Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why the Incarnation Matters: Extra Elisha Nulla Salus

One of the things I have always found curious about the prophet Elijah is how much “unfinished business” he leaves. He destroyed all the priests of pagan worship in Samaria, encountered the presence of God on Mt. Horeb, worked miracles left and right, and yet there is more to do. Future Kings must be anointed. (Of which we will speak more of later.) In addition to these secular matters, God commands Elijah to anoint a successor, to finish the job he started. One can see a very interesting shadow of Christ here I believe. Even the greatest prophet in Israel (until that time) still had things to do. A successor would come who was even greater than Elijah! In the meantime, he chooses Elisha as his successor.

The choice of Elisha is again demonstrative of God’s supremacy. He is a herdsman, still under the authority of his father when God makes known to Elijah his successor. We know from our earlier study that it can be inferred that Elijah was a man of at least moderate nobility. (Being able to secure an audience with King Ahab to announce the drought.) God calls him because it is His will, not for any reason according to the standards of the world. When he is adopted by Elijah, Elisha becomes essentially his apprentice, traveling with Elijah for 8 years.

When Elijah is assumed into heaven, Elisha formally takes over, receiving a “double inheritance” from Elijah. While the terms might be confusing to us, it simply means that he received the fullness of Elijah’s ministry. He proves this by doing precisely what Elijah did in demonstrating power over the Jordan River, invoking God’s name to force the river to part. If we remember, the Israelites of this time worshipped the nature gods of the Phoenicians. By subjecting the water to his will, God demonstrates to Elisha that he will continue in his masters calling.

Like his predecessor, he continues the missionary nature of the prophetic ministry. When he meets several of “the prophets” (essentially minstrels of the time) he learns that their rivers are polluted. He does so by the most curious means; he pours salt into the waters.

In this instance and when Elisha commands rain to fall on the earth during before a battle to quench the thirst of soldiers, (2 Kings 3) the supremacy of Yahweh over the elemental forces of nature was demonstrated. With the salt, God takes simple matter from the earth and uses it to purify everything. One is reminded of the sacraments here, how a small wafer, a few drops of water, a smidgen of oil, how these are able to cleanse the souls of the faithful. We are that polluted water.

He continues working other miracles (in saving the estate of a woman, and then later raising her son) just as Elijah did, outside of Israel. When he finally returns to Samaria, he continues the prophetic ministry. He then displays the missionary character in a different way.

During this time, the rising power of Syria is in a state of constant war with the nations surrounding Israel. Even in times of peace, all parties involved are simply replenishing their forces, preparing for another war. One of the Syrian generals is a man by the name of Naaman. Known as a brave and valiant man, he is also diseased as a leper. (Not the leprosy we know of, but a debilitating skin disease nonetheless.) When he learns of a prophet in Samaria who could certainly cure him, he obtains permission to head there. Eventually, he meets with Elisha, and the prophet tells him “wash seven times in the Jordan.”

Namaan leaves angrily, and one can hardly blame him. In his tradition (and the traditions of various pagan peoples), prophets normally had their ministry followed by much extravagance. (Remember the minstrels in Israel, “prophets” known for the ecstasies, the prophets of Hadad who confronted Elijah with their elaborate dancing and cutting of themselves, etc.) Elisha doesn’t even offer to do anything. He simply tells him to wash in the waters, and not just any water, but the Jordan River. Why did Namaan waste all of this time, just to take a bath in what seems to him as some dirty backwater? (He displays his contempt in the Scriptures by mentioning several other waters which were obviously better.)

As he is leaving, his servants finally convince him to just do what the prophet says. He would have offered a thousand sacrifices had the prophet commanded him. Why not just take a dip in the river? As he does this, he is cured! Running back to Elisha, he gives one of the greatest statements of monotheism and faith in Yahweh to be found anywhere in the Scriptures. He immediately renounces his faith in Rimmon, the pagan god of Damascus.

What does this say about the nature of the Church and Jesus Christ, whose Incarnation we celebrate as Christians? Here you could see the roots of that ever controversial doctrine extra ecclesiam nulla salus: Outside the Church There is no Salvation. The sinner is called to God’s land, which is the Church. We are Namaan. The Church gives the waters of baptism, which clean. Left implied in the story is that any other water would not have cleansed Lamaan of his sickness, it would have made him feel good. Likewise, how many people in the world today accept false remedies to their problems? Whether it be promiscuity, drugs, alcohol, greed, pride, these may give the individual a certain euphoria, but they cannot heal the soul.

The Church asks instead for the simplest of things: Have a few drops of water poured on your head.

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