Today’s readings seem rather a mixed bag, if one looks for a common theme running through them. With some ingenuity, we can see that the story of Elisha and some of the words of Jesus both speak of welcoming one who comes from God. Something different is St Paul’s summary of the Easter message as a basic foundation of Christian faith and hope.
2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16
This section of Kings celebrates the actions of the prophet Elisha, who was the successor of the greater prophet, Elijah. The prominent person in this story is, however the ‘woman of rank’ who is never named. She was a generous hostess in a society that prized welcoming a stranger, going further than most would when she gets her husband to help prepare a room dedicated to one she recognises as a ‘man of God’. After enjoying her hospitality for some time, Elisha wishes to reward her but has no idea of what he could do. His servant with more awareness has realised something lacking in the woman’s life, for to be childless in that society was a kind of disgrace. What Gehazi expects Elisha to do is not specified, but he simply states a need and waits in confidence. Elisha responds with a prophecy that after all these years of infertility, the woman will in fact conceive a son.
(The verses that follow this selection tell of the child who was predicted falling ill and dying when he is older, and Elisha then performing a miracle to save the boy. So the woman’s faith in the prophet will be challenged, and then rewarded.)
It is not hard to find lessons in this account, the first of welcoming strangers in need – as so many are in our times. In Matthew 35:25 Jesus will say that in doing so, we welcome Jesus himself, and today’s Gospel selection has a similar message. Second is gratitude, wanting to reward one who has helped us.
Psalm 88/89:2-3, 16-19
This is a ‘royal psalm’ celebrating a good king, and we could see the risen Christ in the second reading as our good ruler now in the ‘keeping’ of the Father.
Romans 6:3-4, 8-11
As we read further in Paul’s explanation of our salvation as a gift coming through Christ, we are shown some of the consequences of this in our own lives. We have followed Jesus in a kind of dying – ‘going down’ into the waters of baptism and coming up with a new life – and therefore we should be ‘dead to sin’ and live as Christ lives in a union of love with the Father.
This is the conclusion to Jesus’ instruction for missionaries or evangelists which we heard some of last week. It now takes up what applies to all disciples choosing to follow Jesus. First of all, he stresses how our relationship to God is to be the most important one in our lives, and we are not to let even those we love most come between us and Christ.
Second, he repeats what has been said before that how suffering and even death can be a consequence of our relationship with Jesus, stressing that will not be ended by death but the result will be finding a new and greater life. R. T. France in his book on this gospel, writes: ‘Christian readers have become so used to the cross as a word and a symbol that it is hard now the recapture the shudder that the word must have brought to a hearer at the time. Crucifixion was a punishment favoured by the Romans but regarded with horror by most Jews.’ It was used ‘for slaves and political rebels. It was not only the most cruel form of execution then in use but also carried the stigma of social disgrace.’ This is what Jesus went through himself and which he ‘holds out before any “worthy” disciple.’ France goes on to say – as we can easily see in time since – that ‘not every loyal disciple will be a martyr, but all must recognise and accept the possibility.’
The next points are about welcoming a prophet or holy person and how in so doing, we will be rewarded. Then a similar idea showing what Matthew says in his ‘Last Judgment’ (25:31-40) that something done for a person in need is done for Christ himself. In this case, it something it is as simple as offering water to a child, seen as one in the special care of Jesus. These assurances of ‘reward’ were to strengthen the disciples when they meet opposition in their mission of preaching Jesus.
All these readings with differing ideas leave us with much to reflect on, and even more, we see challenges to what we are to do as followers of Jesus.