If I were childlike, today’s Promise Passage (2 Kings 4:38-41) would be a magic carpet ride through a wonder tale. As it is, the story first transports me on a plodding but necessary journey to various voices who give some inkling of how a disenchanted people can hear passages like this one. People like Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“the willing suspension of disbelief”); Paul Ricoeur (“second naivete”); Rene Girard (“a text in travail”). It’s worth checking out what they say. Sometimes even their descriptions can take flight.
In the midst of a 7-year famine, a hapless cook adds a poisonous pulp to the precious little available stew. Elisha, life-giving wonder worker, intervenes by adding meal (flour) to the mix. Death in the pot is transformed, and everyone eats a nourishing supper together.
An “ancient, jagged-edged story, dangerous and crude as a stone knife” (Buechner). Except that the stories of Jesus are strikingly similar. The Gospel writers echo the Elijah (precursor/purifier) and Elisha (power/presence of Spirit) stories as they shape their telling of John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus intervenes to feed the hungry, to restore life and one’s participation in it. The grand sweep is that where all these events occur, the Kingdom of God has broken in, “a kingdom that shatters the old order of misery and hopelessness” (Brueggemann). Alleluia!
But…in the midst of life we are in death. Set over against Elisha are the kings and their courts. The swirling countercurrents draw us into a crisis of authority. Who has it? At the same time Elisha brings food out of the death pot, the kings are hurtling themselves and their people toward destruction, all the more maddening for the drone of their expert efficiency, justifying what they decree as “necessary” in a world such as ours. Isn’t the fatal tendency of kings their defining “a world such as ours” with little if any reference to Elisha’s God?
Life and death. Rationalized and charismatic authority. Food and poison… “A combination of furious opposites” is G.K. Chesterton’s description of paradox.
I’m transported back to Chastain Park in Atlanta, this past May 21st. A magnificent concert by Paul Simon. Over two hours of sheer creative joy. His 27th, and final, song is “The Boy in the Bubble.” The unforgettable evening ends with the haunting refrain, “These are the days of miracle and wonder, and don’t cry, baby, don’t cry, don’t cry.”
Furious opposites. “The Boy in the Bubble” is the first song on Simon’s Graceland album (“I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland”). How do you hold all these things together?
Chesterton claims that the jaw-dropping paradoxes of our faith are taken up in the Cross, the ultimate paradox which can “open its arms to the four winds, growing in all directions without changing shape.”
We live in a day when the Church is ever-tempted to become court chaplains to the pot-poisoners. Instead, our call is to live the kind of lives that add our meal to the death stewing in the world, so that all God’s children can eat a common meal together. The Promise is that such a life is possible as we live into the Person, presence and purpose of the crucified and risen Lord, who is himself the Meal.