Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (2 Kings 4:42-44) transports me to the annual Dotson thanksgiving feast at the mountain home of brother Dave and his wife, Greta. We all have our tried and true side dishes we bring to the bash, to go along with the six or seven turkeys that get roasted or deep fried or smoked. One of my offerings is a big basket of biscuits; I have the reputation of having Mama’s biscuits down pat. It wasn’t always so. The beginning of my biscuit adventure goes back 20 years to the parsonage kitchen of Providence Baptist Church, Stoneville, NC, where two of the elder saints of the church, Jessie and Juanita, were trying to teach me how to make the consummate biscuit. These two women were famous for their baking abilities, and their biscuits came out perfect every time, just like Mama’s. I watched them many times and made copious notes, as they didn’t use a recipe. I measured the flour, the shortening, and tried my best to mimic their every move as they poured in the buttermilk and kneaded the dough and dropped the biscuits onto the pan and into the oven. I tried for years to get it right, but my biscuits always came out lacking in some way. Finally, after years of failure, I read the recipe on the back of the White Lily bag and followed it step by step. Lo and behold Mama’s biscuits came out of the oven, and they’ve been coming out ever since. And so every thanksgiving, I make enough biscuits to feed an army.
When it came time for Jesus to give thanks and provide baskets of bread to feed a veritable army of hungry folks, it seems he was following something of an old family recipe. I have to think that at some time in his youth, when his mother was buttering his bread, she would have shared the old story from 2 Kings 4, about the prophet Elisha and the consummate miracle bread. Elisha must have been one of Jesus’ favorite characters, for the Lord seemed to get a lot of his own prophetic characteristics from this man of God. These three simple verses in the Elisha chronicles give us the ingredients for Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. Elisha’s version was simpler; there were only a hundred hungry mouths to feed, and he had twenty barley loaves, but like the later story, this didn’t seem enough, and there was a miraculous plenty left over. There’s another detail in the Elisha story that I think became important to Jesus and his early followers. Like the boy who offered the lunch of loaves and fishes to share with the crowd, the 2 Kings story has a generous person offering the first fruits to share with the prophet, who then distributed them to the crowd. This was not a random boy, though, it was a man was from Baal-shalishah, a place meaning “The Third Baal” or “Baal the Third.” The name tells us that this was a pagan place, no doubt a place of enmity and hostility for the covenant community which was always competing with the Baal worshipers for the hearts and minds of the people of faith. For some reason, the Baal community at this time had enjoyed a fruitful season of rain, while the covenant community experienced drought. And lo and behold, here comes someone from the Baal community carrying a blessed basket of bread to the famine famished community of Israel. The prophet didn’t turn it down. He accepted the blessing from Baal-shalishah, and it nourished and sustained the hungry of his community.
All this seems to be in the recipe book of Jesus’ teaching about loving enemies, giving them bread when they are hungry and water when they are thirsty, and blessing them when they persecute. The back story is not what we expect, though. It is not a story of us blessing our enemies; it is a story of pagan enemies blessing us, giving us bread when we are hungry. It is a story describing the grace of receiving, even receiving the generous blessing of our enemies. I’m reminded of times when we have failed to embody this grace of Elisha. After 9/11, Cuba was one of the first countries to express solidarity and offer aid to their long-time enemy. We refused. And after Hurricane Katrina, Cuba was the first country to offer help; they were willing to send fifteen hundred doctors along with supplies. We turned them down. I hope and pray that we will soon learn to accept the bread of Baal-shalishah. We’ve been trying the recipe of embargo for over fifty years, and it hasn’t worked. It’s time we try something new.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to respond.