Canon Chancellor - Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford
2 Kings 4:1-37
We tend to think of prophets, if we think about them at all, as loners, outsiders, people who challenge the authorities, people who are not afraid to say when the Emperor is wearing no clothes, or the King is a fool
So it may come as a surprise to discover that Elisha, the prophetic hero of our Old Testament reading today, was something of an establishment figure. He was the leader of a school of prophets and a friend of kings and generals. He had inherited the role from Elijah, who fits our stereotypical view of the prophet much better. Elijah hung out in caves, was fed by ravens, wore camel hair and was probably unsociable and smelly.
Elisha, by contrast, is described as inhabiting towns and cities, we don’t have examples of teaching or poetry from him, but rather evidence God’s activity in his life through countless acts of kindness in response to sickness, death, financial need and hunger.
Today’s reading describes Elisha’s relationship with an individual woman living in the town of Shunem. She is married and seems to be of some importance, she is described as wealthy, or even great. She has noticed Elisha passing through the town and presses hospitality on him. After a while she persuades her husband to build an additional room on to the house so that Elisha will always have somewhere to stay.
She seems be a person of empathy and hospitality, which is more than you can say for Elisha. He seems somewhat uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of this hospitality and he tries to arrange, via his servant Gehazi, to redress the balance of power. But the woman is not interested in anything he can offer her, and it is only when Gehazi notes that she and her husband are childless that Elisha lights on something that he can do for them.
Please note, the woman did not ask for a child. There are plenty of examples of childless women seeking divine intervention in their fertility in the stories of the Old Testament, but this is not one of them Nevertheless, a child is born to the couple and grows up. Unfortunately, he is taken ill while working in the fields with his father. When he returns home to his mother she lays him down on the bed in the room reserved for the prophet, and sets off in search of Elisha. Although Elisha tries to fob her off with his servant Gehazi again, the woman will not take no for an answer and insists that Elisha return with her.
The story teller describes how seven times Elisha attempts to revive the child until at last he is successful and can send his servant to summon the woman to recover her son. The contrast between the two figures is starkly painted.
The woman seems alert to the holiness of the prophet and warm and generous in her hospitality. She is alert to his needs and yet asks nothing in return from him, something which he seems to find problematic. By contrast, Elisha seems hardly to be able to communicate with the woman at all. When he offers the conventional rewards for service, she rejects them, and it takes his more observant servant Gehazi to point out that the family is short of a son and heir. Even then, the woman is not consulte (and her husband remains even further in the shadows). Indeed she makes a point of protesting that she has not asked for a son. When the child is ill, once again Elisha tries to get his servant Gehazi to manage the situation. It is only because of the woman’s insistence that he follows her back to Shunem to attend to the child.
So what are we to make of this?
Firstly to notice the woman’s insight, empathy and faith. Elisha does not seem to be a very gracious house guest, but she sees that he is about God’s work and so she makes space for him in her home.
She does not ask for anything in return.
Secondly, to notice that despite his failings, his lack of empathy, his lack of graciousness, God still uses Elisha to act in the world as an instrument of his healing love. It is easy to divide people in to the good and the bad,
but here we see that Elisha, like all of us, is a mixture. He may lack empathy and he may be a bit proud and stand-offish, but God uses him, not only in countless acts of mercy and compassion, but also to guide the authorities and rulers of the nation.
Let us pray for all in authority, for all who have influence, and for all who guide our government at this time.
We pray for civil servants and advisors, for all who seek to guide and inform those in government, Give them wisdom and insight, compassion and kindness. Always mindful of the needs of those who lack power or control over their own lives because of poverty, discrimination or lack of opportunity.
We pray for those called to prophetic ministries in the world and the church, for climate activists, for those highlighting black lives matter, for feminists and gay activists, especially in countries where there is significant discrimination.
We pray for those whose voices are not heard, for those who suffering is hidden behind the gates of our prisons, behind the walls of residential homes behind doors where families are trapped in cycles of abuse and addiction.
Give us a bigger vision, warmer hearts and greater compassion.
And so we join our prayers together in the words of the Grace…