Do Not Hold Back
Sermon Preached at Austin Women In Ministry Event
“Do. Not. Hold. Back.”
2 Kings 4:8-37 and 2 Kings 8:1-6
Also Psalm 63:1-6
The Bar is Low
I love historical fiction. So recently I was reading a mystery set in a gritty, violent,
religiously turbulent Tudor England. At the end of the novel there was a historical background
essay, that cited a 16 th -century assessment of the clergy of the time. It said: “Parish priests were
heavily criticized for their ignorance, absenteeism, involvement in [illegal] land purchase, and
failure to preach.” (1) Apparently the clergy in Tudor England were guilty of many things, some of
them truly wicked, but a lot of it was simply not showing up. Absenteeism and Failing to
And there is worse, not just in the 16 th century but in all other times and places: historical
accounts present some clergy as guilty of chronic drinking, sexual exploitation, selling healings
to the poor, and the like. Some clergy were just eccentric: one 19 th -century minister had a
congregation made up primarily of his own cats, of which he had ten. They regularly followed
him to church for every service. On one occasion he caught one of his feline parishioners
mousing on the sabbath, and he publicly excommunicated him on the spot. (2) This is probably
why we say today that ministry is like… herding cats.
In light of this, and in light of the serious accounts of clergy malfeasance in our own day,
we may well find ourselves agreeing with one 16 th century report that opined: “the ordination of
unsatisfactory priests is the primary cause of the ills of the Church.” (3)
These descriptions of clergy misbehavior shed new light on the charges of “absenteeism
and failing to preach” mentioned earlier—we begin to see that, when they failed to show up,
some of those absent “ministers of the gospel,” were actually at their best. A good day for the
gospel was the day that some of these guys just stayed home!
As we think about our own callings, as you think about your calling, O you powerful
Women in Ministry, these accounts remind us of an important truth that we should never forget:
the. bar. is. low.
The bar is low not because all men are lousy ministers, obviously. Some of us are related
to some pretty fabulous male ministers. But dominant American Christianity tries to tell women
that maleness, that certain anatomical bits, are required for excellence in ministry. And the worst
part is, we sometimes let ourselves believe it.
The Minister of Shunem
The woman of Shunem is a minister of a different stripe. That she’s a minister is clear:
she dedicates her time, energy, and resources to a ministry of hospitality to itinerant messengers
of God. She is powerful, intelligent, independent, organized, strategic, persistent, and faithful to
God. It is her faithfulness to God that drives her to engage in her ministry in the first place: I
imagine her praying Psalm 63 that we just heard read: “I will bless the Lord as long as I live.”
That is her calling. That she’s effective in her ministry is equally clear: Elisha consistently relies
on her ministry in order to carry out his own work.
One day Elisha has an appropriate thought: the minister of Shunem should be
compensated for her ministerial work. So he tells her, maybe I can pull some strings for you with
important people, you know, get you some access to power? But she says: no! that’s okay: “I
live among my own people” which roughly means, I don’t need your access to power—I am
confident right where I am. But Elisha ignores her response. [It’s hard to believe that he ignores
her response because that NEVER happens to women, right?]. As though the minister of Shunem
hasn’t spoken, Elisha turns to his buddy Gehazi and says, “What shall we do for her?” Gehazi
answers for her [again, this never happens]. He says, she must want a son.
So mansplaining is not a new thing. (4) After Elisha and Gehazi finish telling the woman
what she must want, she says: No, don’t deceive me, which may mean: a child is too much to
hope for, but also: I’m not asking for this--don’t set me up for crushing heartbreak.
But lo and behold, she conceives and has a son, and heartbreak sure enough soon follows.
The boy falls ill and dies in her arms. Often we rush by the pathos of moments like this,
anguished moments so tersely told in the Bible. But if one lingers in the verse, one senses the
intensity of her grief. How long does she hold the child?
At some point after he has died, she carries him up and lays him on Elisha’s bed. It’s an
excruciating indictment. What she had feared has come to pass.
Over the objections of her husband, she saddles her donkey and heads out on a week-long
trip to find Elisha. Because Hebrew prose is famously spare, it’s worth noting that the narrator
pauses to tell us what she says to her servant: “Drive on!” she says, “Do not hold back!”
Why include these seemingly extraneous words in this story? What are we to make of
this speech which does nothing to advance the plot? It’s when we feel these odd bumps in the
text that we should be most alert for God speaking to us, whispering to us, a Word: “Do. Not.
Hold. Back.” The minister of Shunem holds nothing back in her life or her ministry—everything
she is called to do, she does, whether the men around her—Elisha, Gehazi, her
husband—whether they think it’s a good idea or not. She does not let any of these men dictate
who she is or what she can do.
At Mt. Carmel she catches up to Elisha, and confronts him with the death of her son. He
tries to brush her off: “Gehazi will help you.” But she is in his face, saying, No. I’m not leaving
without you. This child was your idea—now you do something about the fact that he lies lifeless
on your bed. She does not hold back. So Elisha does what she says, follows her, resuscitates the
child. The minister of Shunem demands, and gets, what is right.
It may be surprising that the minister of Shunem reappears in the narrative a few chapters
later. After all, it’s mostly Elisha’s story in these chapters—we hear about his various exploits
for a while. But suddenly there she is again at the beginning of ch. 8. Her story erupts in the
midst of his. Neither the narrator nor she herself will let us forget her—they shove Elisha out of
the way to get her story told. She does not hold back. But then, we know her by now, and we
expect that if there is something that needs to be set right, she will do it. Also we know Hebrew
narrative—that the eruptions are meaningful—that the interruptions in the story are where God is
whispering to us: “Do. Not. Hold. Back.”
We learn at the beginning of ch 8 that the Shunnamite had been in Philistia for a time due
to famine. But she’s back now. And she discovers that while she was gone, her property, her
land, was taken from her. This time she goes straight to the top, to the king, to advocate for
herself and her family. Apparently if she needs access to power, she will get it for herself.
To get her land back means pressing her case with the king himself. But when she
arrives, she finds him shooting the breeze with Elisha’s assistant, Gehazi. They are probably
sipping a craft beer as they chat. And who are they talking about? Elisha. Gehazi is regaling the
king with how tremendous Elisha is. This is business as usual, isn’t it? Powerful men sitting
around talking about other powerful men. Over craft beer.
Just at the moment when Gehazi is telling the king about Elisha’s resuscitation of the
child, here is the woman, and apparently also the child, as evidence for Elisha’s amazingness!
But she did not come to be evidence for Elisha’s deeds. She has her own agenda. So she
interrupts these powerful men in their praising other powerful man. She has come to get justice,
and she gets it. She does not hold back.
Claiming Our Authority
I was thinking about the low bar set by some clergy down through the centuries,
alongside the example of the minister of Shunem, in connection with the self-doubt that afflicts
many women clergy today. Doubt, sown by the insidious judgments of a culture that still, still
discriminates on the basis of sex. Doubt that women’s abilities and gifts and callings to ministry
are as legitimate and as authentic and as God-given as men’s. Some Christian traditions have
made tremendous strides in affirming women in ministry, but there’s still a long way to go
before we get to the Promised Land.
I wish that I could go back in time and talk to my younger self. Because there were times
as a young professional, whether in church or in seminary, where I found my voice stifled by the
whole system of male privilege that sought to convince me that my voice was not worth hearing.
Or when people tried to usurp my authority in subtle and insidious ways. The times I was gas-
lighted into thinking that my self-doubt was appropriate, that it was based in an accurate
assessment of my own weaknesses.
I wish I could go back and tell myself: “Do not hold back.” Carol Newsom, who is a rock
star Old Testament scholar, recently was on a panel on the Imposter Syndrome. (5) She said three
things about the Imposter Syndrome that have stayed with me: One is: find a role model and
hang their picture in your work space, and check in with them every day. In the Academic
Dean’s office at Princeton Seminary where I work, I have images of three women on my wall:
one is of Muriel van Orden Jennings, the first woman to graduate from Princeton Seminary in
1932. Muriel was an intellectual rock star, top of her all-male class. She did not hold back. And
the other two are Kathie Sakenfeld and Beverly Gaventa, both here today, who were my
colleagues at Princeton for decades. I owe so much of whatever flourishing I now experience to
them, and am grateful for all the ways in which they did not hold back. When I leave for a
meeting where I need the full armor of God, I check in with these ladies, who seem to say, Do
not hold back.
Another thing Carol Newsom says is that to fall into the Imposter Syndrome’s traps
means casting doubt on the wisdom of the people who have believed in you, who wrote you
letters of recommendation, who invested in you, who are rooting for you. Is their judgment so
misguided? Is that our message to them? To say nothing of the judgment of the One who made
But of course it’s not just women who suffer from self-doubt. Studies show that all it
takes to suffer from Imposter Syndrome is to have one thing about yourself that is non-
normative: non-male, non-white, non-heterosexual, non-binary, non-urban, disabled, and the list
goes on. So even straight white Anglo Protestant men can fall victim to Imposter Syndrome. If
anyone deviates from the norm in even one category, the door is open to self-doubt. And if we
are non-normative in multiple categories, the effect is amplified.
The obstacles to claiming our authority, to banishing self-doubt, will not go away as long
as those norms hold. But every time we speak up, act up, assert ourselves—every time we do not
hold back--the norms crumble just a bit. The minister of Shunem knew serious obstacles, and so
does every one of us, but her perseverance was surely borne of her great faith. Her great faith
that God was at work in the world, and that she was participating in that work. A faith that we
inherit today. We are part of that divine work when we do not hold back.
The feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan recently gave a public talk. Gilligan’s classic
1982 work, In a Different Voice, changed forever how women and girls’ moral agency is understood. Thanks to Gilligan, the moral reasoning of girls and women is no longer seen as deficient. At the talk, the last question of the evening came from a teenage girl. The girl asked Gilligan, “What advice would you give to young girls who want to resist or protest, but don’t want to be labeled nasty or angry women?”
Gilligan replied, “Well, you are going to be labeled. The question is ‘What is your response?’ (6)
We know the minister of Shunner’s response: Do not hold back.
1 From the historical appendix in C. J. Sansom, Tombland (Mulholland Books, 2019).
2 The Rev. Robert Hawker appears in Fergus Butler-Gallie, A Field Guide to the English Clergy, (Oneworld, 2018).
3 Frans Ciappara, “Trent and the Clergy in Late Eighteenth-Century Malta,” Church History 78:1
(March 2009), 1-25. Emphasis added.
4 Yairah Amit, “A Prophet Tested Elisha, the Great Woman of Shunem…” Bibl. Int. 11 (2003), 287-8. Also Mary
Shields, “Subverting a Man of God, Elevating a Woman,” JSOT 58 (1993), 59-69; and Danna N. Fewell, "The Gift:
World Alteration and Obligation in 2 Kings 4:8-37," “A Wise and Discerning Mind"—Essays in Honor of Burke O.
Long (eds: S.M. Olyan, R.C. Culley; Providence, Rhode Island: Brown Judaic Studies), 109-123.