You have lots of time, right?”
“Wow. You’re so cute!” (In a shocked voice.)
“But you’re so young.”
“Were you raised in a cave and homeschooled your entire life?”
These are some of the“10 Things You Should Never Say to a Nun” according to Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble. I can see how this kind of thing would get annoying. As a pastor, I run into some of this. Not the “you’re so young” part much any more. But definitely people who don’t understand what exactly it is a pastor does. And people who feel the need to clean up their language or talk about “churchy” things around me.
People have certain stereotypes, certain expectations about what a woman of God should be like. And a man of God.
At the last Menno Movie Night, we watched The Overnighters, which is about a pastor, Jay Reinke, who served a church in North Dakota oil country and ended up running a shelter out of his church for some of the men who came to town for jobs. At one point he has to kick out a shelter resident after learning of the man’s criminal history and current drug use. The man becomes irate and screams at Jay, “You are not a man of God!”
The Overnighters presents Pastor Reinke in all of his complexity. There are things he does that are very godly indeed—housing the homeless, listening to the heartbroken, sharing meals with people who are down on their luck. There are things he does that are not godly—like being unfaithful to his wife. And there are things he does that are questionable—opening up the shelter without really getting permission from the church; inviting a convicted sex offender to live in his home with his teenage daughters; spending more time at the shelter than with his family.
Is he a man of God? What does it mean to be a person of God?
That is a question that also comes up in today’s scripture reading. Elisha is referred to as a “man of God” eight times in the verses we read—that’s twice as often as he is referred to by name. We are never told why the Shunamite woman is convinced that Elisha is “a holy man of God.” And honestly, I’m not quite as convinced as she is; there are points in this story where I get irate, like the guy who was kicked out of the Overnighters shelter, and I want to yell across the centuries: “Elisha, you are not a man of God!”2
For example, when he goes into the room that this woman has had built onto her house just for him, lays on the bed she has furnished for him, and says to his personal servant, “Call the Shunammite woman.” . . . Really? “The Shunammite woman?” This lady has built him a room, bought him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp–and he doesn’t even bother to learn her name?
And for some reason she has to come to him. He just lays there on the bed, summoning her–this woman who is probably cleaning the house or cooking supper or doing something more productive than laying on the bed. This woman has given him so much—and he can’t be bothered to go find her himself, he doesn’t even know her name; he doesn’t even know that she doesn’t have a son! “Elisha, you are not a man of God!”
Then later, when the woman comes to Elisha in distress, he again sends his servant out to meet her. And when he learns that her son as died, he again sends his servant—with a stick to lay on the boy’s face. Seriously? “Go lay this stick on the boy’s face.”? What is that? “Elisha, you are not a man of God!”
Finally, Elisha goes to the boy himself, and rather than using his willing servant or his magic stick, Elisha prays to God and allows his own body to be used as God’s instrument of healing. At the end of this story, the boy who was dead is now alive. So it turns out that maybe the woman was right all along. Despite his shortcomings, maybe Elisha really is a man of God.
Maybe. As we near the end of our series on the prophets Elijah and Elisha, I am deeply aware that the problems with Elisha as a man of God go far beyond his egotism and poor bedside manner. Remember the story where he calls out a bear to maul 42 boys who have taunted him and called him “baldy”? The entire narrative of Elijah and Elisha is filled with the prophets’ proclamations and enactments of violence against their enemies.
Violence is, tragically, what happens when certain people consider themselves to be people of God while refusing to acknowledge that those around them are also people of God.
What happens is six coordinated attacks in Paris kill 129 people. What happens is two suicide bombings in Beirut kill 41 people. What happens is Syrian rebels in Aleppo kill 13 people and take 7 more hostage. What happens is roadside bombs and suicide bombs in Baghdad kill 26 people.
Just this week—that’s what happened. Because some people consider themselves and their kind to be God’s chosen, while others are expendable. Because some people divide the world into “people of God” (us) and “people not of God” (them).
While Elisha is the one with the title “man of God” in this text, I would argue that the Shunammite woman shows more godly qualities. She feeds and houses Elisha and Gehazi when they pass through town, and she doesn’t seem to be looking for anything in return. She is generous and hospitable with her wealth and social standing. And she is also a fierce mother, rushing off to find Elisha when her son dies and insisting that he come back in person to heal her son: “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave without you.”
Even though she did not have a title of prophet or pastor or nun, this woman lived out many godly qualities. Part of our theological heritage as Anabaptists means that we recognize the call to holiness for all people—not just those with a religious vocation. Priests—pastors–do not have any unique or exclusive access to or relationship with God. It is a deeply held Anabaptist belief that we are all called to godly qualities: to offer mercy and grace, love our enemies, care for the least of these, live a life of prayer, act with peace in response to violence.
We are all called to be people of God. Not just the pastors and prophets among us, but the average Lawrencians and Shunammites as well.
Perhaps the most godly quality possessed by the Shunammite woman—and the one most needed in our world today–is her willingness to identify the other as a “man of God.”
Elisha, who is directly identified as being a man of God, still acts in some pretty ungodly ways. The Shunammite woman, who never receives the title “woman of God”, is the one who offers holy hospitality. The one who welcomes the other in peace and love. The difference, then, doesn’t seem to be about who gets called a “person of God.”
The difference seems to be about who recognizes the other as a “person of God.”
It is because she identifies Elisha as a man of God that the Shunammite builds him a room and provides him with a table and bed and lamp. What if, instead of telling Gehazi to go get “the Shunammite woman,” Elisha had sent him to get “the woman of God”? For one thing, he might have gotten off his backside and gone to find her himself. He might have talked with her and learned about her life. If he had recognized her as a woman of God, perhaps he would have been as generous with her as she was with him.
In The Overnighters, despite all of pastor Jay Reinke’s shortcomings, the men at the shelter are not simply “the shelter residents” to him. They are Keegan and Todd and Michael and Keith. Jay listens to their stories of pain and heartache and addiction and sin, and in their stories, he recognizes his own story. And in all of their messy stories, the Divine presence peeks through. The hungry are fed, the homeless get shelter, the lonely find friends.
And it’s still a mess. It’s a huge mess. With Jay and the overnighters and Jay’s poor family and the town they live in where long-time residents feel like they are being invaded. The shelter had to close down. Jay left his family and his church. Crime in the town increased. Many of the men who flocked to the oil fields to find work ended up just as destitute in North Dakota as they were wherever they came from.
It’s still a mess. It’s a mess with Elisha and Gehazi—who in the next chapter will go behind Elisha’s back to get money from Naaman after Elisha heals him. It’s a mess with the un-named Shunammite woman who will have to leave her house with the prophet’s room on the roof because of famine—and then depend on Gehazi’s intervention with the king to get her property back from the Philistines.
And it’s still a mess for us.
It’s a terrifying, heartbreaking mess. In the midst of the mess, it may help to remember that we are people of God—which we are. And as followers of Jesus, we must remember that they are people of God.
What if those who committed terrorist acts this past week had not been so quick to claim the identity of God’s chosen exclusively for themselves, but had instead recognized that the people of Paris and Beirut and Aleppo and Baghdad are all people of God? And what if we all, now, recognize that Muslims are not the enemy, the refugees are not the enemy? Even the enemy is not the enemy.
All. All of them—all of us–are people of God.
2The following examples of Elisha’s shortcomings are discussed in the article “A Prophet Tested: Elisha, the Great Woman of Shunem, and the Story’s Double Message” by Yairah Amit. (Biblical Interpretation, January 1, 2003)