Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Summer is coming and there will be a few weeks - about three - in late June and July when I will not be able to post daily Bible reading notes. So, in order not to lose my place in the schedule I am following, I will be posting two days of reading each day through June 23rd and then pick up with it again on July 16th.
2 Kings 4 – The widow of one of the company of prophets comes to Elisha and tells him that a creditor is trying to take her two children in repayment of a debt her husband owed. Elisha asks her what she has in her house of value, but all she has is a jar of oil. Elisha tells her to get as many vessels as she can lay her hands on and start pouring oil into them behind closed doors. She does this. As the children bring her the vessels, she keeps pouring, and the oil does not give out until all the vessels are full, enough to pay off the debt.
In Shumen, Elisha passes the home of a wealthy woman who invites him to have a meal. She wants her husband to make a small room for him up on their roof to stay in when he is there because he is a man of God. They do it.
Once when Elisha is there he sends his servant Gehazi to ask her what he might do for her in return. Through Gehazi, Elisha learns that she has no son. Elisha calls her again and tells her she will have a son. The child is born and grows a little, but then he gets sick and dies. She takes him and lays him on Elisha’s bed and closes the door. Then she goes to get Elisha at Mount Carmel. When Elisha sees her coming, he sends Gehazi to meet her. She doesn’t tell him the problem but when she gets to Elisha, she “[catches] hold of his feet. Gehazi approache[s] to push her away. But the man of God [says], ‘Let her alone, for she is in bitter distress; the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me’” (4:27). She tells him about her son. Elisha tries to send Gehazi with his staff—to lay it on the face of the child, but the woman will not leave without Elisha.
He goes with her. Gehazi goes ahead and lays the staff on the child’s face, but cannot awaken him. Elisha comes then, goes in and closes the door “on the two of them, and prayed to the Lord. Then he got up on the bed and lay upon the child, putting his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands; and while he lay bent over him, the flesh of the child became warm” (4:33-34). He gets up once and then returns to the child, bending over him. The child sneezes seven times and opens his eyes. The woman is summoned to come and take him—she falls at his feet.
Elisha returns to Gilgal in a time of famine. He orders his servant to make some stew for the company of prophets. One goes out and gets wild gourds and adds them to the stew without knowing what they are. When they try the stew it is terrible—“there is death in the pot!” (4:40). Elisha orders some flour thrown in and the stew served—it was good.
A man comes from Baal-shalishah bringing first fruits to Elisha—20 loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain. Elisha orders it given to the people, 100 of them. His servant thinks it is not enough, but Elisha orders it distributed. “’They shall eat and have some left’” (4:43). And so it was. These are all-important stories for understanding the power and ministry of Jesus whose miracles parallel these so closely. They must have resonated deeply with the people who knew these stories of Elisha so well.
2 Kings 5 – The story of Naaman, the victorious and highly respected army commander of the Syrians. He also is a victim of leprosy. Through a young Israelite girl who was taken captive in a raid on Israel by Syria and given to Naaman’s wife as a servant, Naaman learns that there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure leprosy. Naaman goes to him and is told to wash seven times in the Jordan to be cured. Samaria must be a vassal nation to Syria at this time to imagine they would be willing to help an army commander who has conquered them and taken their children captive.
At first Naaman is put off because he expects the cure to be a little flashier and more in accordance with his own pre-conceived notions of how such cures are effected. But he is also put off by the inference that there is something better about the Jordan than about the rivers of his own country. So he starts to leave, but his servants prevail upon him to try it and to his amazement, he is cured. He is compelled to acknowledge that “there is no god but the God of Israel” (5:15).
He wants to give Elisha a gift, but Elisha will not accept one. Naaman says, “if you won’t accept my gift, then let me have two mule-loads of earth to take home with me, because from now on I will not offer sacrifices or burnt offerings to any god except the Lord” (5:17). According to the prevailing “henotheistic” beliefs of the day, his sacrifices to Yahweh would need to occur on Israeli soil (Isaac Asimov, 360).
Luke 7 - Jesus enters Capernaum. A Roman centurion has a slave he values who is close to death; so he sends some Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come and heal the slave. Jesus is on his way when the centurion sends other friends to tell him he need not actually come into his house—he knows Jesus is a pious Jew and may have scruples against entering the home of a non-Jew and especially to attend to a person who might be dying. So he communicates these wonderful words to Jesus through his friends: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. . .” (7:6-8).
I have read this many times, and it has had a great importance to me over the years; but this time reading through, it was the first time I noticed that the centurion never meets Jesus personally. They communicate through the elders first and then through other friends. Not only does the centurion know the extent of Jesus’ power over sin and death, but he knows it is not a power contingent upon physical presence in any way, but simply upon faith. I first appreciated this story when I was out of communion with the church but working to restore it. I went to Mass but was not supposed to receive communion. I never felt that to be a problem even though I longed to be back in full communion; for the words spoken just before receiving the Eucharist were the centurion’s words of faith: “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed. I knew that I didn’t need to receive him in the bread—though I wanted the bread that was Christ. I knew I had been feeding on his presence for years before I was formally permitted to receive him in the sacrament. And I knew it for the same reason the centurion knew he did not need to meet the man Jesus or actually bring him under his roof—he had faith in His Spirit and was touched by him even though he never saw him.
Jesus next sees a dead man being carried out of town, the only son of a widow (7:12). How Jesus knows this is not revealed. But Jesus “has compassion for her” and raises her son from the dead, terrifying all who see it. This is the second miracle in a row done as a result of “intercession” of a sort. In the one just before, the centurion asks Jesus to cure his servant. Here Jesus is responding to the inward need of the woman. Could this be some kind of secret reference to his own mother, who will soon lose her only son, and whose mother’s heart has been prayed to over the millennia by those who know Jesus’ soft spot for it?
Messengers come from John the Baptist asking if he is the one to come. John is in jail. Jesus tells the men to tell John what they have seen—the blind are given sight, the lame, their ability to walk back; the deaf, their hearing; the poor, good news of their coming reward. Jesus comes in the need we have. He heals what keeps us from being whole.
Jesus asks the crowds what it is they seek for in John. I don’t feel like I understand this passage well at all, down through 27. John is the greatest “among those born of women,” but even the “least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (7:28). Those who have responded to John’s call for repentance and renewal (even those who were tax collectors) are in a better place to receive Jesus. But the Pharisees and “the lawyers” who did not have “rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30). People criticize whatever they see—they criticize John for his austerity; they criticize Jesus for his lack of austerity.
There follows here maybe my favorite story—the story of Jesus and the woman of ill repute. He is in the house of a Pharisee who had asked him to eat with him. A woman comes in bearing a jar of ointment; she stands behind him and starts to bathe his feet in her tears and drying them with her hair, kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. The Pharisee thinks if he really is a prophet, he should be able to see what kind of woman she really is—a woman of ill repute in the city. But Jesus tells him (using his first name, Simon) the story of the two debtors, the one who owed 50 denarii and the other who owed 500. If they were both let off their debt, who would love the creditor more? Like the debtor with the larger debt, the woman shows more love to him because she has been forgiven more.