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2 Kings 4:42-44

In this short story, a man from Baal-shalishah comes to the prophet Elisha to offer bread and grain as a First Fruits offering. In some ways, the offering is rather large and represents a great deal of work. I can only imagine preparing and baking 20 loaves from scratch! Elisha accepts the offering by saying, “Give it to the people and let them eat.”

His servant is disconcerted by this command and says, “How can I set this before a hundred men?” As if to say, “Whoa, sir, this is not nearly enough to feed this many people!” But Elisha has already performed miracles with very limited resources in this chapter, consisting primarily of oil, flour, and breath. And this account is no exception! He says to the servant a second time, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left over.’” This second time, these words are not merely Elisha’s command, but a promise from the Lord.

There are several reasons to believe that the men in this story would have been eager for such a meal. First, verse 38 mentions that the setting is Gilgal and there is currently a famine. Not only that, but the First Fruits offering festival instructions in Leviticus 23:9-14 indicate that these offerings of bread and grain may have been the first meal of its kind these men had eaten in a while. “You shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God: it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your settlements.” Lastly the Talmud indicates that Baal-Shalishah boasted perhaps the earliest-ripening grain in Palestine (B.T. Shabbath 12a).

Elisha’s servant sets the bread before the men; they eat, and sure enough, there are provisions left over. It’s unclear whether the men feel miraculously full after eating so little, or if the miracle multiplied the supplies such that the men could eat and still have food left over. Regardless, the bellies of these hungry men are miraculously filled, with food to spare!

There are four points of this story worth exploring: the offering of the man, the skepticism of the servant, the agency of the servant, and the faithfulness of the Lord.

The offering of the man

This man gives the best of what he has to Elisha, who tells his servant to give it to “the people.” They are a beautiful gift, these twenty loaves, the result of hard work in the midst of famine. Even so, they are a small offering–a lot to this man, perhaps, but miniscule in the grand scheme of things.

What about us? Do we offer God our best efforts to help ease a famine, rebuild after a flood, or end a war? Or do we say to God, “This won’t do anything! The issues are too big, the problem is too great!” Maybe we hesitate because we realize that our offering is so small. After all, what can God possibly do with a little bread in the face of an entire famine? Perhaps the work of the Kingdom is built on such seemingly small gifts, faithfully given. Oh that we, too, might offer all we are to Kingdom work–even when that offering feels trivial in the grand scheme of things.

The skepticism of the servant

Some of us might hesitate to offer our gifts in the first place. Others might hesitate after God gives us an assignment to “go and do!” Perhaps we are willing to give ourselves to God in a turbulent airplane or on a desperate Sunday morning. But later when God gives us our assignment or reveals to us our calling, we hesitate. “Oh Lord, that’s too big for me.” 

Try to think of a time when you offered up little-old-you for God to work through. Was God faithful to do more than you expected with those efforts? This week’s lectionary exhortation from Ephesians reminds us that God is the God who will do, “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…” (Ephesians 3:20). Oh that we, too, might allow God to work through us, even in our unbelief.

The agency of the servant

The servant here is not just a skeptical presence, he is also the agent through which God works to save. Though this lectionary passage is coupled with the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John 6:1-15, its spirit is perhaps better reflected in the synoptic tellings of the same story. In Mark 6, Matthew 14, and Luke 9, the Feeding of the Five Thousand is saturated with empowerment: in those retellings God uses humans to do the work of the kingdom. 

In the synoptic accounts Jesus tells the disciples to nourish the hungry crowds: “You give them something to eat.” Their shocked reply comes back, “But we have so little–only five loaves and two fish.” More specifically in Mark 6, the disciples’ response is something like, “Whoa, we don’t have that kind of cash Jesus.” But, like Elisha to his servant, Jesus is determined that the disciples might be the agents though which the miracle is wrought. He returns to the disciples the now-multiplied-offering so that they can do the work of the kingdom in feeding the hungry. Oh that we, too might be the vessels through which the miracles of God are handed out.

The faithfulness of the Lord

The Psalm for this week describes God as is “faithful in all his words” (Psalm 145:13). When servant protests to Elisha that the first fruits offering cannot possibly feed such a crowd, the word of the Lord is that it will–and with food to spare! In this story, God’s work through the servant is not dependant on his belief that it will be accomplished, but rather his faithfulness to respond to the call. Even in the midst of doubt, God uses a skeptical servant to fill dozens of hungry bellies. Oh that we, too, might experience God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of our doubt.

It’s also important to note that the multiplication in this story does not directly benefit the offerer. This is no prosperity gospel! As far as we can tell, the man from Baal-shalishah faithfully gave his offering, and then returned home empty-handed. He offered all he had to the work of the Lord, and indeed God used his gift to alleviate the hunger of dozens of men (and perhaps uncounted women and children).

This is hardly a false gospel of personal prosperity and self-fulfillment. Instead, it’s the story of a self-emptying man, a dutiful servant, and a faithful God who uses our offerings to do more than we could have dreamed. When we are faithful to offer ourselves up for the work of the Kingdom, God is faithful do a good work through us–far more “than we could ever ask or imagine.”