2 Kings 4:42-44
I’ll tell you a secret: I believe in miracles.
It’s true. I’m a believer. It’s not that I believe that Jesus walked on water, it’s that I believe the power of God lifts us up out of a sea of chaos. I don’t know if Jesus ever healed blindness, but I know that the longer I look at him, the more I see. And I am not clear about that most foundational doctrine, the resurrection. But, because of the life that Jesus poured out, both in his living and in his dying, I have hope in a Kingdom that is yet to come, and which sometimes seems a long way off.
So, when I read a story like the one we have this morning in 2 Kings (and John 6) I have to look past the magic of 20 loaves and some grain feeding a hundred people. It’s just not relevant. What I am looking for is the miracle.
Elisha is not the only one who fed people in this morning’s readings. In the gospel reading, Jesus fed the crowd with food that seems to have appeared from nowhere. And maybe it did. Maybe Jesus was magic. But, I don’t think so, nor do I think that makes a very compelling addition to the ark of the Bible story. It doesn’t fit. A better reading is that the Christ-spirit of Jesus opens more than hearts and minds. It opens lunch bags too. Generosity, hungry people sharing what they have with other hungry people… now, that’s a miracle.
But, here’s the set-up in 2 Kings: There was a famine in the land and Elisha had done some miracles to help out. It was all about scarcity and how God may come through in a pinch if there’s a miracle-working prophet around. Altogether, not too hopeful.
Then the harvest! Today we read that a stranger came to Elisha with his first-fruits offering. He brought twenty loaves, much more than the required two loaves, and some grain. There was still a famine in the land, and it would have been most severe just before the harvest. But, now that the crops were in, there was food again. But, this reading is not about scarcity, or abundance, or even food. It’s about first-fruits.
The first-fruits offering should have gone to the priests, but for some reason, this unnamed stranger brought it to Elisha, the prophet. We don’t know why. What we do know is that he didn’t just show up with some food. It was a first-fruits offering, a holy offering. It was a reminder to the people that they had been brought out of slavery in Egypt and given a new life in a new land. It’s an offering tinged with the memory of suffering and degradation, but triumphant since the burden of slavery had been replaced with a burden of baskets laden with the best of the harvest.
Each year, as the farmers went up to the temple to make their offerings, they put gold wreaths on their oxen, they sang songs, rich people even put their offerings in gold or silver baskets. When they got to the temple they didn’t just deposit their offerings and leave. It wasn’t as simple as writing a cheque and dropping it in the plate. Here is what they said to the priest:
“My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon is. We cried to Adonai, the God of our fathers, and Adonai heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression. Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil that You, Adonai, have given me.”(Deuteronomy 26:5-10)
This is the life story of Israel. The farmers didn’t just bring an offering to keep the priests fed and the God appeased, they brought their stories. “We had it hard,” they said, “it was bad, but God has brought us to this land of promise.”
In requiring this language, God does not ask to be praised for all his so-called miracles. He is asking to hear the story.
This morning, as you approach your holy place, whether it’s in a church or in the jungle with the frogs chirping and birds soaring, wherever your heart rests and you find some quiet, consider what might be in your own basket and what story you might offer God. This little two-verse vignette shows us that when we bring the whole story of our lives to God, the slavery and the freedom, the famine and the feast, there is enough of whatever we most need. Who you are, wherever you are in your life, it’s enough. That’s a real miracle, the kind you can believe in. Tell God your story. That’s your offering.
Linda McMillan is writing from Chiang Mai, Thailand where the frogs are singing and something is moving! It’s not the Holy Spirit. There’s some kind of animal out there.
Image: Balthasar van der Ast,Still Life of Flowers, Fruit, Shells, and Insects, c. 1629, Birmingham Museum of Art
A Note of Possible Interest
Philo of Alexandria called First-Fruits the Basket Ceremony. That’s where the title of this essay comes from.