Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Our short reading has a number of essential elements to it.

Coventry Cathedral - Fish
Spence, Basil. "Coventry Cathedral - Fish," from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

July 26, 2015

First Reading
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Commentary on 2 Kings 4:42-44

Our short reading has a number of essential elements to it.

First, we hear about a “man of God” receiving an offering. The servant of the “man of God” is doubtful whether this offering is enough. The “man of God” does not appear to have any doubts. The narrative ends with the reality that this offering was more than enough. This narrative would seem to offer important background to the many reports of Jesus feeding large crowds with little resources.

The first puzzle is what exactly is a “man of God”? The Old Testament has many references to prophets. There are about four different words or Hebrew terms that can be translated as prophet. “Man of God” is one of those terms. The Old Testament describes a number of men that everyone acknowledges to be prophets as a “man of God.” So “man of God” is just the literal translation of a euphemism for prophet.

The next puzzle is who is the “man of God” here? Strictly speaking, we are never told who the “man of God” is here. This could be an independent account, but it is in the midst of stories all concerned with Elisha. Therefore, we do not have to stretch far to understand this material to be concerned with Elisha.

Elisha stands among the great prophets of the Old Testament. We have a large body of material concerned with him in First and Second Kings. He is an important figure within the salvation history of Israel as he will also be mentioned in the Book of Sirach and the Gospel of Luke. He inherits the mantle of Elijah and receives a double blessing from him (2 Kings 2:9-10). While Elisha remains something of a mysterious figure who should not be taken lightly (2 Kings 2:24), he also performs numerous impressive miracles like resuscitating the Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kings 4:8-37). Elisha is a singular figure often connected with miracles and symbolic acts concerned with food. The actions of the “man of God” in this passage bear a great resemblance to what we have seen from Elisha in the past.

I would like to focus on one easily overlooked verb in this short passage because I think it tells us much about how God works. The verb is “to be left.” God seems to work through people who have an abundant vision of divine action. Here we see the “man of God” and his servant both assessing the same situation. I would imagine many of us have found ourselves in similar predicaments over the years. We encounter a situation where there is a scarcity of resources. How are we ever going to find a solution? These are the thoughts that I imagine are cascading through the head of the servant. These are not the thoughts in the head of the “man of God.” The “man of God” offers us a model of faith. The “man of God” tells us there will be some left, and it is confirmed at the end of the reading. God’s generosity is overflowing rather than parsimonious.

How does the “man of God” have such faith? This is undoubtedly a challenge for him as it is for all of us. For me it is very much a question of “How are we looking at the world?” We live in a world in which many see it through the lens of the servant, through the lens of scarcity. In many respects this is how our economic system functions. Advertising constantly reminds us of what we do not have and makes us feel inferior for not having it. If we somehow get the latest iPhone, then we will be accepted or have access to all that the world can provide us. Underpinning all of this is the constant pressure that there is not enough, and there will never be enough. Constant competition for resources fuels advertising and often makes us feel bad about ourselves.

The “man of God” sees things from a completely different perspective, and he invites us to open ourselves to a different perspective. Rather than seeing scarcity all around him, the “man of God” sees a world full of divine abundance. He invites us to see all that God is doing in our world rather than what is not happening in our world. The servant is stuck in the problem, which is a genuine perspective that I often find myself stuck in. What differentiates the servant from the “man of God” is that the “man of God” invites God into this problem. Rather than simply ruminating on the problem, the “man of God” invokes the Word of God. He does not stop at the problem, but he prays with the problem and thinks about how God can also be part of the solution.

Our story from Scripture reassures us that there is more than one way to approach a situation. We cannot run away from problems or resort to various formulas, prayers, or mantras for solutions. This is not the gospel of prosperity. No one is getting rich here. Rather, we see an abundance of divine action within this scenario. We are reminded that God made a good world. In the first chapter of the Bible, we hear the word “good” six times. When we realize that we are surrounded by all this goodness, we cannot help but have a reassuring sense of the abundance of divine action in our world. We are challenged by this reading to decide whether we want to look at the world through the lens of the servant or the man of God, Elisha.

Elisha’s model offers us a life full of hope. It is not a life without challenges because we see Elisha constantly in the midst of challenges. Yet we also see Elisha with the ability to respond to those challenges because he sees the world through the lens of abundance. Elisha does not look away from problems and he is constantly bombarded by people coming to him. Yet, Elisha’s reliance on God allows him to share his hope in the God of abundance with those around him and respond to their needs.