The Spirit of Elijah or The Spirit of Jesus?
Week of Sunday June 26
Gospel: Luke 9:61-62
9:1 Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. 3He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. 4Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. 5Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ 6They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere…
21 He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, 22saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’
23 Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it…
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure (exodos), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem…
49 John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’50But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’
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. [Other ancient authorities read rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what spirit you are of, 56for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save 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.’
Think about Israel in the time of Jesus. God's own country is ruled by an oppressive empire. Taxes are high, and dodgy Jewish officials are in league with the Romans. It's not feeling like a land of milk and honey as the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.
What hope is there for the future? We need a new Moses who can take us out of this current Egypt in a new Exodus. And we need a new Elijah!.
In fact the very last verses of the Old Testament say this:
Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel…. [and] Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.
Everyone was waiting.
Then Luke writes his gospel, and near the beginning he says John the Baptist
… will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Everyone knew that when Messiah finally came, a new Elijah would be involved.
Remember the story of the Transfiguration, where Jesus is up on the mountain with some disciples, and Moses and Elijah appear? That happens just before today's reading.
They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Guess what Greek word is used for our English word "departure?" Exodos
Luke is telling us Jesus is the new Moses. And Elijah is there, as well.
When Jesus taught at Nazareth things don't go well. They complained about him. Jesus said:
‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.
He compares himself to Elijah, and Elisha, who brought God's blessing to more people than just Israel. That's when people try to throw Jesus off the cliff.
Now, when Jesus arrives at Samaria, we get another Elijah story.
Because we are not so familiar with the Old Testament, we can miss this. So let me remind you of the sorts of things Elijah does.
Remember that story of Mount Carmel. That's where the Priests of Baal are praying to their God to set fire to their offering on the altar. It's when Elijah makes his joke about their God being busy on the toilet— most Bibles are too polite to translate it honestly— But when Elijah prays to God, then fire comes down from heaven and lights up the altar. And afterwards, he incites the people to murder all the prophets of Baal. They massacre 450 people.
Then there's the story of Elijah and King Ahaziah.
Ahaziah fell off the balcony and "sent messengers… to Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron" to find out whether he would recover.
Elijah intercepted them, and said that because King Ahaziah was trying to ask another God instead of sending the messengers to him, the prophet of Yahweh, that Ahaziah would die.
When the King heard this, he sent fifty soldiers off to capture Elijah, who brought down fire from heaven and killed them. The king sent another fifty, and they were consumed by fire as well. He sent another fifty … but their captain said something like, "Mate… it's the king, it's not us, that's the problem… could you give us a break?" And he didn't kill them, but you didn't mess with this bloke and his God: Ahaziah still died from his injuries.
It goes on: It turns out Elijah is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire— there's that fire thing again. And we heard this in the reading today. He has his successor Elisha with him. Elisha has asked for a double blessing of Elijah's spirit:
Remember the story when they get to the river?
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.
Then we get the chariots arriving. And afterwards, Elisha
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.’
But immediately after that— it's part of the same story— it's only eight verses on, and it's part of the proof that Elisha has a double portion of Elijah's spirit— this happens:
[Elisha] went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, ‘Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!’ 24When he turned round and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.
The spirit of Elijah was not to be messed with. It was violent. It was retaliatory. Yet he was the prophet of God. His message was that God is a God of fire, and God is violent towards those who oppose him.
What's this got to do with Jesus?
Luke's theology by story-telling works like this:
- Jesus teaches in Nazareth and people do not receive him well. "This is just Joseph's son." And Jesus said, "No, like Elijah, I go to the people outside Israel."
- Jesus is in Samaria and people do not receive him. The disciples want to do the Elijah thing and rain down fire, but Jesus stopped them, because Jesus is NOT like Elijah.
Are those two events really connected, you ask?
The answer is "Yes," because Ahaziah was the king… of Samaria…
So, in Luke Jesus says, "I am like Elijah, but not like Elijah…. I carry the power of God, but no violence and no fire, because God is not like that.
And then we get the rest of our reading today, where people want to follow him…
He makes it clear that his discipleship is all or nothing:
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.’
It's almost brutal… and it was shocking; it was a terrible thing to go off and leave your family. We're used to people leaving home; it's a rite of passage. In Israel, you didn't leave.
And in the last verses about not even saying farewell or looking back, there is an Elijah story. It goes like this: Elijah
found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was ploughing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him.20He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, ‘Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.’ Then Elijah said to him, ‘Go back again; for what have I done to you?’ 21He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant. (1 Kings 19)
Elisha not only kisses his parents goodbye, he gets to throw a farewell party before he leaves! But Jesus is not like Elijah. There is not time. Come now!
Casting your cloak over someone was a kind of magic. (John Gray I & II Kings) It was almost like Elijah saying he owned and controlled Elisha. But Jesus is even more uncompromising in his calling us. Don't hesitate! Don't procrastinate! Come now! Don't look back!
What's this all telling us?
Be zealous. Follow Jesus. Work for God….
But don't be violent. Don't be violent. Don't retaliate. That's the spirit of Elijah which Jesus leaves behind.
Violence and retaliation puts us in with the prophets who massacre the opposition and call out the bears on innocent children. Violence is the way of Assad in Syria, and ISIS, and the way of our own forebears who massacred Aboriginal* children and beat out their heads on the rocks to save wasting bullets. Don't be violent.
Be zealous about not being violent. Be zealous about not seeking revenge. Be zealous in learning what it means to love. And then… then we have more than a double portion of the Spirit of Elijah. We will have the spirit of Jesus.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
* http://bit.ly/28TtoS5 Below the cliff was the head of a creek, which Tom Lynott named Malakoff Creek, after a bloody battle during the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. When a camp was attacked in daylight, the whites were usually mounted and, unless the country was open and flat, it was often possible for a number of occupants to escape. In some cases they watched in horror, unseen, as whites dispatched the wounded. Adults and children received a bullet to the brain, while babies – whether injured or not – were held by the ankles “just like goanna”, their skulls smashed against trees or rocks. A crying baby left behind when Garrwa people fled a camp on the Robinson River was thrown onto the hot coals of a cooking fire, still crying.