Compassion & Power
2 Kings 4:8-37
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
11 June 2023
This summer we are reading stories of prophets and rulers under the lens of the theme “Good Trouble.” Last week we heard a story about the prophet Elijah confronting King Ahab for the evil he and Queen Jezebel had committed against Naboth—having him killed so that they might have his vineyard. Today we hear a story not about a ruler, but a regular citizen of Israel. And our prophet has changed. Now it is Elisha, who succeeded Elijah as God’s voice after Elijah was carried away into heaven on a fiery chariot.
Listen now to this ancient story:
2 Kings 4:8-37
This long story comes in the middle of a series of stories where the prophet Elisha is not interacting with kings and queens and generals but rather with ordinary people. The wider context of this time is a famine in the land and in many of the stories, the prophet is helping people with their hunger. He helps a widowed mother who is hungry feed her children, he provides the antidote to some poisoned stew, he multiplies the grain so that a hundred people might be fed.
As more than one commentator notes, the prophet represents the interests of the traditional agricultural communities. He “brings the power of God to address the survival needs of the poor,” according to Patricia Dutcher-Walls. These stories, she adds, reveal “a focus on God’s wider compassion for the whole of the social structure.”
In last week’s story, God is on the side of Naboth, the ordinary Israelite whose life and land are taken from him. Because the land was God’s gift to Naboth, assuring Naboth of his and his family’s freedom.
Over and over and over again, these stories of the ancient prophets reveal God on the side of ordinary people, protecting them from natural disasters and the evils inflicted upon them by their rulers.
One feature of the story last week was that Jezebel and Ahab are behaving just like any Iron Age ruler might. Actually, like many people in power throughout history. They aren’t particularly evil, as much as they are typical rulers. And that itself seems to be the problem. The way rulers typically behave is itself a threat to what God intends for humanity. And, so, God’s compassion and justice are on the side of the peasants and the ordinary citizens of Israel.
Which is one of the ways to read this story before us today. The story reveals God’s concern for this woman and her son. God’s power comes to her aid, through the working of the prophet Elisha.
Now, there’s a parallel story in First Kings told about the prophet Elijah. During a different famine, he is taken care of by a poor widow with a son. In response to her generosity to Elijah, God provides the woman grain and oil to feed herself and her son, so that they might survive the famine. And when her son also tragically dies, he brought back to life by God’s power working through the prophet Elijah. That story is wonderful, and I’ve preached it before. The message of that story is rather straightforward—God’s compassion and power are directed toward suffering and needy people.
But this similar story is notably different, which makes the message less straightforward. For one, this woman is not poor. In fact, she is wealthy. Some translations even say she’s a “great woman.” She’s able to build a little apartment for the prophet to use when he’s in town. The average person can’t be that generous.
She’s also not a widow. She has a husband. In fact, she tells the prophet that she’s among her people. She’s not alone. She seems to be living a pretty good life.
She also doesn’t initially have a child to take care of. But, in the story, she is given one.
And in the giving of the son, there is also a complexity.
I was reading the commentary on Second Kings by Song-Mi Suzie Park, an Old Testament professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and she pointed out a handful of things I may not have noticed myself when first reading this passage.
She notices how the prophet Elisha rarely addresses the woman directly, but involves his servant Gehazi in all the interactions. And in ways that when you read it don’t make complete sense. At one point the woman seems to be standing in front of Elisha, but the prophet tells Gehazi to speak to the woman, rather than him speaking directly to her. Park writes, “All these indirect interactions create an odd, tortuous narrative.” What’s going on?
And then, if you look again, you’ll see that this woman never asks for a child and at no point conveys that she wants one. We’ve been primed through reading the Bible to immediately cast her as yet another barren woman desiring a child, like Sarah, Hannah, or Elizabeth. But nothing in this text actually conveys that. It is an interpretation we bring to the text, but isn’t actually located within it.
It is Elisha and Gehazi, two men talking together, who come up with the idea of giving her a son. And when they actually tell her that’s what they are going to do, she says “No.”
Also, notice that God is absent. Unlike in other stories where a barren woman receives a child as a gift from God. Elisha seems to have given her this child of his own decision.
So, Park, in her commentary, draws the conclusion that it’s these two men who believe that “a woman without a child cannot possibly be fulfilled.” She adds, “The presence of a wealthy, active, independent woman without need of a son, seems . . . to have been too much for the male-centric text to sustain.”
Is this a story about a woman compelled to give birth to a child she does not want? All because the men in the story think she needs a son?
Another scholar described this text as an “extraordinary feast of patriarchal propaganda.”
Other possibilities lurk here as well. Some scholars wonder if the woman says “No” because she interprets the prophet Elisha as offering to father the child himself. And given the different ways the child is treated later in the story by her husband and by the prophet, this possibility lurks in the corners.
Oh, that I had decided to preach the much easier story about Elijah and the widow from First Kings!
Instead, we have an ambiguous story from Second Kings where the message and the moral implications remain uncertain and confused.
But, the ambiguity and confusion actually make the story feel timely, don’t they?
Our society has now spent many years reckoning with the sexual abuses of male power. The possibility that lurks in the corner of this story means that this text might speak to that social concern.
And forcing a woman to give birth to a child she does not want is definitely relevant to our national debate over reproductive justice and bodily autonomy.
If this is a child she did not want, then her behavior when the son falls ill and dies is quite compelling. The child lies in her lap as he suffers and dies. And then she takes all the decisive action in response. The men seem to keep fumbling around either indifferent or not knowing what to do. We are left feeling odd and indifferent about Elisha but the woman is the true hero of this story. She is the one full of virtues, from her initial generosity and hospitality to her gratitude at the end.
While the message of this story isn’t nearly as straightforward as that in the other child resurrection story, I couldn’t help but feel that we are being told some things about compassion and power. So, I turned to my favorite book about divine compassion, one I read back in my undergrad days, theologian Wendy Farley’s Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion. And in that text she describes and defines compassion as follows:
Compassion is power to bring to life what is broken by pain, to bring to justice and redemption what is twisted by brutality, to free creatures from the torment of self-absorption and enliven them for care and delight and creativity.
Compassion, she writes, is powerful. Compassion is a form of power. Just not power as domination, control, or coercion. Instead, it is creative, freeing power, that brings life and justice and care.
And that seems quite relevant to this story. Bringing life to what is broken by pain. Bringing justice to that which has been twisted by cruelty. Freeing people for care and creativity. In some ways we have to read against the patriarchy in this text to see that compassion, but God has given us the brains and the insights to do exactly that.
And in doing that, we are exhibiting some of the very creative power that compassion is.
Wendy Farley also discusses how compassion is related to integrity. Compassion sees a suffering person, but does not see them as their suffering or pain. Compassion recognizes them as a person first. She writes, “Compassion identifies suffering as an affront to this integrity, as an anomaly that threatens and defaces the sufferer.”
Now, if this story fits with the others around it in Second Kings, where Elisha is helping those suffering from hunger during the famine, and if it is like the story of God standing on the side of Naboth who has been mistreated by his rulers, and if it is also like the story of the widow whose child died and Elijah brought him back to life, which has to be the case, as the parallels compel us to look back at that story,
Then this is another story in which God is standing on the side of a person, defending their integrity against systems that threaten that integrity. God’s compassion and power challenge injustices and the suffering they cause. Including the patriarchy.
Last week we concluded that the lesson for us is that God’s justice is on the side of freedom. This week, I proclaim that God’s compassion, and power, are on the side of our personal integrity and autonomy, and against those who would use their power to dominate, coerce, and control.