Monday, July 16, 2018

An Unguarded Minute

Many years ago, a man who served the Lord in a local church I visited regularly (and whose lunchtime hospitality I had enjoyed at least once) suddenly and dramatically left his wife for a younger woman. He was sixty-something at the time, if I remember correctly, which struck me as a strange age for a man to succumb to a sexual sin of which there was no previous evidence in his life.

I puzzled that one over for a while. While it’s not impossible that the fellow’s heart and mind were full of secret lusts and unrequited fantasies going back years, I think it rather unlikely. Rather, it seems quite possible to me that he got blindsided by a temptation out of left field in an area in which he had little experience. Or, as Hall and Oates put it, “An unguarded minute has an accident in it.”

It seems to me we have biblical precedent for that.

The Sin of Gehazi

For example, the sin of Gehazi, servant to the prophet Elisha, is an interesting study. (For those unfamiliar with it, everything the Bible says about him can be found in 2 Kings chapters 4 through 8.) The servant is seen faithfully obeying his master in a number of situations, but fails badly in chapter 5 when he deceptively obtains compensation for the miraculous healing of Naaman the Syrian, and is cursed with leprosy as a consequence.

About this, one commenter says, “His true nature came out.

Did it now? Perhaps.

I suppose the statement cannot help but be true to a degree at least. Jesus taught that all sin starts in the heart. James says, “Desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin.” There was indeed something festering in the heart of Gehazi that, given the right provocation, led to his downfall. But my question is whether it is reasonable to speak of that kernel of concealed evil as Gehazi’s “true nature”.

Point One

This is a man who chose to serve a prophet for a living. Prophets, while known for occasionally performing dynamic, miraculous acts that attracted public interest, were more notorious for speaking truth to power and ruffling feathers. They were often poor and sometimes on the run. As Jesus aptly put it, “Those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts.” Such was not the lot of the prophet, and Gehazi must have known this going in. Yet he served Elisha with apparent diligence and humility all the same. Thus I find it hard to picture him as a man driven by the persistent desire for material gain. Susceptible to temptation, sure, but not necessarily in love with money or desperate to get ahead in the world.

Point Two

Further, this is a man God used repeatedly; perhaps not as directly and personally as he used Elisha, but used all the same. “What is to be done for her [Elisha’s Shunammite hostess],” the prophet asked his servant. Gehazi replied, “Well, she has no son.” Perceptive and kind, as I read it. Good things came from his suggestion, including an astonishing testimony to the power of God. This was typical of Gehazi, who did whatever his was asked to do, whether it was boiling stew for the sons of the prophets or performing miracles second-hand. Much later, he was instrumental in the restoration of the Shunammite’s land. If it strikes you that it was awfully convenient for Gehazi to have been talking to the king at precisely the moment the Shunammite came before him to make her request, well, I feel the same way about it. There was more than a little providence involved there, I suspect. God was not done with this guy just because he happened to succumb to temptation on a single occasion, even though his punishment was severe.

Point Three

Also, note that Gehazi’s “greed” was remarkably unambitious in its scope. Naaman had brought with him “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing,” of which Gehazi requested only two changes of clothing and a single talent of silver (no gold at all). This amounted to the equivalent of a few months’ wages, perhaps; it’s difficult to be overly precise about these things, as commentators vary in their estimates of value. What is beyond argument, however, is that Gehazi’s request represented the tiniest, most infinitesimal fraction of what Naaman had available and was more than willing to part with. He could easily have asked for more, and in fact Naaman insisted on giving him more than he asked for. In short, this was not ordinary greed. Naaman was Gehazi’s lottery ticket, his big chance. He could easily have tapped him for life-changing amounts, and he did not.

Point Four

Finally, the writer of 2 Kings gives us the following insight into Gehazi’s thinking: “See, my master has spared this Naaman the Syrian, in not accepting from his hand what he brought. As the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something from him.” The “something” is ill-defined, the “Lord” is at least referenced, and his motive in pursuing Naaman seems to have had more to do with his annoyance that Elisha refused to bill a rich foreigner for his services than with mere personal gain. Was he excessively patriotic or, like Jonah, harbored especial antipathy toward the enemies of his people? Perhaps. It certainly seems he thought Elisha mistaken. Even the prophet’s subsequent critique hints that what was most wrong about Gehazi’s thinking was not his desire for recompense but its timing and circumstances. After all, even the apostle Paul reminds us that it is not inappropriate to feed the ox who treads out the grain.

Keep Your Soul Diligently

Putting all that together, I’m just not seeing a man characteristically consumed by the desire for wealth. The story just doesn’t lend itself to that interpretation. What I am seeing is a guy who, like many of us today, plugged along for years doing the right thing, and in a moment of weakness and misjudgment did something catastrophically wrong when his emotions got the best of him.

Moses’ instruction to Israel might be more on point: “Take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget …” We can all learn from that one. It can happen to the best of us.

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