Hebrew Scriptures: 2 Kings 2:1-16, Gospel: Luke 9:51-62
Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.’ But Elisha said, ‘As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they went down to Bethel. 3The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent.’4 Elijah said to him, ‘Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.’ But he said, ‘As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they came to Jericho. 5The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?’ And he answered, ‘Yes, I know; be silent.’6 Then Elijah said to him, ‘Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.’ But he said, ‘As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So the two of them went on. 7Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ 10He responded, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ 11As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.15 When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.’ They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. 16They said to him, ‘See now, we have fifty strong men among your servants
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
What does it mean to be really human? The phrase “Son of Man” is able to be translated as “the human one.” Well, foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the human one has nowhere to lay their head. To be really human means we are committed to more than a place, more than a home, or a job, or a family. Even to more than a church. We are committed to More with a capital M… to the Kingdom of God. We are committed to a way of living where the Divine, God’s very self, sets the agenda and tone of life. When push comes to shove we are “on call.” The greater good of God may break into our lives at anytime and call us to something else.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’
That Greater Good of God calls us to compassion. It means we will feed our family. We will honour our parents. We will support them in their old age. But the greater good of God may go further and ask more of us.
To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’
How do we do this? How do we honour our family and care for them? Yet how do we prevent our duty to family becoming an excuse to ignore the calling of God? For that matter, how do we prevent our faithfulness from fading into an excuse to avoid our responsibility to family?
Where do we get the balance? Jesus, it says, set his face to go to Jerusalem. “Setting his face” means he was totally committed to the journey. There was to be no going back, no looking back.
[Loader: This... can make sense as a call to radical compassion which may challenge all other calls to caring. Mostly it will generate all that caring in family which is so central, but love remains and sometimes it must break established priorities. Less dramatically, but just as relevant, people’s dedication to ‘family values’ frequently blinds them to real caring and at worst inspires hate and discrimination.]
Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
I love this saying. Ploughing is hard work. You have to struggle to keep the plough going in a straight line. A plough was a hard implement to use in Jesus’ time. Look back and you’ll miss bits, and maybe even break the plough on a rock.
For us Aussies, the image is delicious, because to plough properly, you have to keep looking back. We don’t stand behind the plough, we pull it. If you don’t look back, if you don’t keep concentrating, there will be un-ploughed gaps in the paddock… or you’ll get tangled in a fence and pull it down, or rip off part of the implement. But you look forward too, or you’ll drive down a creek, or forget to turn for a fence.
A plough today is no single furrowed machine; it can be thirty or forty feet wide. You have to plan your turns ahead of time. Ploughing is an act of commitment. Look back, stay focused… look forward, stay on target.
Be prepared to do the time. I worked for a farmer once. 12 hours a day I ploughed, for five days. Round and round… and on the sixth day, when we got flooded out, I still hadn’t finished that first paddock. The Kingdom of God means setting our face. It means being in for the long haul.
This whole reading today is about committing to the kingdom. It’s about setting our face towards something, and not looking back. We are familiar with three aspects of this face setting:
the kingdom of God before security,
the kingdom of God before family, and
the kingdom of God for the long haul- no going back.
But there is another face-setting which I had not really noticed until now. I wonder if it could be the most important kind of face setting; more important than the others? It comes out of the history of the two kingdoms of Israel, so we need a history revision to become aware of it.
For a long time there was a northern kingdom of Israel, and a southern kingdom. Jerusalem was in the southern kingdom. The country of Samaria was part of the Northern Kingdom.
Samaria was conquered by the Assyrians, who did what conquerors often did. They shifted lots of the northerners, especially the political and religious elite, to other parts of their empire. Then they brought lots of other people into Samaria in their place. It was a divide and keep conquered kind of strategy. By the time of Jesus, the people of Judea, considered the Samaritans to be some kind of "half-breeds" for, you remember, scriptures forbad you to marry non Jews. Even though each people used the same first five books of the bible, the Judeans thought Samaritans were heretical. The Samaritans were no less hostile in return.
[I hate using the term "half breed," but I think it reflects the animosity and scorn of the situation.]
There was a deep racial and religious hatred between Judea and Samaria. Normally, a Jew like Jesus, would not travel through Samaria on the way to Jerusalem. He would go a longer way, to go around Samaria and avoid it.
Despite this, one of the great prophets revered by the southerners, the Judeans, was from the northern kingdom. That was Elijah, who features in the Old Testament reading for today.
In this story, Elijah is making his last journey, before being “taken up” into heaven by God. He journeys back beyond the Jordan, which is the place where Moses died at God’s command. Understand this; it says Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. (Deuteronomy 34) God made the call. In our story today, God has now called Elijah.
Elijah crossed over the Jordan by striking the waters with his mantle and dividing them. Remember how Moses parted the water of the Red Sea. Elijah, we are being told, is another Moses.
Then, Elisha, who had asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, takes up Elijah’s mantle- his cloak- and parts the water of the river, too. It says that “When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.’” He had taken up Elijah’s mantle.
Luke wants us to remember this. Notice how he says this about Jesus: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up….” It’s the language of the Elijah story. “Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven….”
I’m not reading this into Luke, because there is something else going on that is not in the readings listed for today.
You see, the very last thing Elijah did in the story in 2 Kings, before being "taken up" in today’s reading, was to meet messengers from the King of Samaria. They were not hospitable. In fact, they were sent by the king to arrest Elijah. An army captain and fifty men went to get Elijah, and Elijah rained fire down on them and destroyed them. So the king sent another captain and his fifty men, and Elijah called down more fire from heaven, and destroyed them. That’s why James and John said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ That’s what you did to Samaritans. That’s what they were good for.
And Jesus utterly repudiated what James and John suggested. he turned and rebuked them. Luke 9:5
By taking him into Samaria, Luke is telling us that Jesus has also taken up the mantle of Elijah. Indeed, he has more than a double portion of his spirit. As Jack Spong says, when Jesus was at the Jordan, not the waters were not parted, but instead heaven itself was torn open. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ God said. (Luke 3:22)
So when Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem what did he do first? Did he talk about foxes have holes but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head? Or was it the stuff about the dead burying the dead, or was it putting your hand to the plough and not looking back?
It was none of these. Before commitment, Jesus talked about compassion. Before calling us to commitment, he showed he was greater than Elijah by showing us how to be mercy-full. The kingdom of God does not punish people with what they deserve. Neither should we- I mean, do we really know what anyone deserves?
Only after the message that the kingdom does not punish people with what they deserve does Jesus talk about commitment to a kingdom that will result in him losing his life. Only after the message that the kingdom does not hold onto old deeply held prejudices does Jesus call us to that kingdom. He rebukes us when we are racist. He rebukes us when we want commitment without compassion. Commitment without compassion is religion, it may be fanaticism, but it is not faith in Jesus.
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