A RESPONSE TO CALAMITY
Elisha said, “Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Lord says: About this time tomorrow, a seah of flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria.”
The officer on whose army the king was leaning said to the man of God, “Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?”
“You will see it with your own eyes,” answered Elisha, “but you will not eat any of it!”
Now there were four men with leprosy at the entrance of the city gate. They said to each other, “Why stay here until we die? If we say,‘We’ll go into the city’—the famine is there, and we will die. So let’s go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die.”
At dusk they got up and went to the camp of the Arameans. When they reached the edge of the camp, not a man was there, for the Lord had caused the Arameans to hear the sound of chariots and horses and a great army, so that they said to one another, “Look, the king of Israel has hired the Hittite and Egyptian kings to attack us!” So they got up and fled in the dusk and abandoned their tents and their horses and donkeys. They left the camp as it was and ran for their lives.
The men who had leprosy reached the edge of the camp and entered one of the tents. They ate and drank, and carried away silver, gold and clothes, and went off and hid them. They returned and entered another tent and took some things from it and hid them also.
Then they said to each other, “We’re not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace.”
So they went and called out to the city gatekeepers and told them, “We went into the Aramean camp and not a man was there—not a sound of anyone—only tethered horses and donkeys, and the tents left just as they were.” The gatekeepers shouted the news, and it was reported within the palace.
The king got up in the night and said to his officers, “I will tell you what the Arameans have done to us. They know we are starving; so they have left the camp to hide in the countryside, thinking, ‘They will surely come out, and then we will take them alive and get into the city.’”
One of his officers answered, “Have some men take five of the horses that are left in the city. Their plight will be like that of all the Israelites left here—yes, they will only be like all these Israelites who are doomed. So let us send them to find out what happened.”
So they selected two chariots with their horses, and the king sent them after the Aramean army. He commanded the drivers, “Go and find out what has happened.” They followed them as far as the Jordan, and they found the whole road strewn with the clothing and equipment the Arameans had thrown away in their headlong flight. So the messengers returned and reported to the king.
— 2 Kings 7.1-15
It was around the year 850 BC. Jeohram, monarch of Israel, becomes tragically famous for his wicked acts and his behavior on the edge of God’s criteria.
The time when the tragic scenes in chapter 7 of 2 Kings take place is extremely obvious: A time of poverty and hunger. Verse 24 of chapter 6 shows us why. There was a siege, a foreign oppression, a major decline in the Israelites’ productivity. They found themselves besieged, trapped in total economy stagnation. The foreign siege brought about unproductiveness and famine, since no one could come out to work in the field and get the fruit of their labor, for they were imprisoned in their own city. The consequential economic implications were, in short, the most terrible and distressing starvation and misery.
But what we can foresee as a result of the foreign siege is easily enumerable in three basic items. First, as verse 25 says, a dreadful famine came over the land due to a sky-high rise in the cost of living. According to the account, a donkey’s head was as expensive as caviar; even the price of a dove’s dung, at the flea market, now went right through the roof.
The second item of that tragic situation is an absolute poverty, which is shown by the story of two mothers (see vv. 28-29). What an appalling report! It’s about two starving women who agreed to cook one of their two sons and eat him. When the ration was finished, they were to cook and eat the second boy too so that they would manage to survive a little longer. And so they did with the first boy, but the second woman’s maternal passion led her to refuse to serve her son as a food supply for the following week. At that point, the problem is placed before the king.
Such terrible reports on a dreadful time remind us of situations that are very close to our reality in today’s world. We know that in Ethiopia, seven million human beings are besieged by absolute poverty, dwindling away, becoming skin and bones. In Somalia, despair leads people to fight for leftovers mixed with garbage. And even closer to us, in northeastern Brazil, our starved fellow citizens have already gone through the experience of eating lizards to survive, and a number of our brothers and sisters who live in the slums still feed on mice!
The last item of this tragedy, which appears in verse 27, describes the inner defeat that overtook the nation’s leader. He speaks up his most absolute pessimism and his deepest bitterness, pain, and lack of choices: “If the Lord does not help you, where can I get help for you?”, he says to the mother.
Poverty, unemployment, rising in the cost of living and the consequent family dramas, leadership discouragement, and the action of the dominant strata, which are manipulative, and are responsible for setting the pace of things in the nation—all these things aren’t an old-fashioned phenomena that occurred in the reign of Jeohram. In fact, they are all a part of our current daily reality; a part of the life demands imposed on and surrounding us all.
However, amid the tragedy, Elisha, the man of God, the prophet of the Lord, prophesies that God would provide a way out to his people. This is found in chapter 7, verses 1 and 2, where he states, “About this time tomorrow, the supply will exceed the demand. There’ll be abundance. God will make a miracle and this situation will be resolved.” Yet, in order that the miracle happens, who are the human beings enabled to live in such times? Living in times of abundance only requires being a human. Living in a time of calamity, though, demands having more than our inborn humanity.
In times of crises, misery, poverty, unemployment, high cost of living, panic, bewilderment, when there are no open doors and no way out, the kind of person required is one who has far more than an average optimism. An effort is required of him that goes beyond many times that which our natural humanity can do. Who are the human beings enabled to live in such times of crises?
The passage answers this question ironically. In fact, the answer is extremely ironical, almost absurd, and thwarts whatever might come up as arrogance. For starters, verse 3 of chapter 7 says that they have to be people who are familiar with suffering. The heroes for such times of crises are not the toy lead soldiers, the capable of making clever diplomatic moves or the great and prodigious personages of history—no, they are four lepers! And in those days—much more than today—, lepers were stigmatized people; human beings who lived lives of sorrow; people whose existences meant suffering, segregation and alienation.
If we are to be able to live in such times, when everything is reduced, crushed and smashed; when family men are downtrodden by humiliation; when unemployment is a reality; when crises bring about upsetting, stressful situations that create within the homes terrible mental distress, we need to be familiar with suffering. We need to be people who accept to be discriminated; people who admit to live with no status; people who admit the reality of a lonely life.
That is the lesson from the lepers. And these are the “lepers”: The discriminated against, the ones with no status, the ones who are all by themselves—they’re the only ones in a position to face up to pain, because they are familiar with suffering. In a time like this, we’re required to live according to the frame of mind we find in 1 Corinthians 7.29-31, which says, “What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”
The message conveyed in this passage of the Word of God is one of detachment. To be capable of living in this time we need to have in our hearts and souls the might of detachment. This reminds me of a friend who was a manager with a multinational for fifteen years, working with foreign capital, operating with electronic equipment here in Brazil. The company expanded, entered the computer business and became a giant; and that man was in a high, extremely important position. A few years later, he decided that he could open up his own business on that market. Then he moved to another city, and did very well at first. He settled himself there very comfortably and neatly, in a nice office, dealing with electronic components and all the modern paraphernalia needed for the best results in his business. In fact, the business was booming; it was beyond his wildest dreams.
All of a sudden, though, when a recession came over the country, he was deeply affected. His business started going backwards, getting into the twister whirl, and eventually capsized. He suddenly found himself destitute—neither the old job nor any resources left—, and had to face a harsh, humiliating situation on the market. Then he decided to move back to the city he had left. Now, in a door-to-door job search, he didn’t know what to do: His family was unconfident; kids growing up; months going by.
However, the man found a way of responding to his reality. He came up to his wife and said, “Make codfish pastries.” The woman started loading several trays with those salty pastries that he would vend at the beach. As trays and trays were sold he would say, “As long as I can’t afford our old way of life, they won’t go hungry!” He kept doing that for months, and had the kitchen table enlarged. Now his wife prepared the codfish pastries in series—trays and trays that he took to the beach and vended. And that man, through that nonstop labor, managed to support his family with dignity and get rid of all the dramatic, depressing situations they were in. Eventually, he established himself in a sound business, in which he came to prosper.
In order to face such a hard time, a person has to be brave, possess the might of detachment, and be familiar with suffering. Otherwise, nothing but debris will be left after the impact of the huge rocks.
The passage also teaches us that in order to be able to live in a time like this, people need to understand that action is the only worthy way of facing death. Indolence, morbidity, apathy, arms folded, negligence, indifference, laziness, giving in before fighting—these are all unworthy responses. Verse 3 says that those men asked each other, “Why stay here until we die? If we’re dying anyway, then let’s face death with action!” To die from giving in to indifference is to die with no honor. The only viable way of facing tragedy is action. Actions of love for life; actions of fighting off evil; actions of service—they are the only worthy way of going through harsh, depressing situations in life.
When I was around twelve years old, my father invited me to come with him on a visit to a man against whom my father—who was a lawyer—had won a lawsuit. According to the decision, the man was obliged to pay the related debt. It was business issue: he had bought many things from my father’s client; then he went bankrupt and didn’t reimburse the supplier for the purchase.
We walked into the man’s shop and saw him—a big fellow going bald prematurely; his remaining hair getting white; his countenance extremely downcast. My father told him why we were there. But when Dad, who had converted a few months before, saw tears rolling down the man’s face, he was moved with compassion on him. He said to himself he couldn’t back into a corner a man who was in such a predicament.
Then he said, sympathetically, “Please forget I’m a lawyer. Forget I came here to collect a debt. Let me tell you about Jesus.” And he started telling the man about God’s grace and Christ’s love, and how Jesus could fill up his life and strengthen him in times of distress. The man cried a lot, called his wife and his elder son, and we all prayed together.
The following Sunday my father took him to church; the next too; and he finally gave his life over to Jesus Christ. That once depressed, shattered man now had learned that the only worthy way of facing death is to take action. He decided to go for it, and started looking for a job.
His good knowledge level fit him for a managerial position, so he tried to get a job like this with a certain company. In the interview, he said to the director, “I would like to fill a position. I’ve been chief of departments, human resources manager, etc…”—and went on listing a wide range of professional possibilities. The director replied, “I see you are a very capable professional, but unfortunately there are no openings now. Sorry, but we’re not interested right now.” Then the applicant retorted, “But are you interested in any service at all? Do you have any job for an honest man?” The director answered, “Yes, I do, but not for a man of your rank. I only have a vacancy for a security guard.” The man said, “Thank you.”
He said goodbye, walked out, and the director closed the door. But in no time he was back, knocking at the door. The director said, “Come in.” And there was our friend again; no longer in suit and tie; the long sleeves rolled up. He said, “I’ll take the job. I only left to change the way I was dressed.”
This happened around 1968. He told me that the director was so impressed that said, “A man who dares do what you did must be in a managerial position with my factory!”—and hired him for the position he had renounced. Yes, the only way of facing death is action!
In order to live in this time, the passage also says that it’s important that people understand that life only tends to get better. That’s what verse 4 says: “Why stay here until we die? If we say,‘We’ll go into the city’—the famine is there, and we will die. So let’s go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die.”
When that’s how it is, things can only get better! A Christian, more than anybody else in the world, can embody this existential project, for he lives a life that is sentenced to death; he’s someone who has taken up a cross, and has let go of possessions, assets, and personal status. His obsession is the kingdom of God. Romans 6.12 says he has to regard himself as dead to sin, passions, the world—everything indeed. But, in God’s name, he still lives here, and, in a sense, he is the most alive being on the earth and, paradoxically, the deadest one on the planet. Paul says that he is the refuse of the world, the scum of the earth, the response of blessing to the power of curse. It means you die to be alive in Christ Jesus; you lose your life to find it in Jesus.
To a Christian, the easiest attitude is, “If I stay here sitting, I’ll die; if I come into the city, I’ll die too. So let me face up to life. If I’m killed, I’ll die; if I’m spared, I’ll live.” Now, it only tends to get better from now on! After all, to the Christian, death is cornered: “To live is Christ and to die is gain!”
Only the one who has already died to this life is able to live it optimistically. Only the one who doesn’t regard the riches of this world as riches is brave enough to take chances. Only those who are already dead are able to face death bravely. Only those who believe, acknowledge and trust that all things work together for good to the ones who love God respond to life courageously.
Lastly, to be able to live in such a time, people need to understand God’s “kairos”—God’s due time; the opportunity time; the proper, crucial time; the time of the divine connivance. Only those who understand God’s right time and fitting hour will be able to live in this worst-case scenario. Verse 5 tells us that after the lepers thought it over, they got up and left at nightfall. They could have waited until daybreak. However, they got up at a time that was unsuitable from a human viewpoint: They chose to get up and leave after the sun had set, after the night had fallen.
God’s time, though, not always is the best according to people’s point of view. Sometimes it shows up dressed in absurd, unlikely colors. However, in order to live in such a time, we need to have discernment in our hearts so that we can pin down, amidst the improbable, the probabilities of God’s will, God’s time, God’s urgency, God’s “D-day” for our lives. Quite often, that happens irrespective of anybody or anything; any circumstances; any afflictions. But if it’s the appointed time for God’s miracle to happen, it does.
That can frequently happen irrespective of anything, anybody, any circumstances, any nightfalls, any afflictions—because God’s time usually comes at a ridiculous occasion from a human point of view. Yet, when it is God’s time, the miracle does happen!
As we have seen, such are the men and women, the human beings enabled to stand up to a time like this. But pay attention: What does God do for those who are brave enough to take action in a time of calamity? What does he do for the sake of those whose fearlessness is manifested amid the tragedies surrounding them? What does he do for those of untamed spirits; those who, through faith, acknowledge the wars and conflicts in life?
The answers are in verses 5 and 7. Verse 5 says that they—the lepers, the handicapped, the weak, the out-of-the-running, the defeated in society’s sight—“got up at dusk”. And verse 7 explains that the enemies “fled in the dusk”. Just think of that—the simultaneousness of those actions! The lepers get up at nightfall, and just then the enemies run away!
God creates a simultaneous action. When those weak guys get up by faith, with hope in the name of the Lord, in the name of the God of life and survival, God gets up ahead of them! Praise the Lord! It’s the victory of the weak. It’s God’s grace made perfect in weakness. It’s the glory of God’s name that chose to reveal itself through the little children, the weak, the humble, the fragile, and those who are not in order to bring to nothing those who are or think they are. It’s the fighting God; the warrior God; the God who battles for the ones who trust in him. They get up and God gets up before them. He makes the enemies hear a clattering of armies, a noise of chariot wheels; he makes them hear the earth shake. He terrifies the hearts of the proud. He shakes the oppressors’ souls and they flee, leaving behind their horses, donkeys, chariots, clothes, warfare instruments, tents, provisions, cereals—everything! As Mary says in her wonderful song, “He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”
Today, who knows, is the day, and now is the time for you to get up and get rid of your discouragement and your feelings of failure; to do away with this awful scenario of conformism you’re in; to drive out your gloomy views; to cast out the demons of fear that preyed on your mind; to exorcize from your soul the thoughts that make you feel defeated. Today may be the day when you—weak, fragile, a loser in the world’s sight—will be enabled to get up, in God’s name! Things might look dark, unlikely to turn out well, but if it is God’s time, no opponent will be able to stand up against you!
A simultaneous action will happen! God will join you in a conspiracy; he and you will be allied—praise be to the name of the Lord!
In closing, we’ve already seen who are the people fit for this time. We’ve also seen what God did for them. Now let’s look at what the attitude of those who received God’s benefit in a time of calamity should be. ForGod never blesses, favors, benefits, without this entailing implications. When people receive the Lord’s blessings in a time of calamity, which attitudes should they have?
First, verse 8 says that they should take possession of what God gives them. The lepers got into tent after tent and took possession of everything. How ironical! “Every dog has his day”, and that’s the “dog’s” day! That’s the lepers’ day! Take possession! It may be a small opportunity, like that of the man who accepted to work as a security guard. He took possession of that. Whatever it is, it is something—take possession! It may be vending codfish pastries—get it; hold it tight! Take possession of what God is giving you.
What’s more, they should weigh up their responsibility, as verse 9 says: “This is a day of good news. We’re not doing right. We’re taking hold of what can maintain life.” When God bless us in calamity times, our responsibility becomes as great as the blessings he lays before us. If, in a time no one has resources, you do, then you have them to manage with extreme responsibility, generosity and altruism.
Last of all, they should decide to share what they were given: The lepers went back and called out to the city gatekeepers. They divided it; they shared it! (v. 10) You don’t need to be a psychic, a prophet or a learned person to realize that many around us, one way or the other, one area or another, are in distress along with the legion of those who are distressed in this distressed country, undergoing a very hard time. The distresses are varied: economical, professional, and maybe emotional, psychological or physical.
The varieties, in terms of pain, that can assault numberless people who walk by us—nameless faces; strangers—are countless. But God’s prescription is one. His promise to everyone is identical: “Get up by faith and I will go ahead of you”. The implications are the same; the results too. Then we will learn how to lead a life that is, in itself, a response to calamity.
From the book: “RESPOSTA À CALAMIDADE”, by Caio Fábio – 1995 (Chapter 1)
Translated by F. R. Castelo Branco | November 2006
Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version.