Strange Stories from Scripture Part 2
2 Kings 2.23-25
He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.
This morning we continue with the second part of our sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As I mentioned last week, the drive for our sermon series comes from the wealth of scriptural treasure begging to be preached, in addition to my desire to not fall into a rut of preaching the same, favorite, and familiar texts over and over. Last week we talked about the fate of a young man named Eutychus who fell asleep during church. Today we are exploring the story of Elisha and the she-bears.
And while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!”
In my opinion, this is one of the most troubling passages in all of scripture. I can look into both the Old and New Testaments and find scriptures that challenge my faith, passages that require me to pray for understanding and discernment, there are even passages that I would rather ignore than affirm from a place such as this, but there are few stories as dramatic and frightening as the one we have read this morning.
While Elisha was on his way to Bethel, sweating under the heat of the sun, some young boys came out from the city ahead of him and began to make fun of him. “Get outta here baldy! We don’t want you and your shiny head around us!” Perhaps he tried to ignore them at first, but when the taunting became so distracting and loud, Elisha turned around to face the crowd of young boys and cursed them in the name of the Lord. As if on cue, two mama bears came barreling out of the woods and mauled 42 of the boys. From there Elisha continued on his journey to Mount Carmel, and then he returned to Samaria.
Before we can even begin to address what happened on the road we need to go back, we need to get a larger picture of the story.
Elisha followed the reign of the prophet Elijah. Elijah is remembered for bringing a widow’s son back to life, for finding God in the sheer silence, and for confronting idol worshippers. Elijah was a favorite prophet for the New Testament writers who often drew the connection between the prophetic life of Elijah and the messianic life of Christ.
At the end of Elijah’s time Elisha followed him to the Jordan and watched him ascend on a whirlwind into heaven after having received a share of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha took up Elijah’s ministry, he literally took Elijah’s mantle with him, and continued to be a messenger and example of God’s Word for the people.
The story of Elisha and the she bears is one of the first things that took place during Elisha’s time as a prophet. As a young and novice messenger, he is making his way to Bethel and other parts of the land to bring the people back to their Lord.
What do you make of this passage? Is it one that you, like me, would rather ignore and pass over? Does it challenge your understanding of God and the role of the prophets?
For centuries theologians, scholars, pastors, and Christian-disciples have attempted to make sense of this story; they have worked hard to explain what is really going on.
I could begin by telling you that there is more at work in this story than appears on the surface. In Hebrew, the designation for the “small boys” is more akin to “young men” and more particularly young men who do not want the prophet coming to their town to tell them what they have done wrong.
I could continue by showing you that, though Elisha was bald, he was in fact probably only 25 or 26 when this transpired; he was my age when he was taunted for being bald and cursed the young men!
Similarly the point can be made that the harmless teasing was in fact very troubling. They were not merely making fun of his shiny head but were denying his prophetic ability. After taking up his former prophet’s mantle, Elisha was being accosted; in so doing the crowd of young men was not only attacking a young prophet but denouncing the Lord as well.
Moreover I could share with you the simple fact that Elisha did not call out the she bears, he just pronounced judgment on the demonstrators and God decided the form of response. And even when the bears came out of the woods they did not kill 42 of the young men, they simply mauled them. Perhaps God was using the bears in a way that none of the young men would perish, but so that they would all be punished.
Yet, even with all these new details, the story still troubles me.
As I prepared for the sermon this week I consulted numerous commentaries on 2 Kings and I was shocked to discover some of the reflections regarding this passage.
One commentary claimed that Elisha was not the kind of man to summon bears from the woods. The “irreverence, lawlessness, and hoodlumism of youth are sure to result in moral disaster.” The bears function as symbols of the punishment that overtakes vicious behavior. It went on to state that the boys in the story are the prototype for thousands of youth today. Only if they are educated at home, in school, and in church will they be able to avoid the punishment of the Lord that will surely come in one form or another. (The Interpreters Bible, vol. 3)
Another commentary made the same point, but in a shorter and more direct way: Rich and poor, high and low, young and old, ALL must be punished for their transgressions… (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 12)
I went on to consult numerous sermons on the passage and was frightened to discover that most of them, few that they are, articulate a theology that the kids got what they deserved. They might have all ended by saying, “our children, your children, will wind up like those boys because we have failed to train them as polite young people. We need to bring our children to church, and encourage them to bring their friends, so that we can shape their future to avoid the bears of God’s wrath.”
I am now going to do what many of my professors warned me about in seminary, I am going to preach against this text.
Whereas many scholars, pastors, and Christians believe that the children are at fault, (I agree, they are) I believe that Elisha is just as at fault for his quick curse of the bullying boys.
In 2007 Duke University did a study and found that 85% of seminary graduates leave the ministry within five years and 90% flee before retirement. Many of these pastors that run away from the ministry never return to church. (Read more here: Keeping Your Pastor)
With the rise in expectations of pastoral ministry, coupled with dying churches and lowered pay, its no wonder that many pastors abandon their flock. When many churches are running on financial fumes, while also expecting their pastors to continually go above and beyond their call, the result is a collection of pastors who are burned out and have lost sight of the Lord and their calling.
I imagine the Elisha felt a lot like ministers in the first few years of their appointments. After all, Elisha found himself following in the steps of the renown and powerful prophet Elijah who no doubt cast a great shadow for the young prophet. Most of the people would be evaluating this young man based on the actions of his predecessors.
This wasn’t something that Elisha inherited but was called into. He could have remained a farmer, tending to the plows with the oxen, but instead he was called out of his life into something new, strange, and at times, terrible.
As a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed prophet, Elisha had everything to prove. And here in 2 Kings 2 Elisha find himself at the beginning of his ministry filled with passion for the Lord when a crowd of youngsters attack him for that very call.
I think that Elisha’s pride got the better of him when he was walking to Bethel. Unlike the Son of Man who would one day tell his disciples to turn the other cheek and love those who persecute you, Elisha immediately cursed the youngsters and they were mauled.
If this story is about what it means to be a prophet who speaks the Word of the Lord, then I would argue that the biggest take away is that we must be very careful with our prayers. God listens to our prayers and He answers them, sometimes in ways that we do not want and sometimes in ways that we do not expect. Be careful what you pray for.
When I arrived at this church I felt very much like what I imagine Elisha felt like at the beginning of his prophetic ministry. I was following in the footsteps of countless pastors who have shaped and nurtured this congregation into what it is today. I recognize that I will always live in the shadow of the likes of Fletcher Swink, Zig Volskis, and Patricia Meadows.
I sat in my office the week before my first sermon and thought about everything I had to live up to. I stewed over what my reputation would be at this place. I over-analyzed every word and sentence for that sermon, fearing how I might be received.
I stood in this pulpit over a year ago, afraid of how all of you would respond. And, if I’m being honest, I stand here this morning still consumed by thoughts of what you think about these words, my delivery, and the connections with scripture.
Being a pastor is, at times, terrifying. Many weeks pass when I feel like I did not get enough done. There have been a number of Saturday nights that I lay awake in bed rehearsing in my head what I will be saying on Sunday. I have had many tough conversations with families, couples, and individuals about the sins in their lives. There have been countless visits when I wonder if I have actually helped at all.
And its when I reflect on all of these elements of ministry, that I realize how difficult it must have been to be Elisha. I begin to understand why he was so quick to curse those young men who spoke against his calling.
And the more I think about it, the more I see connections not only between Elisha and pastors, but also between Elisha and all of us.
How quick are we to curse those who speak against us? How inclined are we to forget our discipleship the minute our calling is called into question?
I know of an older gentleman who had not exchanged a word with one of his sons in years because of a foolish argument they had in the past. I know a woman who refuses to shop at certain stores in our town because of the color of some of the employees. I know neighbors that never wave or acknowledge one another because one of them went to Virginia Tech and the other went to UVA.
In today’s world it is too easy to put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves to shine brightly in the darkness. We set goals for ourselves that are lofty and unreachable. We expect greatness from our lives and the lives around us on a daily basis.
When we get caught up in the expectations of the world that we place on ourselves, we fall into the trap of quickly cursing others around us. When we fail, we jump to blame someone else. When we miss the mark we can come up with a list of excuses faster than we can come up with better solutions.
Being a pastor is hard, but being a disciple is harder. We are called to walk in the world as prophets, seeing this created place through God’s eyes. We have the unenviable task of reaching out to the last and the least and the lost. We have been baptized into a new order where the world has been turned upside down.
When we are accosted for out faith, when we are judged for our Christian allegiance, it will manifest itself in different forms.
Elisha was made fun of for being bald.
You might be attacked for praying in public, for wearing a cross around your neck. You might be made fun of for offering up your gifts and tithes to a place like the church. You might be judged for praying to a God who often responds in silence.
But nevertheless, we are not called to respond to these threats by cursing on enemies. We have been commanded to love them.
What a crazy and wonderful thing it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Amen.