Scripture passage: II Kings 4:18-37.
I wasn’t particularly eager to become a mother. Ambivalent would be an apt description. But nothing else I’ve done has so radically transformed me—body, mind and spirit. Right after being a follower of Jesus, mothering and grand-mothering are my favorite identities. Hands-down.
Which is why the Shunammite woman’s story, among the lectionary readings for today, pulled me in. I’ve loved this story ever since my grandmother made sure to include a room for itinerant “holy men” in her new home. Whenever I slept in that room I thought of the big-hearted Shunammite woman and Elisha.
But today what grabs my attention is the woman’s striking audacity. And her resolute persistence!
In response to her magnanimous gift of “a small roof chamber with walls” and a bed, table, chair and lamp, Elisha asks, “Since you have taken all this trouble for us, what may be done for you?” When the woman makes no request, Elisha’s servant Gehazi observes that she has no son and that her husband is old. When Elisha says to her, “At this season, in due time, you shall embrace a son,” she objects: “No, my lord, O man of God; do not deceive your servant.”
This noble, strong woman is not to be trifled with. Who, in God’s name, would object to the gift of a son? And yet, astonishingly, she does. She resists being set up by unrealistic expectations. She resists being taken in by empty promises. Yet, the story says, she did conceive and give birth to a son, who only a few years later, takes ill and dies on her lap. The woman lays her little son on “the bed of the man of God,” speaks with her husband, and sets off with dogged determination to find Elisha—not, apparently, to ask for her son’s healing—but to lodge her complaint: “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, Do not mislead me?”
Elisha, on seeing her “bitter distress” sends Gehazi to lay a staff on the face of the child. But the woman will have nothing to do with intermediate gestures. She persists: “As the Lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave without you.” The story continues: “So he rose up and followed her.”
When biblical stories open themselves to us, the divine and human connections they ignite with our stories are inexhaustible.
I’ve known this story since childhood yet I’d not noticed the heart of the woman’s objection until now. At no point does she seem overwhelmed by the power of the holy man of God. She is a straight-talker who will not be manipulated or messed with. After the unanticipated joy the child surely awakened in her, it must have been unbearable to watch him die. She felt betrayed, deceived, misled. Anyone who has loved and lost a child, or watched our child suffer, recognizes this woman’s “bitter distress.” And her stubborn insistence that Elisha personally invest his full power to restore what had been lost.
The ferocity of love a child awakens is unparalleled, in my experience, along with the consequent vulnerability! Becoming a mother broke me wide open to love and pain, bringing me into solidarity with mothers everywhere.
In this Lenten season, I stand with the Shunammite women of the world who have the hutzpah to talk straight and insist that those in leadership do all within their power to restore life for our children: life in safe, hospitable and wholesome communities. I stand with mothers and grandmothers who speak out against bullying, abuse and marginalization of our children and children everywhere. I stand with those who advocate for affordable, accessible health care for every mother and father’s child the world over.
I am convinced that any action—whether by parents, church, or government authorities—that doesn’t above all ensure the health and wellbeing of children is not only woefully misguided but morally bankrupt. “For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Lk 18:16).
Sara Wenger Shenk is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, mother of three children and grandmother of two with another to be born any day.