This Sunday’s readings are interconnected by one of the most fundamental themes in our Christian life; i.e., God is the author of life, and those who serve God bring life into their world.
Elisha is the disciple-prophet of Elijah, who had been taken off into “heaven” by a chariot in a whirlwind. It falls on Elijah, who had asked to succeed Elijah as the leader of the group of prophets around Mount Carmel, to continue to point out God’s will for them and the blessings bestowed on the just. In today’s first reading, Elijah is invited to dine with a Shunemmite woman; her regard for the prophet is such that he had a place at her table “whenever he passed by”.
In the gospel, Jesus will speak of those who show generosity and hospitality to a prophet. Good deeds are rewarded. In the case of the prophet Elisha, he wants to reward her for her hospitality and sees the promise of life for her and her husband. He prophesies the coming birth of their son, and so it comes to pass.
The reward of the prophet, however, is not just the exchange of one benefit for another. In the case of the son born to the Shunemmite woman (as the biblical text will later unfold), he is taken ill (apparently by some sort of stroke or seizure), and he dies. Elijah is called, and after some homespun therapies, the boy comes back to life.
When my seminary class was studying philosophy so many years ago (1963-66), we learned a phrase that is born out here in this passage of the Second Book of Kings, “bonum diffusivum sui”(which is quoting from St. Thomas Aquinas: “dicendum quod bonum dicitur diffusivum sui esse…”). The phrase means that it is in the nature of goodness to spread itself about. Goodness is self-propagating.
What began with a dinner invitation for Elisha becomes a regular place at the table; the blessing of a son bestowed on the Shunemmite woman and her husband is an expression of the prophet’s appreciation. After the son dies, the prophet comes back and restores the gift of life to the son.
The lesson the scripture is giving us might be summarized as “God will not be outdone in generosity.” However the agent of God’s blessing is not always a religious “professional.” It could be the someone who shares God’s love with a neighbor; it could be someone who generously acknowledges a favor; or it could be someone who, without thinking of reward, simply shares a loving concern for another person.
In these challenging social and economic times, let us plant the seed of love around us; let us reward the goodness we experience with sincere acts of goodness of our own; let us experience love spreading out before us. Bonum diffusivum sui!
Fr. Arthur Carrillo, C.P. is the director of the Missions for Holy Cross Province. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.