What’s In It For ME? Another Neglected Passage in Preaching and Teaching

“Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said to himself, ‘My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought. As surely as the LORD lives, I will run after him as get something from him’” (II Kings 5:20).

As I was reading this passage yesterday morning, I realized that I had never heard any preaching or teaching on this passage, save possibly once about 22 years ago in a Sunday evening service. I don’t remember even hearing this passage referred to as a scriptural illustration, when another passage is the text of the sermon, though it could well be used as such, or any other passing allusion to it in any preaching and teaching. Yet in this passage there is an account of a man, the assistant to a great prophet, shaking down a new believer for an outrageous contribution to be diverted to his personal account. Is anything more relevant to today than this? Here are some ‘expository thoughts’ on how this passage could be used in preaching and teaching.

First, there is a great contrast of Gehazi the Israelite assistant of Elisha against Naaman the Aramean warrior general. It could well be said that Gehazi was the practical pagan in this situation, while Naaman was everything that Gehazi as an Israelite should have been. Gehazi was in this situation the man of unbelief and disobedience, though he had lived in proximity to Elisha the man of God. Though he saw the reality and power of the God of Israel through the ministry of Elisha, and probably through the ministry of Elisha’s mentor Elijah, little of their faith and obedience influenced his actions in this situation. Yet Naaman became the man of faith and obedience in this situation, though his pedigree as an Aramean and his background as a pagan would seem to have predicted differently. Naaman had been marked by his past as being distant from the things of God, but became someone who received the grace of God by the obedience of faith as demonstrated in this passage.

Second, this passage shows what really happens with what some may excuse as ‘white lies’ (who’s it really going to hurt?) and their consequences. Gehazi told a big lie to Naaman when he passed on a message purportedly from Elisha (II Kings 5:22). He then told a big lie to Elisha when he denied running after Naaman to shake him down for a contribution (II Kings 5:25). This passage shows a common pattern of lying, of telling a lie to defraud and another lie to cover the first lie. There are some passages in scripture where the lies of people of faith are simply reported without condemnation, though they are not held up as something for believers to imitate or to excuse the deliberate lies of believers. Another passage which shows the casual, sanctimonious lie and its consequence is the lie of the old prophet to the young prophet in I Kings 13:19, or the lies of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 12:13, 18, 20:2 and 26:7).

Third, this passage is an egregious example of someone trying to make a profit or get a commission from the grace of God – something Paul described as making merchandise of the gospel (II Corinthians 2:17). Here Gehazi is pursuing personal profit with a false religious veneer – the great temptation of those who handle material things and money in the church of Jesus Christ. Elisha rebuked this seeking after rich clothes to make himself look good and money to invest in real estate and in a good life for himself (II Kings 5:26). He seemed to have an underlying attitude of entitlement, that “I’m entitled to what was given to God.” This passage could therefore be brought in as a Biblical illustration for passages such as I Timothy 6:3-10, where Paul wrote about people who think that “ . . . godliness is a means to financial gain” (I Timothy 6:5).

Smaller profits, but with the same grasping tendency, come with the much underreported and much under-rebuked sins of church pilfering. It’s worth noting that Judas, as the treasurer of the disciples, was often dipping into the till (John 12:4-6), and got the other disciples worked up when his motive was to get some for himself.  While I don’t wish to dwell on the sins of my brothers and sisters, I do believe that many believers are spiritually stymied because they have allowed money and items given for the work of God to stick to their fingers when they passed through their stewardship; like Achan, they saw something that they felt that they needed or wanted and grabbed it out of what had been devoted to God (Joshua 5:20-21). For example, Jim Cymbala, in his book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire reported that there were these kinds of problems in his small church, such as pilfering from the offering by church officers, before revival struck. I think that it does bear asking church leaders and church members whether there are things in their possession which were never given to them, such as church library books and hymnals, or which were given for other purposes, or whether they have misused finances for their own advantage, or even had done such things as use church telephones to make personal long distance calls. Certainly confession and financial restitution when this has happened has often been a mark of genuine revival. Even more, it’s a good reason to make sure that ushers and church treasurers are being honest with the offering, particularly where there are cash contributions, and that there is no pilfering or misdirection to personal needs money and items given to God.

Next, this passage shows someone who was close to a genuine man of God taking advantage of someone else because of prejudice against that person. Gehazi very definitely saw Naaman’s pedigree as an Aramean as the basis that he was someone whom he could rightly take advantage of. Apparently he thought that Naaman deserved to be taken advantage of because he was from a different nation and a pagan background. Yet Naaman became practically an Israelite in faith because of his newfound devotion to the God of Israel, and shaking him down for a contribution was at least as bad as defrauding a fellow Israelite.

This passage also shows an egregious example also of taking advantage of someone who has experienced the grace of God and whose generosity was motivated by love and gratitude to God. It’s hard to find any words to describe how reprehensible, wicked and hypocritical it is for anyone – especially someone who might be in church leadership and has to stand before others in the church in a position of preaching and teaching — to see someone else’s love to God as a an opportunity to manipulate and exploit that person. It’s hard to see how there can be any love to God in a heart which sees someone else who has come into a fresh and life changing experience of the grace of God as a chump and patsy, as someone who is gullible and exploitable upon any kind of false pretext.

Next, this passage also shows Gehazi taking advantage of someone else who had abundance by fraud. Of course Naaman had more than he needed because of his position and authority. Of course he would never miss what he actually gave to Gehazi. But these definitely did not excuse his spiritualized fraud. The law of Israel had forbidden theft by fraud, and this passage definitely contradicts any excuse that it might be justified because the person defrauded will never miss it. This shows another pattern of defrauding that happens among the people of God – seeking personal gain at someone else’s expense. In fact, a whole scriptural pattern of defrauding could be summed up in the phrase seeking personal gain – money, prestige and reputation primarily – at the expense of someone else – theft through lies rather than through force and intimidation. In contrast, for all his faults, Abraham would not allow himself to be prospered at someone else’s expense (Genesis 14:23).

Even more, this passage shows that Gehazi had been following not the standard not of godliness in all things, big and small. His position as the servant of Elijah may well have been as his apprentice for future ministry, as his possible successor, as Elisha had been to Elijah and Joshua had been to Moses. Yet this passage reveals that his standard of righteousness was anything that he thought that he could get away with was all right. This standard of unfaithfulness in matters of honesty and obedience in matters both large and small has doubtless been the beginning of the shipwreck of many ministers and many promising leaders in the church. It is in contradiction to the explicit expectations of Jesus himself: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with very much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with very much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:10-13 – when was the last time you heard this passage mentioned in preaching and teaching? ).

Finally, Gehazi was marked with the disease that Naaman had had previously. This was the mark of the disease of his soul and the discipline of God upon his life. While certainly many brothers and sisters in Christ have often jumped to harsh judgments about the causes of hardships in the lives of other believers, nevertheless hardship is a time to ask God to search one’s own heart and life (Psalm 19:14 and 139:23-24, Hebrews 12:7-11). This application of the passage is not intended to be the basis of a self righteous judgment that someone could stand up and thunder down on another believer, in contradiction to Matthew 7:1-10, but rather as an application of the passage that each believer should search out in his or her own heart and life when under hardship that could reasonably be the discipline of God.

I think that too often believers themselves do not consider that the source of their hardships may be the discipline of God. In my personal reading, I’ve started back in with The Gulag Archipelago, and it’s noteworthy how Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about how he came to this practice in his own life, on the advice of a fellow convict in the Soviet gulags. He noted with apparent deep regret how the conduct of the backstabber that led to his own imprisonment was not that different than his own exploitation of his position as an officer before he was arrested. He noted how many times afflictions do seem to replicate the sins that we ourselves have committed. “You know what commands we gave you through the Lord Jesus. This is the will of God, your sanctification . . . not to transgress and act out of greed in a practical matter toward one’s brother, because the Lord is the avenger of all these things . . . “ (I Thessalonians 4:2-3, 6 – Dale’s sight translation). It’s worth consideration, then, how many of the hardships we may have may come from incidents where we might have acted like Gehazi, with lies, greed, self aggrandizement and self indulgence, and God is allowing us to experience the consequences of our own sins. Many times our disappointments are well deserved, if we look at our own conduct first. Our own confession and restitution is the scriptural response when we realize this.

A pastor who preaches on this passage and applies it might reasonably expect to step on some toes in some congregations. It’s therefore reasonable for the pastor to draw the application but do it in a way that avoids pointing a finger at someone, especially if you know of real life cases of people in the congregation who have acted like Gehazi in one way or another. This realization should then drive the pastor to prayer so that he may be bathed in the love, wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, so he would preach and teach on this passage as if he were Jesus Christ himself opening up this passage to his congregation.

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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