Before we hear today’s Scripture reading, I want to give you a little bit of backstory. You may remember that as we left off last week, Elisha has just watched the prophet Elijah be taken up into heaven. Elisha has received a double share of Elisha’s spirit and is duly recognized as Elijah’s true prophetic heir. Elisha stands on the brink of greatness, ready to do brave and miraculous deeds like Elijah once did.
Greatness starts now. In 2 Kings 4 we get a whole montage of Elisha’s miraculous works. Here he is making oil flow for a widow deep in debt. Here he is making poisoned food safe for his company of prophets to eat. Here he is multiplying loaves of bread so a crowd can eat and have leftovers.
One such miracle that Elisha performs involves a rich woman from the town of Shunem. She sees him coming and going on his prophetic business and starts inviting him in for meals as he’s passing through. Then because he’s passing through so much she sets up a little room for him so he can stay there whenever he’s in town. He wants to pay her back for her kindness, so he asks what he can do for her in return, and she says, essentially, I have everything I need. So he says to his servant, well, what can we do for her? And his servant says, well, she doesn’t have a son, so Elisha calls her back in and tells her that next year at this time she’s going to have a son. You might note that she never asked, but since as a woman in ancient times your social and economic status was more or less determined by the men in your life, we can take it that this is a welcome gift.
[Scripture: 2 Kings 4:18-37]
Several years, at least, have passed from Elisha’s last conversation with the Shunammite woman. The boy is older now, old enough to find his father in the field and complain that his head hurts. His father has him carried back to his mother; he lays down on her lap, and a few hours later, the miracle child is dead.
I love this story not for its subject matter but for its female protagonist and her no-nonsense approach to tragedy. She lays down her son and she says to herself, that man of God started this, and he’s going to finish it. She waves off her husband’s inane questions with a brusque “Shalom,” saddles up a donkey, and tells the driver not to hit the brakes until they’ve come to Mt. Carmel, where Elisha is.
Elisha’s servant comes out to meet her. He asks politely how the family is. I imagine her putting up her hand as she blows by him (“Shalom.”) She’s here to see the top guy. When she gets to Elisha, the first words out of her mouth are “Did I even ask you for a son?” Again: you started this, man of God, and you’re going to finish it.
To be clear, this isn’t the way people usually ask for a miracle. They say, “Just say the word, and my servant shall be healed” (Matthew 8:8). “If you choose, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40). “Have mercy on me, Son of David!” But every once in a while, we meet someone in the Bible who frames their supplication as a challenge instead.
In Bible study last Sunday, we talked a lot about this Shunammite woman’s faith. She knows Elisha has the power to help, and nothing can stop her from getting to him. She knows the story doesn’t have to end in tragedy. This is, indeed, faith! But it’s not a pious kind of faith. It’s not a “Not my will, but thine be done,” kind of faith. It’s faith that says listen up, man of God, this is how it’s going to be. And honestly, I like it.
Pam Lassell shared a story as part of that Bible study discussion, about the birth of her son, Nathan. After a traumatic birth experience with their older son, Dave, everything with Nathan seemed to be going smoothly – until a nurse, also a member of Arlington Temple, came to them from the nursery to tell them there was something wrong. And Pam said that what she prayed at that time was “No, God. You didn’t give me this child just in order to take him away. No.” Not a pious prayer, not even an overtly desperate one, although I’m sure there was some desperation in there, not outwardly angry, although there might have been some of that, there, too; just matter of fact: nope, God, that’s not what’s going to happen here.
I’m not saying this is the right way to pray, or that this kind of prayer is foolproof. There are parents who lose their kids, and it has nothing to do with how they prayed or how hard. I just like the idea that we are allowed to talk to God, and God’s prophets, this way. In the Lassells’ case, thankfully, Nathan lived.
So I like the Shunammite woman, but I admit I find the character of Elisha in this story to be curious. Elisha admits, at first, that he doesn’t know why the woman has come to see him. He can tell she’s upset, he just doesn’t know why. But aren’t prophets supposed to know things like this? Why has God hidden this from him, as he himself puts it?
Even more interesting is the fact that Elisha’s first move is to send Gehazi to Shunem in his place. He tells him to take Elisha’s own staff and put it on the boy’s face. The Shunammite woman gives him some side eye on this one; she’s like, nah, Elisha, you’re coming too; but nevertheless Gehazi rides ahead and follows Elisha’s instructions and touches the staff to the child’s face – and he fails. Nothing happens. The boy doesn’t wake up.
Up to this point in the story, we have seen Elijah and Elisha do a lot of things. They have called down fire from heaven and spoken truth to power and multiplied oil and bread and split the Jordan River in two. They have been called and they have been brave and they have been tired and they have been scared. One thing they have not done, up to this point in the story, is failed.
So what? Is it all part of a bigger plan? In the Gospel of John, when Lazarus is sick, Jesus intentionally waits until he’s dead to go, seemingly to make a point. But Elisha doesn’t really seem to gain anything by waiting here. Has power gone to his head, thinking he can just send his servant on tasks that are rightfully his? Does he forget to pray? It doesn’t say he prays until later. Has he grown complacent?
I don’t know the answer, which is what makes Elisha so interesting here. What I do appreciate, though, is that even for someone like Elisha, sometimes doing God’s work involves a little bit of trial and error.
And I think most of us can relate to that, because honestly I think that doing God’s work and living faithfully probably involves some trial and error for us every day.
We don’t always have all the answers. And the Bible doesn’t always give us clear instructions. And that means we’re sometimes left to figure it out – what is the right thing to do, what is the loving thing to do, what is the faithful thing to do, how do I meet a need in a way that really makes a difference?
In seminary I remember reading an article about a man known as Million Dollar Murray, who lived on the streets of Reno, NV. He was an alcoholic who would go on benders and get arrested, sober up, and do it again. When he was too drunk for jail, he went to the emergency room instead. He’d get in a treatment program, graduate, and end up right back on the streets. This happened for ten years. At one point someone totaled up what Murray had cost the taxpayers of Nevada in medical bills, treatment programs, and other expenses, and it came to over a million dollars. And, at the end of the day, he was still homeless.
It was stories like this that led a couple of cities to try a different approach: instead of waiting for chronically homeless individuals to get their lives together, just give them housing. Having stable housing helps keep people out of the hospital, out of jail; it helps social workers know where to find them so they can keep appointments and receive services, it helps them start to regain the physical and mental health they need to make other lasting changes. And it’s cheaper. It’s not magic, obviously. But since 2006, when this article was written, a housing-first approach has become one of the dominant ways of addressing the reality of chronic homelessness in cities across the country.
Why? Because the first way didn’t work, and sometimes to get it right you have to try again.
How many of us have realized, over time, that our understanding of poverty and how to address it on a personal or social level was wrong? How many of us have realized, over time, that our understanding of racial justice and injustice in this country was wrong or lacking? How many of us have realized over time that our understanding of prayer and what it’s for was wrong or lacking? It’s not that we didn’t care about doing right or getting it right in the first place – sometimes, a prophetic life of faith and service just takes some trial and error.
For the record, I don’t get the impression that Elisha just doesn’t care, either. He tells Gehazi to hurry. He gives him his staff. He has good intentions. He seems to think it’s going to work. It just doesn’t.
Due to the Shunammite woman’s persistence, she and Elisha arrive just after Gehazi, and that means Elisha is there for take 2. Elisha lies down on top of the child, and touches his hands, and prays – this time he prays. The boy’s skin grows warm, and he sputters, and opens his eyes. The tragic story has a happy ending – in the end.
Maybe this is a story Elisha will tell sometimes, to his company of prophets around a fire – the time he got it wrong, and had to try again. And he’ll go on to live a long and fruitful life in God’s service, mostly getting it right, and God’s love and power will continue to be known through him – because God will always let us try again.
The Shunammite woman, for her part, is speechless. She falls once again at Elisha’s feet. Then she gets up and picks her son – her miracle child, the boy who lived.