Stories Seldom Heard, September 2017
Stories Seldom Heard
218th Edition September 2017
A Hidden Figure: II Kings 4:8- 37
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. I would especially like to welcome the members of the New Testament class in San Rafael and the members of St. Paschal Baylon and Assumption parishes “Hidden Figures” Retreat Series in Oakland, CA.
Many of us have seen the movie “Hidden Figures.” However, NASA is not the only place that often overlooks the presence and contributions of women. There are many important women in both the First (Old) Testament and New Testament who are often not fully appreciated and whose stories are not well known. The Book of Judith tells us of a pious widow turned warrior. She saved the Israelites from Holofernes and the Assyrian army. The Book of Esther tells of Esther, the queen of Persia, who saved her people after King Xerxes promulgated an edict that would have annihilated the Jewish people. Then, of course, there are the women who are mentioned in Chapter One of Matthew’s Gospel. Even though some of them used devious means to accomplish their task, they all have a story to tell about how the Israelite people survived.
Many of these women have names, but some of them are unnamed like the woman whose story we will be exploring in this article. The only way we can identify her is by the name of the town in which she lived, Shunem. Her story begins in II Kings 4:8. In many ways she was an ordinary woman. She wasn’t a prophet or a woman who changed the course of history. She didn’t save her people from disaster, but she was a very holy and perceptive woman. Evidently, she had been a resident of Shunem for a long time because one day she noticed someone who was new in town. Since she was a woman of means, she “pressed him to stay and eat.” I guess if we were to put this into modern language, “She made the stranger an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
The man, Elisha accepted the invitation. The conversation at dinner must have been more than just about his travels. As the woman listened to her guest she realized that he was a “servant of God, and a holy one” (4:9). Since Elisha visited the town often, the Shunemite woman suggested to her husband that they build an extra room onto their home. In this way Elisha would always have a place to stay. In that room she placed a bed, a table, a chair and a lamp — simple furnishings, no frills. As the story unfolds, Elisha visited the Shunemite woman and her husband often. Slowly Elisha’s presence became a significant part of the Shunemite woman’s and her husband’s life.
The Shunemite woman might have had money, but she was not flamboyant or extravagant. Her practical approach to life, no doubt, came from the experience of hard-work, prudent judgment and the realization that even though she was landed gentry her life could radically change in a moment. It was important for her to know her place in society. If she stepped out of line or if the king or a member of his army wanted something she had, she would have no recourse, no one to protect her (II Kings 4:13). Elisha understood the situation. So he sent his servant, Gehazi, with the message. “Look, you have gone to all this trouble for us, what can we do for you? Is there anything you would like said for you to the king or to the commander of the army” (II Kings 4:13)? Her reply is clear and straightforward. “I live with my own people about me” (II Kings 4:14). Gehazi, however, had another suggestion when Elisha asked him, “What can be done for her then?” Gehazi’s suggestion was well taken and Elisha responded to it immediately (II Kings 4:14).
The prophet, the messenger of God, provided something the Shunemite woman couldn’t provide for herself: new life. Elisha promised the woman, “This time next year you will hold a son in your arms” (II Kgs 4:16). We can hear the Shunemite woman’s profound joy hidden in her fearful response. “No, my lord, do not deceive your servant.” But “she gave birth… The child grew up.” This story is more than just a quaint story about the gifts that strangers offer us in the name of God. It is a reminder that God longs to do the same for us: give us new life in the ways we most desire it. For some of us it might be the birthing of a baby or meeting a life-long partner. For others of us renewed life might come as we reflect on the prayerful life learnings of wisdom figures in our families or friends.
We might never meet an official prophet, but for those of us with discerning eyes we will be able to find them in our daily lives because prophets come in all shapes and sizes, every nationality and race. These messengers of God often look quite ordinary. Yet, they hold blessings for us if we are attentive. They come not to foretell the future, not even to perform miracles– unless we consider new vision and renewed hope miracles! Prophets come into our lives to help us understand what is happening around us. They often bring a new perspective and speak the hard truths that others would rather not expose. Once we accept these strangers into our lives, like the Shunemite women did with Elisha, they will never abandon us because their words of wisdom will have formed our consciences (1).
The Shunemite woman’s life was changed by offering the prophet Elisha the simple, yet profound gift of hospitality. This is not the only time that strangers have brought extraordinary blessings to those who have welcomed them. In the story of Sarah and Abraham three strangers promised Sarah a child within a year. A stranger in the Book of Tobit walked with Tobit and gave him sight. This messenger turned out to be Raphael whose name means “God who heals.” Mary of Nazareth received news from a stranger that disrupted her life and brought unimaginable blessings to her and to us. Throughout the bible and in our Catholic tradition, hospitality is a central commandment and the story of the Shunemite woman helps deepen our Christian understanding of this virtue.
The Shunemite woman reminds us that biblical hospitality is more than just being polite. It’s more than just serving a stranger dinner or preparing a room for a traveler. For sure, the room that was prepared for the prophet and his servant met their needs for overnight accommodations: a place of refreshment and a small retreat from the afternoon heat. But more importantly, the room becomes a metaphor. The Shunemite woman had made room for Elisha in her life.
When biblical hospitality is offered it means making a space for “the other:” a safe place so she/he can rest. It’s a place where they can be themselves and not be judged. True hospitality allows people time to explore who they are, share their emerging ideas and dreams without fear of criticism or reprisal. Hospitality presumes patience on our part and a willingness to risk brief words of wisdom or concern when asked. Basically, hospitality is a place where we feel listened to and appreciated for our uniqueness.
For some of us hospitality comes easily. For others, it is more difficult because it means setting aside our own agendas and letting go of our prejudices. But for all of us, the Shunemite woman’s life holds some wisdom. The story doesn’t say she is a woman of prayer, but her discerning actions reveal her compassion, spiritual practices and deep faith. She observes and welcomes someone in need. Over time she comes to recognize this stranger as a holy one, a prophet. She trusts in his words of life that she will seek Elisha out for a renewal of his promise of life when her son dies.
There is much talk about strangers, aliens and foreigners these days. There are many suspicions, cautions and criticisms concerning people from other countries and those who practice another form of faith. So what wisdom does this biblical story hold for us? The Shunemite woman began by noticing one stranger. She listened to him and his presence in her life gave her a deeper understanding of the world and God. Because she was willing to be vulnerable God blessed her with new life.
I wonder what would happen if today we reached out to one stranger. Gave her/him our full attention. Made room for her/him in our lives. Perhaps God would bless our generosity by allowing this holy one to expand our hearts and deepen our understanding of God.
- The Bible identifies some prophets as major and others as minor. This ranking doesn’t mean that the minor prophets are not important. Certainly, if a minor prophet had given new life to our family as Elisha did, it would be difficult to think of that person as being “minor” or lacking anything. All of the prophets were special people. The biblical distinction between major and minor refers only to the amount of writing that has been attributed to them. Those prophets who have long books, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel are considered major prophets. Those who have written smaller books or who are just mentioned in other writings in scripture are considered minor prophets.
Even though Micah is a minor prophet many of us know by heart a quote that comes from the Book of the Prophet Micah. “What is good has been explained to you. This is what Yahweh asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article.
“Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection. If you would like “Stories Seldom Heard” sent to a friend, please send a note to “firstname.lastname@example.org.