Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, ruler of all hearts, you call us to obey you, and you favor us with true freedom. Keep us faithful to the ways of your Son, that, leaving behind all that hinders us, we may steadfastly follow your paths, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In this Sunday’s lesson we meet Elijah very near the end of his prophetic career. His herculean efforts to turn Israel’s King and its people away from the worship of Ba’al and back to faith in Israel’s God have been largely unsuccessful. By instructing him to anoint his own successor, God is making clear to Elijah that his own hands will not complete his life’s work and his eyes will not even see that completion. The most he can do now is obey God’s command to anoint Elisha as prophet, Jehu as King of Israel and Hazael as king over Israel’s arch rival, Syria. We who know the rest of the biblical narrative understand that Elijah is setting in motion a string of events that will finally topple the reign of King Ahab’s wicked and oppressive line and bring a measure of restoration to the worship of Israel’s God. All of this is quite beyond the horizon for Elijah, however. He must perform these simple acts in hope.
I think that is a pretty good description of how most of us live most of the time. We live under the shadow of unfinished tasks, unfulfilled hopes and unrealized goals. Life just isn’t long enough to get everything done. I doubt any of us will depart this life without some measure of regret for something we failed to do or complete. Furthermore, whatever we do leave behind in the way of accomplishments will be fairly modest. Most likely, our names will not be immortalized in history texts explaining to generations of school children yet to come the importance and significance of our lives. Yet because we believe the Holy Spirit is active in our lives and in our world, we dare to hope that our days are filled with eternal significance; that the seeds we plant today will eventually bloom into something beautiful; that we have helped set in motion a chain of events through which our God will one day shake the world.
Living in such faith requires both great confidence and great humility. Humility, because the future is God’s project. Our help is not required to establish God’s reign, but God graciously offers us the opportunity to participate in that good work. At the end of the day life must be surrendered with all of its unfinished business to the one who gave it to us with the prayer, “establish thou the work of our hands, yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Psalm 90:17. Confidence is possible because Paul’s affirmation of God’s faithfulness is ever ringing in our ears: “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6. Frank recognition of our own limits and shortcomings together with bold confidence in God’s power to tie up all the loose ends, false starts and wrong turns in our lives, mysteriously weaving them into the fabric of a new creation, makes possible a life of freedom, joy and hopefulness.
The legends of Elijah and Elisha probably pre-existed the composition of I and II Kings which was completed after the Babylonian Exile in 587 B.C.E. They reflect a fierce cultural struggle in the Northern Kingdom of Israel between the religion of Ba’al and the covenant faith of Israel in her God, Yahweh. At the beginning of Elijah’s career, Israel was ruled by Ahab, son of Omri. He was a formidable ruler whose exploits are recorded in other non-biblical texts. Ahab entered into a political marriage to Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon. This union provided much needed military support for Ahab in his ongoing struggle with Syria (sometimes referred to as Aram). It also facilitated trade between the two nations leading to the rise of a wealthy merchant class having significant political clout with the throne. Along with Jezebel came her religion, worship of the Tyrian Ba’al. Though used as a proper name in the Hebrew Scriptures, the term “Ba’al” was an honorific title given to a range of deities. According to the scriptural witness, Jezebel was a fierce proponent of her god and an equally fierce enemy of the worshipers of Israel’s God. Ahab seems to have been ambivalent about the Tyrian Ba’al. Though he built a temple to the deity in Israel’s capital Samaria, probably at the insistence of his wife, he seems to have remained a devotee of Yahweh. All three of his sons have names derived from that divine name. Nevertheless, when it came to matters of state religion, it seems that Jezebel was the power behind the throne. During Ahab’s reign, the priesthood of Ba’al under Jezebel’s patronage increased its hold upon the population as the worship of Yahweh declined as a result of neglect and outright persecution.
Elijah first appears in I Kings 17:1 where he announces a drought that will befall Israel as a result of her apostasy and which does in fact occur. Ahab evidently blames Elijah for this natural disaster and seeks to kill him. The Lord directs Elijah to flee from Ahab and Elijah spends the next three years of the drought as a fugitive, taking refuge first in a wadi and then across the border from Israel at the home of an impoverished widow in the land of Sidon. Finally, Elijah is directed to show himself to Ahab and he does. Elijah then challenges Ahab to assemble the prophets of Ba’al at Mt. Carmel for what will turn out to be a showdown between Yahweh and Ba’al. Two altars are erected, one to Yahweh and the other to Ba’al. It is agreed that the god who answers the prayers of his devotees by sending down fire from heaven to consume the offerings on his altar shall be deemed God of Israel. Yahweh answers with fire. Ba’al is a no show. Elijah declares victory and proceeds to execute the prophets of Ba’al. He then invokes Yahweh praying for rain to end the devastating drought. Yahweh provides the rain that Ba’al, the rain god, has been unable to produce for the last three years. If Elijah thought the matter was now settled, he was sorely mistaken. When Jezebel learns of Elijah’s doings, she swears that she will do to him what he has done to the prophets of Ba’al. Elijah is again a fugitive.
Broken and discouraged, Elijah flees to Mt. Horeb. According to the traditions of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, this mountain was the one on which God revealed the law to Moses. There Elijah complains that his zeal for God has been unrewarded, that he alone is left among the faithful and that he wishes to die. God directs Elijah to “stand before him” on the mountain. At this point, the prophet witnesses a severe earthquake, a mighty wind and a fierce fire. These are the sort of phenomenon one would expect to encounter on the mountain of the Lord, but Elijah does not find a word from God in any of these events. Only in the sound of sheer silence does he hear God speaking. It is here that Elijah receives the instruction to anoint Hazael king over Syria, Jehu king of Israel and Elisha as his own successor.
This is but a thumbnail sketch of the colorful, entertaining and sometimes shocking tale of Elijah’s career up to this point. It hardly does the story justice. Nevertheless, I felt this cursory telling necessary for placing Sunday’s lesson in its narrative context. There is no substitute for reading the account in its entirety at I Kings 17:1-II Kings 2:18. The wonderful thing about the scriptures is that its characters are all too human. Despite all the miracles attributed to him, Elijah is no superhuman hero. He becomes discouraged, he loses his temper with God, he gives up in despair and throws a childish snit. In short, he acts exactly as we do when we are overworked, underappreciated and unsuccessful in what we see as our life’s calling.
The Elijah story (and that of Elisha which follows) is exceedingly violent. The lectionary people do their best to protect us from all that. I think these folks wish with all their hearts that the Bible had given us a “nice” God. Because it has not, they do their best to deliver one through their relentless butchery of the texts. Try as they may, though, the lectionary folks cannot conceal the obvious: God is not “nice.” God is good, however and loves us too deeply and too passionately to sit up in the heavens ringing his lily white hands over our beastliness while remaining righteously above the fray. God’s hands are soiled with the blood of history within which God is at work turning even our bloodiest deeds toward his own gracious purposes, making room here and there for epiphanies of the new creation. “God so loved the world…” not the ideal world, not the world as we might wish it to be, but the world as it is in all of its cussedness. That is the world God loved enough to get involved with and die for.
Commentators are divided over the time of composition for this psalm. The majority place it in the post exilic period (shortly after 540 B.C.E.) Although perhaps edited and recomposed for use in worship at the second temple rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon, this psalm contains elements reflecting a very early stage in Israel’s history possibly dating back to the time of the Judges. As Israel began to settle into the land of Canaan, she struggled to remain faithful to her God even as she was surrounded by cults of Canaanite origin. The urgent dependence upon rain that goes with agriculture in semi-arid regions made the Canaanite fertility religions tempting alternatives to faith in the God of Israel whose actions seemed so far in the past. The prophets were constantly calling Israel away from the worship of these Canaanite deities and urging her to trust her own God to provide for her agricultural needs. As we have seen from our lesson in I Kings, this was an ongoing struggle particularly acute in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm and that also suggests an early period in Israel’s development. The psalmist makes clear, however, that these “other gods” have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts.
That said, an argument can be made for the claim that this psalm was composed among a group known as the “Hasidim” (godly ones) that was active shortly before the New Testament period. Some of the pagan rites alluded to therein have affinities with sects and mystery cults known to exist during this time period. Dating the final composition at this time is not necessarily inconsistent with our recognition of very ancient material within the body of the psalm utilized here to address a new and different context.
The psalmist opens his/her prayer with a plea for God to preserve him or her, but goes on to express unlimited confidence in God’s saving power and merciful intent. S/he has experienced the salvation and protection of God throughout life and is therefore confident that God’s comforting presence will not be lost even in death.
It is important to note that this psalm does not speculate about any “after life.” The notion of any sort of post death existence was not a part of Hebrew thought until much later in the development of Israel’s faith. Yet one cannot help but sense a confidence on the part of the psalmist that not even death can finally overcome the saving power of God. It is therefore possible to say that the hope of the resurrection is present if only in embryonic form.
Here Paul speaks of freedom. That word “freedom” is problematic because we use it so very differently than does Paul. In our modern context, freedom is all about doing what you want. It means fewer restrictions, more expansive rights and less restraint. Paul would have been altogether mystified by these notions. The greatest tyranny, according to Paul, comes not from governments, laws or moral restraints, but from domination by “the flesh.” Left to do anything we wish, we invariably fall prey to the “desires of the flesh,” namely, “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy,* drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Vss. 19-21. Such conduct is not freedom, but slavery of the worst kind. It leads to our self destruction and robs us of our inheritance under God’s reign.
“Works of the law” cannot set us free from the flesh. Adherence to the rules only breeds resentment against their restrictions and makes the outlawed conduct all the more alluring and desirable. We all know how fanatical devotion to religious observances can lead to hateful and violent acts. According to Paul, that is inevitable where individuals use religious observances and charitable acts (even acts that are beneficial) in order to win favor with God. This kind of religion makes of God a stern disciplinarian. It also takes the focus off the entire purpose of the law-turning us toward service to our neighbors.
According to Paul, freedom resides in being led by the Spirit of God rather than driven by the flesh. Under such leading, we are thankfully free not to do just anything. Paul makes the remarkable statement that we are to use our freedom to be servants of one another! Vs. 13. Freedom through becoming a servant!!! That sounds strange to our ears, but Paul is absolutely serious. Freedom is never found in libertarian communities of self interested individuals. Freedom is found in covenant communities where each person is responsible for and dependent upon his or her neighbor. In such a community, everybody’s child is everybody’s business. Everybody’s marriage is worthy of protection and support. The security of everybody’s home is the concern of the whole community. The whole law is fulfilled in one saying, says Paul: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Vs. 14. That is the only way to be free.
Note well that this love manifested in the “fruits of the Spirit,” is not a product of adherence to any moral code. It is the heartfelt response of the believer whose sins have been freely forgiven by a God who loves without limit or restraint. It is spontaneous, never coerced. Life in the community of faith governed by the Holy Spirit is where we discover the freedom in which Paul would have us walk.
This is the pivotal point in the Gospel of Luke. Up to now, Luke has been roughly following the chronology of the Gospel of Mark, the chief source upon which he relies. If you have been reading Luke attentively, then you know something big is destined to take place in Jerusalem. In verses 28-36, Luke relates his version of the transfiguration story in which Jesus is found discussing with Moses and Elijah the “exodus” he will soon accomplish in Jerusalem. That Jesus should speak of this upcoming event as an occurrence on a par with Israel’s rescue from slavery in Egypt tells us that we must focus our attention in that direction as well. Now in verse 51 Luke gives us a sentence loaded with nuanced language telling us where the narrative is taking us next.
“When the days drew near” literally translated reads “when the days were fulfilled.” Similar phrases are used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to denote the coming of a decisive moment of judgment, salvation or both. See, e.g., Isaiah 2:2; Isaiah 9:1; Jeremiah 23:5 . Commentators are divided over what is meant by Jesus’ being “received up.” It is highly unlikely that this refers to Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of God following his resurrection. Luke uses a different word to describe this event in both his gospel (Luke 24:51) and in Acts (Acts 1:9). As someone traveling to Jerusalem is said to be “going up” to the city regardless of which direction he is coming from, some commentators suggest that this verb only amplifies Jesus’ intention to journey there. I don’t find that interpretation persuasive. In the first place, it comes before Jesus’ express resolution to go to Jerusalem. Secondly, use of the passive voice to express this thought is syntactically clumsy. I believe that the most likely interpretation is that Jesus is to “be received up” by the religious authorities in Jerusalem who will ultimately deliver him to Pontius Pilate for judgment and execution. Jesus has already told his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men.” Luke 9:44. Now, we are told, this time is near.
Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Though Jesus is to be betrayed, delivered into the hands of the gentiles, judged and crucified, he is no mere passive victim. Jesus is making a conscious and deliberate choice to confront his enemies in the heart of the holy city. His expression of determination echoes that demanded of the prophets called upon to deliver hard words to the people of Israel. In calling Jeremiah, God declares, “I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land.” Jeremiah 1:18. So also the prophet Ezekiel was told, “I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads.” Ezekiel 3:8. Clearly, Luke is letting us know that we are about to follow Jesus into an epic confrontation with the powers of religious oppression, political domination, illness and demonic possession he has been battling from the inception of his ministry. From here on out, everything that transpires in this gospel will take place under the looming shadow of the cross.
Jesus’ determination to go to Jerusalem has immediate consequences. He is rejected by the Samaritans for that very reason. Recall that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., more than a century before Judah fell to the Babylonians. Though many Israelites were displaced as a result, a substantial number remained in the land. Recall also that at the time of the Babylonian destruction of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., only the upper classes in Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem were carried away into exile. Thus, many and perhaps most of the people constituting the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah remained in Palestine and continued to worship there. Among them was an ethnic group claiming descent from the Northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh as well as from the priestly tribe of Levi. These folks claimed to be a remnant of the Northern Kingdom which had its capital in Samaria (hence, the name “Samaritan”). They had their own temple on Mount Gerizim. This mountain is sacred to the Samaritans who regard it, rather than Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, as the location chosen by God for a holy temple. When some of the exiles from Judah (now properly called “Jews”) returned from Babylon to Palestine in order to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, they met with hostility and resistance from the Samaritans and other inhabitants of the land. Both Jews and Samaritans regarded themselves exclusively as the one true Israel. The depth of Jewish animosity toward Samaritans is reflected in at least one daily prayer used in some synagogues pleading for God to ensure that Samaritans not enter into eternal life. Ellis, E. Earle, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 151 citing Oesterley, W.O.E., The Gospel Parallels in the Light of their Jewish Background, New York, 1936, p. 162. Of course, the Samaritans were equally ill disposed toward Jews. Needless to say, Jesus’ decision to travel to Jerusalem was interpreted by the Samaritans as a rejection of them and their faith. That Jesus does not see it that way is evidenced by his rebuke to James and John who suggested “nuking” the Samaritans.
At this point, discipleship takes on a new urgency. We the readers know that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. That is not public knowledge, however. Furthermore, though Jesus has revealed to the disciples his coming suffering and death, we will soon learn that they have no comprehension of this message yet. Thus, the three “would be” disciples of Jesus in verses 57-62 cannot possibly have any idea about what following Jesus actually entails. The first of the three volunteers to follow Jesus. This is highly unusual in the gospel narratives. In virtually every other case, it is Jesus who chooses his disciples. The disciples never take the initiative in choosing Jesus. Clearly, Jesus does not “take all comers.” Unlike the ads of so many churches that offer elaborate programs, air conditioned sanctuaries, good fellowship and free coffee, Jesus is brutally honest about what discipleship entails. He isn’t interested in wooing the masses or growing his following. Jesus is looking for a few good people.
The next candidate is actually called by Jesus and responds affirmatively, but requests a brief reprieve to “bury his father.” Was this fellow’s father already dead and awaiting burial? In that case, the delay would have been a matter of days. It is possible, however, that the man’s father was not dead, but infirm and dependent upon his son. In that case, the man would not be free to follow Jesus until after the death of his father. If that were the situation, the delay would be indefinite. In either case, delay is not an option. The dawn of God’s reign has arrived and will not accommodate our busy schedules. The Kingdom is now and must be proclaimed today.
The third candidate appears to be asking for no more than what Elisha requested of Elijah before following him: an opportunity to say farewell to his family. Elijah granted Elisha’s request, but Jesus will give no quarter to his newly called disciple. There is at least one important distinction. Elisha’s intent to follow through was made clear by his actions. Recall that he slaughtered his plow oxen and used the wood from their yolks to roast them in a farewell feast. In so doing, he destroyed his means of livelihood and so had nothing to which he could look back. This action on Elisha’s part did not delay his prophetic career. To the contrary, it was a powerful testimony to his new identity as God’s prophet and the successor to Elijah. One might say that Elisha’s farewell gesture was his first prophetic sign. That does not appear to be the case for the man Jesus called.
I suspect that with the last two “would be” disciples the problem boils down to just one word: “first.” “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” “first let me say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus’ call must always come first. That call may or may not preclude the fulfillment of other obligations, but it cannot ever be deemed secondary to them.