Thursday, April 7, 2011

Thursday of the Fourth Week in Lent

4 Kings 4:25-38 / Luke 7:11-16

Trust in the Lord is easy enough when the hoped for good is relatively swift in coming. Trust is also, oddly enough, relatively easy to assert when what is promised is safely far off. While it is one thing, in other words, to have confidence and to arrange one's life when there is a sure and certain result around the corner, and another thing to organize one's life without reasonable expectation that the great good one pursues can be achieved in the course of a lifetime, nonetheless either way provides a kind of predictable assurance.

How different things are when we find ourselves ill-equipped to handle the difficulties that come our way. How much harder it is to maintain trust in God's promises when we find that our best intuitions are wrong and that our efforts to fulfill his will result in nothing at all, or at best in partial or ambiguous success.

This is the dilemma which confront Elisha in the face of the Shunammite woman and her dead son. In continuous succession, Elisha, although a prophet of God, discovers that the Lord has withheld from him any special insight into the reason for the woman's coming, the nature of her distress, or even the best way to respond. His initial sending of his servant Gehazi, for example, the woman brushes aside with a perfunctory answer. His subsequent insight as to her distress is coupled with a realization of his own inadequacy to anticipate her needs: And the man of God said: Let her alone: for her soul is in anguish, and the Lord hath hid it from me and hath not told me. When he discovers the source of the woman's distress, the death of her son, he sends Gehazi with his staff to raise him to life, yet to no effect — But Giezi was gone before them, and laid the staff upon the face of the child, and there was no voice nor sense: and he returned to meet him, and told him, saying: The child is not risen.

When the prophet himself goes to revive the child, while he fares better, his efforts prove to be less than immediately effective. Radically identifying himself with the dead child, laying upon the child who lay upon the prophet's own bed, his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands, Elisha succeeds only in a partial restoration — the child's flesh grew warm. One can see Elisha's distress and frustration, leading him to pace about the house,  once to and fro, to regroup his strength and prayer to try again. On the second attempt, he finds success, albeit not without its own drama: the child gaped seven times, and opened his eyes.

We might imagine that Elisha, who knew he was a faithful prophet of God and knew that he had a double portion of the spirit of prophecy that had empowered his master, the great prophet Elijah, expected less effort, less distress in this miracle. Surely it would have been easier, even more dramatic for building up the faith of Israel, had the child been restored to life with the ease with which Jesus restored the son of the widow of Naim. For Jesus, the restoration was both immediate and complete: He said: Young man, I say to thee, arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. No gaping or sneezing, no initial warming before revival, no private and intense lying atop the corpse. Jesus merely spoke, and it was.

If God worked wonders through us, whether properly supernatural miracles or more quotidian but no less impressive acts of faith, hope, and charity, principally for the sake of others, then their coming slowly, unpredictably, and only with effort might well count against their value as witnesses to the truth of the Gospel. However, we ought not to presume that God's delay of the healing of the Shunammite's son was not also for the sake of Elisha and Gehazi. They, too, needed to learn something of trust in God. They needed to know the kind of helplessness that the woman knew in the death of her son, the despair that led her to abase herself before the prophet. Might not Gehazi have likewise been made more trusting in knowing his failure, might not Elisha have been reconfirmed in his status as prophet by grace, and not by right or personal property?

It is certainly hard to trust in the face of delay or failure, but such is the very stone and mortar from which God builds the edifice of our faith. It is not in repeated successes, not in reliable working of wonders, but in the humble admission that we will continue to witness to the Gospel even in the face of failure and less than dramatic success than we are conformed more powerfully to the Cross. It is from this position, a position of being weak and broken, but no less confident in the victory of the Lord, that God can best make his love known to the world.

O God, Creator and Ruler of Thy people, drive forth the sins by which they are assailed: that they may be ever pleasing to Thee, and secure in Thy protection.

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