f you swallow your chewing gum, what will happen to it? Everybody knows the answer to that! If you swallow your gum, it will sit in your stomach and it will take seven years to digest – seven years! How do I know that? Bobby, my very best friend in the second grade told me so. And it was confirmed by all my ther friends too. So it must be true.
Now, is it true in the strictest sense? If you were to actually do an MRI on a kid who made a habit of swallowing chewing gum, would you find any evidence of gum that had been in the digestive tract for several years? (Yes, there are pediatricians who have looked, at least while they there were searching for other things.) And the answer is no. In the strictest sense it isn’t exactly true and you wouldn’t find any gum that had been there for more than a week. But, all the same, you might say that it is kind of trueish.
It is true, after all, that the main ingredients of chewing gum are not able to be broken down by your body. It is true that it has happened that chronic gum swallowers have managed to create intestinal blockages in rare cases. So, while an occasional swallowed piece of gum will not hurt you at all, it actually is something that is better avoided.
I do not know who created the seven year story about chewing gum. For all I know, it is as old as chewing gum
itself. (And there is actually evidence that human beings have been chewing gum for about 3000 years.) The story has endured because, while it is not strictly true, there is enough truth in it to be useful. In particular, it has persisted because parents who have wanted to shape their children’s behaviour in helpful ways have found it a very useful story. If you want to judge the story, therefore, you need to judge it, not on scientific terms, but on the terms of how the story is actually used.
That is something that I hope you keep in mind as we turn to our Old Testament reading this morning. When I posted my little Script Out commercial video on the internet and asked people to respond back to me with what they thought of as the worst passages in the Bible (the stories and sayings that, as far as they were concerned, they’d just as soon weren’t in the Bible at all) the first response I got was from someone who brought up the story of Elisha, the 42 boys and the two she-bears.
You can understand why. The small boys in this story do not behave as they should. They fail to show due respect for a man who deserves some respect. Elisha is a man of God who has taken on the difficult and demanding job of speaking the word of the Lord to the people. The boys insult him in two ways. They insult him for being bald and men, as we all know, can be a bit sensitive about male pattern baldness. The boys also appear to insult him with the words, “go away,” which may also be translated as, “go up.” This is probably meant to be a reference to how the Prophet Elijah, Elisha’s teacher and master, has recently disappeared and, according to the story that has spread around, has gone directly up into heaven riding on a chariot of fire. They are taunting him by saying that he should do as his master has done.
But, whatever exactly the young lads mean with their taunts, there is no question that they are not showing a lot of respect to Elisha when they say, “Go away, baldhead.” They are clearly showing disrespect and no one disputes that. The thing that people have problems with is the reaction to that disrespect. First, Elisha curses the boys. A bit extreme, perhaps, but, if it is the equivalent of saying “Darn you crazy kids,” I guess it’s not a totally terrible thing to say.
But, apparently, it’s not just “darn you crazy kids.” We are certainly left with the impression that Elisha’s curse is immediately effective and that it is, in fact, the cause of the sudden appearance of two murderous female bears.
Now wait one minute here. I get that these kids were disrespectful, and perhaps deserved some punishment for that. I could see giving them a time out, making them write some lines on the chalkboard: “I will not call people baldhead. I will not call people baldhead. I will not call people baldhead. I will not call people baldhead.”
But how can you call a murderous rampage by the local wildlife a reasonable punishment? And, let me tell you, if that was what this story was all about, I might argue that we need to get rid of it. But I’m not convinced that that is what it’s about.
I think we need to ask the question, what is the purpose of this story? Why was it told in the first place? Why was it remembered and eventually written down? Why was it felt to be important enough to be preserved in a book that eventually made it into our Bibles? I don’t think that anyone did any of that because they felt that this story was a good example of how to treat disrespectful children.
If you look at this passage, it’s pretty clear what purpose the stories that we read this morning had. They are stories that were told to establish the reputation of a very important biblical figure: the Prophet Elisha. Elisha was the man who succeeded the greatest prophet that Israel had ever known: Elijah. Elijah had done amazing things: he had challenged the king of Israel to his face, he had taken on the prophets of Ba’al singlehandedly and defeated them. What’s more, these amazing stories had accumulated around the figure of Elijah: miracles, wonders and signs. That is the act that Elisha had to follow.
It is like what happens in a church when a new minister comes in following the ministry of a beloved and dynamic minister. The new minister constantly finds herself or himself being measured up against the old – a process that can frankly be rather draining and dispiriting (because we all need to be appreciated for who we are). Understandably Elisha, and maybe especially his disciples and faithful supporters, felt the need to establish the new guy’s reputation. But how do you do that? You obviously do it by spreading around stories that mark your guy as the one to watch.
And that is exactly what we see in the Book of Kings. Stories about miracles and wonders began to spring up wherever Elisha went. That is not to say, of course, that these stories weren’t based in reality. Sure, I can believe that Elisha did perform wonders, but the point of those stories was not merely to report what had happened. The stories were told and remembered and passed down in order to establish the credentials of God’s newest prophet.
The story of the she-bears is a perfect example. What is actually told in this story? It says that when Elisha was passing through someplace on his way to Bethel, he was disrespected by some local children and he cursed them: “Darn you crazy kids!” Now, the story is told in such a way as to imply that the bear attack was brought on by the curse. But I hope you noticed it doesn’t actually say that the curse caused the bears to attack. The timing is also kind of deliberately vague. The story once again implies that the bear attack happened immediately after the curse, but it doesn’t quite say that. It could have happened any time after.
I can imagine that it happened kind of like this. There was a bear attack – the kind of tragedy that can and does happen in any place where human settlements are built up within the habitat of predators like bears – the kind of tragedy the undoubtedly did happen from time to time in ancient Israel as much as in other ancient societies. And when tragedies like that happen, what do people do? People start asking why. Why did this terrible thing happen?
And somebody said, “Remember when that Prophet, that man Elisha, passed through a few weeks ago? Maybe some of the kids (in fact, I think it could have been some of those same kids who got killed by the bears) made fun of the prophet. Did some of you see that?”
And everybody solemnly nodded. They nodded even if they didn’t actually remember such an incident or if the events were being exaggerated because, when tragedy happens, people are so often desperate to make sense of it that they will grasp onto any explanation that seems to work – even if that means blaming the victims of a tragedy. Was it true that their disrespect caused the attack? No. The Bible is actually careful not to draw a direct line between curse and effect. But people held onto that explanation because it promised to give sense to something that was otherwise senseless.
But the story wasn’t remembered and passed down because of that false meaning. It was remembered and passed down because the story eventually made its way to the disciples of Elisha who grabbed onto it because, for them, it illustrated the importance of the prophet that they revered and it underlined the need to treat prophets with respect. And that’s why the story is in our Bibles – because it had a particular usefulness within a particular community. Yes, maybe sometimes parents told the story to disrespectful children to scare them into behaving better, kind of like parents tell the story about the gum that takes seven years to digest to scare their children into not swallowing their gum, but no one seriously believed that it was literally true in the sense that there were bears prowling around looking for disrespectful children. You need to judge the story according to how the story was used and according to the meaning that the people who told it put into it.
Of course, on a day like this, when we have had the joy and the privilege to welcome a little infant named Olivia into the life of the church through the sacrament of baptism, I can’t help but wonder what this ancient story that was used to build up the reputation of the Prophet Elisha might have to say to us.
It is true that people still sometimes take the attitude that is behind the story and apply it to the place and role of children in the church. There are certainly people who get upset, from time to time, at the presence of children in the life of the church because they can be disruptive, unpredictable and noisy. Sometimes people interpret that as disrespect and while I have never heard anyone who would have wanted to see anything like an attack of killer bears, people have gotten pretty upset.
And it is true that respect for our spiritual leaders is important. They are people whom God has uniquely gifted and called to key roles and when we fail to respect those roles and offices, the church can become a very negative place. But, honestly, if we are looking for an application of the story of Elisha, the boys and the she-bears to the life of the church, it is not the children that I would be concerned about. Children are just being who they were made to be. This story was told to teach adultsabout respect for the prophet, not the children.
And look what happened to Jesus when he found himself in a similar situation. These women were bringing their little children up to him and the disciples were concerned that these kids might somehow do or say something that might disrespect the growing importance and reputation of Jesus. So the disciples took on the role of the she-bears: attacking the children, not with claws, of course, but with words. But Jesus rebuked them, making it perfectly clear that that is not how we must apply that story.
In fact, Jesus didn’t just say that the children could come, he said that the kingdom of God belonged to them and that they were the ones to teach others how to enter it. In essence, Jesus took the story of the boys and the she-bears and turned it all on its head. He was saying that, instead of being critical of the children and their ways, we ought to learn from them as we seek to be part of the kingdom of God ourselves.
In effect, it is almost as if Jesus is saying to us today that, of all the people who are gathered here, Olivia is the one who really gets it. That is humbling for the rest of us, I know, but hopefully it is a teachable moment as well.
The story of Elisha, the boys and the bears is shocking. It was meant to be. But sometimes, when we are dealing with the scriptures, we need to look beyond the shock factor in a verse to find another meaning that actually can apply to our lives in constructive ways. This, I think, is one such passage.