Sunday, February 28, 2021

Of Gourds, Barley and Building Small Houses

I hate to waste food. I also like a dash of pasta sauce in my morning omelette.

So last week when I noticed a little yellow spot of mold floating in my open jar of pasta sauce, I thought I could probably just spoon out the bit that was starting to turn and then make good use of the rest of the jar. I didn’t want to miss that little extra zip of flavor I’m used to.

Hoo boy. Not my brightest move.

The good news is that the crippling abdominal cramps and unscheduled trips to the bathroom stopped after about 16 hours, which is about the same duration I was out of commission the time I tried to get away with mixing in some very slightly dodgy chorizo. But a little bit of food poisoning goes a long way. I won’t try to push any more “best before” limits for at least six months.


Spiritual Contamination

My unhappy food experience nicely illustrates for us the problems caused by spiritual contaminants in our lives and churches. Like the spots in my sauce, there is no easy way to tell exactly where corruption begins and ends.

The writers of scripture have much to say about the problems caused by foreign influences of various sorts. What does a little leaven do? Why, it leavens the whole lump. Good luck trying to pick out and re-use the unleavened bits. What was the difficulty with the weeds among the wheat? Even the most discerning angels could not be entirely sure which was which until harvest.

In Leviticus, certain kinds of mold problems could be solved with a “wait and see” approach. Others could be cured by scraping and replastering the walls of an infected house. Still other kinds were so bad that the whole house had to be torn down to the ground and rebuilt with entirely new material. It took a priest to tell which was which, and the passage of time to see how things would turn out. It was not necessary for the entire house to be visibly infected before it became unfit for an Israelite family to dwell in. The fact that the infection could be seen at all meant drastic measures might have to be employed. Separating the good from the corrupt is not always possible in this age.

Sordid, Sad and All Too Common

Last week we got news of a major investigation of scandal in a Christian ministry, one which had previously maintained a sterling reputation. Sadly, due diligence seems to have confirmed they had mold in their house, leaven in their lump and maybe even weeds among their wheat: distinguishing charlatans from sinning saints is hardly an exact science. The testimony of many good men and women has been seriously damaged, and the Lord’s name brought into disrepute. Sordid, sad and all too common these days.

It is highly unlikely that the whole organization has been compromised. In the secular world, the results of investigations into allegations of corruption are often quietly buried. That absolutely did not happen in this case. Nevertheless, there remains this persistent difficulty we have already identified of determining exactly where any kind of rot, compromise or adulteration begins and ends. When a man sins for years in apparent secrecy, it is not unreasonable to inquire how many others around him caught a whiff of what was going on and looked the other way in order to avoid the humiliation, loss of reputation, damaged faith and loss of revenue that would inevitably follow from their figurehead’s exposure.

Such sins are not trivial. In the early days of taking Canaan, passivity about exposing evil earned Achan’s family exactly the same treatment as their husband and father. Their sins of omission enabled his crimes against God and against God’s people. His culpability became theirs.

Where to From Here?

So what does one do now? There is no easy answer. In a time of famine, the prophet Elisha purified a stew contaminated with poisonous gourds with only a handful of clean flour. It may be that introducing a few uncompromised and spiritual men into the organization could be enough to turn it around and salvage its tattered reputation. Then again, like some of the infected houses in Leviticus, it may be necessary to tear the beleaguered ministry to the ground and drag its stones and timbers right outside the camp.

I can’t tell the Christians involved what they ought to do about their participation in a corrupted ministry, and whether or not the organization should be salvaged or burned to the ground and the earth salted. At very least they need a name change, though that alone is unlikely to get the job done.

Feeding a Hungry World

But there are other lessons to be mined from 2 Kings 4. In the story of the poisoned stew, the problem was caused by human ingenuity. Some enterprising, hungry young prophet decided there wasn’t enough stew for everybody, and thought it prudent to extend the mixture a little further by tossing in a few gourds he hadn’t bothered to identify first. It was a human solution to the problem of hunger, and the result would have poisoned everyone. “There is death in the pot,” cried the prophets who sampled the results of his misconceived solution.

It is probably not accidental that the gourd story is followed immediately by another anecdote about food and hungry prophets. Much like the boy with five barley loaves and two fish in the gospels, a man came from Baal-shalishah with twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain. A nice idea, but once again, this was nowhere near enough to feed a hundred hungry men. But this time the solution to the need was God’s, not man’s: “Give them to the men, that they may eat,” said Elisha, “for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’ ” This they did, “according to the word of the Lord”. Nothing of human origin was added to the supply. God made it grow to meet the need.

Contamination is a major problem in the spiritual world. Such examples should remind us that the larger the house and the greater the investment of God’s people in it, the more we have to lose when it must be torn down.

Moral of the story, if you will excuse the chaotic mixture of Old Testament imagery: build small, and let the Lord multiply what we have to offer him to meet the spiritual needs of a hungry world.

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