Courage to Set the Table
This past Friday morning, I sat down with my five-year-old son to share our morning worship. Since my wife works part-time out of the home and my daughter is at school, I always look forward to this time that we sit on the couch, read a story, and surrender our lives to God for the day. Though precious to me, this is a routine occurrence. And while I do receive a blessing, it is seldom that I walk away with any profound insight from the children’s devotional that has been tracing the lives of Israel’s prophets.
My son read aloud the words on the page: “Peace never comes through war.”
Over the next 15 minutes, we began to trace the story of Benhadad’s frustration with the prophet Elisha. The fact that the prophet had a supernatural wiretap into the Syrian king’s bedroom always frustrated the king’s plans to ambush the Israelites (2 Kings 6:12). Determined to do away with the pesky prophet, Benhadad sent a spy to determine Elisha’s location, and then an army to siege the town of Dothan.
Surrounded by their enemies in the middle of the night, Elisha’s servant expressed his terror that there was no escape. Calmly, the prophet stated that they were, in fact, members of a more powerful contingent. “O Lord,” Elisha prayed, “please open his eyes that he may see (v.17).” And as the curtain was swept away, the protective armies of heavenly host were revealed.
This old story reminds us of the reality that all earthly conflict has supernatural origins. Forces exist behind the scenes, and they have a real interest in human affairs. While lines may become blurred because of national, political, or complex moral implications, our response to conflict in this world will exhibit our allegiance to only one of two value systems.
Elisha prays that God would blind the eyes of the Syrian army, and then the prophet proceeds to tell them that he’s going to take them to where they really want to go. When their eyes are opened, they find themselves in Samaria—the capital of the northern kingdom.
Joram, King of Israel, intent on seizing the opportunity, asks Elisha, “My father, shall I strike them down (2 Kings 2:21)?” The king’s intent echoes the cry of human nature under provocation. It was the admonition of David’s compatriots that he avenge himself when he had the opportunity to slay his stalker in the recesses of a cave (1 Samuel 24:4). And it was James and John’s request of the Lord Jesus for reprisal when they were turned away from a Samaritan village on sectarian grounds. (Luke 9:25). Joram asks the second time: “Shall I strike them down?”
It was a tremendous opportunity to show Benhadad exactly who had the upper hand, and to put him in his place after the saber rattling the king had been doing. Elisha gives direction as to the decisive blow that would be dealt to the now vulnerable foreign insurgents: “Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master (v. 22).”
In the scope of eternity, the lack of Christ-like love in the heart of Jesus’ professed followers is a greater problem than the threat of suicide bombers.
The Bible doesn’t record the confusion that King Joram experienced in that moment, but we do have the simple record of what was carried out: “So he prepared for them a great feast, and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel (v. 23).”
The prophet must have known that, after the army left in peace, Benhadad would eventually return to his old tricks. The kindness shown to his troops would not entirely ameliorate the pagan king’s hatred for the people of Israel. But Elisha demonstrated his fidelity to principles aligned with the kingdom of God.
Paul’s articulation of this principle is both explicit and authoritative: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:20-21).”
It is not an easy thing to apply this story to our current predicament in the United States. With ISIS on the rise, and a multitude of refugees fleeing for stable countries, there is always concern that terror will creep in. But perhaps a greater concern is that politicians, jockeying for votes during a heated election cycle, are more influential in our thinking than the Word of God. When states in the “Bible Belt” begin closing their doors to some of the most needy and desperate people on the planet*—people who have nowhere else to turn—a greater crisis in the Western, Christian world begins to emerge. It is the grave concern of which Jesus warned us, stating that, “because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold (Matthew 24:12).” In the scope of eternity, the lack of Christ-like love in the heart of Jesus' professed followers is a greater problem than the threat of suicide bombers.
To embrace the principle of love is not Pollyanna idealism. It is not naiveté. It is adherence to a bold decision to live and walk in the example of Christ, and to allow the radical precedent He set in His own life to be lived out in our own. It’s not something that human flesh can do, but rather, something we consent that He accomplishes in us. And if we are attached to this world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—His love will die out in our hearts, and we will be consumed by selfishness instead of love. And Jesus will tell us that we are making him sick to his stomach (Revelation 3:16).When we talk about receiving refugees, we’re not talking about the armed-to-the-teeth Syrian army that Elisha was confronted with. I’m not an expert on refugees, but I spent nearly a year working in refugee resettlement while I was studying Arabic in a Mountain-West city. And I live just around the corner from a Sudanese family that has recently resettled in our small town on Lake Michigan. I’ve seen refugees proclaim their love for America, their hope in a new life, and their gratitude for opportunities that they didn’t have in their country of origin. And I’ve come to believe that they are more set on achieving the American dream than many of those raised in this country. But even if they didn’t possess qualities that would “merit” our mercy, would we still have the courage to extend it?
There’s always some inherent risk in helping people. Extending kindness may make you vulnerable. Just ask the good Samaritan, who stooped to save a man beaten by robbers. No doubt he was concerned that he might become a victim, too. But there is no fear in love, and a love that is complete has no reason to be afraid (1 John 4:18). The Samaritan risked himself to save a desperate and dying man, and as he did, his own life was spared.
Perhaps we’ve forgotten the vision Elisha’s servant saw. That followers of Jesus are a part of a powerful majority in this universe. That God can protect his faithful people. And, perhaps we need to be reminded that faithfulness is exhibited by love. A love that is characterized by what James identified as the essence of true religion—caring for the vulnerable in their time of need (James 1:27).
Peace never comes through war, whether it is the overt shedding of blood or the inner hatred of the foreigner that we are called to love. So perhaps we need to begin to consider how we may best set—and reset—the table.