Year C: Pentecost 5
June 27, 2010
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
During the reigns of the kings of Israel the courts and local sanctuaries were frequented by groups of prophets, or nabi’s. We are told that there were about 400 prophets at the North Israelite court although at times not all were prophets of Yahweh. Nabi’s often worked together when the occasion called for cultic ritual or prophecy. The disciples Elisha gathered around himself belonged to cultic sites like Bethel or Gilgal. They probably practiced meditation and were observed in ecstatic frenzy, believed to be caused by the ruach or ‘spirit of the Lord’ coming upon them.
On the other hand, Elijah seems to have been an independent, solitary figure. He is called ‘a man of God’, as distinct from a nabi’, and leads a wandering existence, appearing when and where Yahweh directs him.
As today’s passage begins Elijah is engaged in what appears to be a farewell tour of the sanctuaries of Gilgal, Bethel and Jericho. The passage omitted from today’s reading fills out Elijah’s tour route. With him is his heir apparent, Elisha, whose personal calling by Elijah has already been indicated (1 Kings 19:19ff).
While this is Elijah’s farewell tour, Elisha becomes the central character. In literary terms, as well as in the content of the story, Elisha is replacing Elijah. As a disciple, Elisha is a complex figure. At first we see him eager to follow Elijah from town to town, in spite of Elijah’s initial resistance. We might think this is through great loyalty and a strong desire to follow the master as closely as possible. But we get a hint from Elisha’s response to the nabi’s who at each of the sanctuaries keep telling him what he already knows, i.e. that his master is about to be taken away. He urges them to be silent (vv. 3, 5). Perhaps this is because he does not want their interference in the succession. Perhaps also he is nervous of what is about to be handed to him and his desire to be close to Elijah is for his own comfort. Part of Elisha seems to resist what is about to happen.
After the last stop at Jericho fifty of the nabi’s follow them to the Jordan River. We note, however, that they stand away off when Elijah and Elisha stop at the river. Maybe they are curious, but the physical distance between the parties indicates another kind of distance between the nabi’s of the sanctuary and these two men of God. That distance is evident when Elijah takes up his mantle, strikes the waters with it parting them and demonstrating his status as a ‘second Moses’. Here is a true prophet like Moses (see Deut. 18:15-22). He is even crossing to the east side of the Jordan to be taken up from the very place where Moses died and was buried by Yahweh himself (Deuteronomy 34).
Before Elijah is taken we see the other side of Elisha as disciple. While he may be uncomfortable about his impending responsibility, he is also keen to have the power he needs for the task. He asks to inherit a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic power, a request which echoes the double portion of the first-born. But Elijah’s response exposes both a strength and a weakness in Elisha’s readiness for the task. The fact that Elijah cannot grant this himself, and that it will only be granted if Elisha has a vision of Elijah’s translation, implies that spiritual gifts can be transmitted only to those to whom God grants them. It is not Elijah’s gift or power to give. On the other hand Elisha’s persistence in following, whether through discomfort or desire or a mixture of both, shows that he is indeed as ready as any human can be for the task set.
Elisha does see Elijah’s translation. They are separated by a chariot and horses of fire representing the presence of Yahweh (cf. Hab. 3:8; Ps. 68:17) as Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. As we recall Elijah’s calling down of divine fire on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-35), and his salutary mountain-top experience (1 Kings 19:1-15a), the implication is that authority over heavenly fire is Yahweh’s alone. Yahweh is also the one whose power directs the prophetic mission. Elisha receives the gifts, along with the prophetic mantle, a symbol of those gifts, and as he returns across the Jordan he again strikes the river and it parts. Like Elijah he has inherited the prophetic mantle that goes back to Moses. We know that Elisha, in spite of any sense of inadequacy or inappropriate desire that may have accompanied his calling, stands as a true prophet of Yahweh. His retracing the footsteps of Elijah’s farewell tour (in reverse) even as far as Mt. Carmel (v. 25, where Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal) puts him squarely in the line of authentic prophets going back to Moses. But we should not forget the fact that these true prophets are flawed disciples to their bootstraps, like the rest of us.
Today’s gospel reading, Luke 9:51-62, has strong connections to the account of Elijah and Elisha. When it opens it is set in Samaria, the place where Elijah and Elisha struggled against the kings of Israel. Jesus’ disciples seem to assume (v. 54) that when the people of certain villages reject Jesus’ preaching, he will assume an Elijah-like persona and call down fire from heaven. Jesus’ response is swift and stern. He will have nothing to do with that kind of zeal. Yet even as he responds in that vein, Jesus reflects the spiritual wisdom of Elijah who found God in the experience of ‘sheer silence’. Moreover, this is followed by the account of three people who would become disciples of Jesus. One asks to follow but has not yet counted the cost (implied in v. 51). Another hears Jesus’ call but has personal matters to conclude first. A third volunteers but also has matters to attend to first. Jesus replies that the kingdom of God is not for those who look back having set their hand to the plow (v. 62). In Elisha we see that even the one who is eager to take up the challenge is not without misgivings, misunderstandings and feelings of inadequacy. True power for the task lies with the gift of the spirit of God.
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