INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C - Proper 8
2 KINGS 2: 1- 2, 6-14. This story tells how the spiritual leadership of Israel changed in the last half of the 9th century BC. Traveling with his mentor from one holy site to another, Elisha saw Elijah taken up in a chariot of fire and picked up the older prophet’s fallen mantle symbolizing that he had become Israel’s leading prophet.
1 KINGS 19: 15-16, 19-21. (Alternate) New orders from God for Elijah directed him to return to Israel to anoint a new king for Israel and for their northern neighbours, the Arameans (aka Syrians) and to anoint a new prophet, Elisha, to take his own place. Having done as directed, he found Elisha ploughing with a yoke of oxen. Slaughtering the oxen, Elisha used their equipment to prepare a sacrificial feast before leaving his family to follow Elijah as his disciple.
PSALM 77: 1-2, 11-20. This complex psalm has two quite separate parts. The reading includes only the introduction to a personal lament, then skips to the second part which sounds more like a hymn alluding to the mighty acts of God throughout Israel’s history and in the violence of nature. This suggests that the psalmist was more troubled by some unnamed community calamity than by a personal disaster.
PSALM 16. (Alternate) This prayer expresses a simple trust in God. After criticizing the worthless gods of other nations, the psalmist meditates on the benefits of worshiping Israel’s Lord.
GALATIANS 5: 1, 13-25. Here the Christian ethic is writ large so that he/she who runs may read it. It is God the Spirit who gives us the basis for our ethical intentions and actual performance as Christians in the local contexts in which we live and move. Paul describes how this happens according to the choices we make about our everyday behaviour.
LUKE 9:51-62. Already bound for Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus decided to take the mountain route through Samaria rather than usual route to the east down the Jordan valley. As with many political and ethnic rivalries still, this enmity took on religious overtones. By Jesus’ time, this hostility had lasted more than 700 years since Israel’s ten northern tribes had been conquered by the Assyrians. Good Jews that they were, two of Jesus’ more hot-tempered disciples immediately gave full expression to the traditional attitude toward the Samaritans who refused them entrance to their village. James and John wanted to call down punishment on these people who rejected their beloved Master. Does this not sound familiar in our day?
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
2 KINGS 2:1-2, 6-14. What happens when the spiritual leadership of a religious community or a nation changes? That issue rises out of this lesson. Before dealing with it, some other points need to be considered first.
In his introduction to I and II Kings in The Interpreter’s Bible (vol. 3, p.13) Norman Snaith noted the many similarities between the Elijah cycle of stories in I Kings and the Elisha cycle in II Kings. He also noted that the latter group may have been written by a less competent author as an imitation of the Elijah cycle. They lack the same dramatic power in spite of the similarities. Nonetheless, Elisha did play a decisive part in the shaping of the events of his time, and in some respects was more outstanding than Elijah. Perhaps the author had knowledge of Elisha’s political importance and this led his biographer to write up the traditions which had gathered around him. The claim that he was the true successor of Elijah certainly was on the mark.
This insight comes very much to the fore in the determination of Elisha to travel with Elijah from one holy site to another until they crossed the Jordan by a miraculous dividing of the waters. The scene is reminiscent of the crossing of the Red Sea and of Joshua leading the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promised Land of Canaan. It was intended as a symbol of the renewal of Israel’s religious heritage. When finally Elisha saw Elijah taken up in a chariot of fire and retrieved the older prophet’s fallen mantle, he knew that he had come into the spiritual inheritance he had so earnestly sought.
The existence of sizable “companies of prophets” at the various holy sites of Bethel and Jericho (vss. 3, 5, 7) indicated that the prophetic tradition did not rest on haphazard, ecstatic inspiration of certain great individuals. A consistent system for maintaining “the word of the Lord” existed during the period of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. In his seminal book, The Relevance of the Prophets (Toronto: The Macmillan Company, 1947) Professor R. B. Y. Scott described these “prophetic guilds” as “recognized bodies of prophets who appear to be acting in concert at various times in the history of the twin kingdoms.... As a rule they spoke with one voice. But exceptional men among them (in addition to the ‘Master’) acted independently, and it was they and not the ‘madmen of the spirit,’ (i.e. ecstatic prophets) who stood in the line of Moses and were the ancestors of the great prophets of the classical period.” (p. 48) An obvious reference to this Mosaic tradition of prophecy stood out in the dividing of the waters of the Jordan by both Elijah and Elisha.
All of this points to the conclusion that the succession of spiritual leadership can be governed in an orderly fashion in which both human and divine influences can be fully exercised.
1 KINGS 19:15-16, 19-21. (Alternate) Soundly rebuked by Yahweh for deserting his post under the strain of persecution, Elijah received new orders for his ministry as Israel’s leading prophet. Yahweh directed him to return to Israel to anoint a new king for Israel and for their northern neighbours, the Arameans, (inhabiting modern Syria with its capital at Damascus). As if to underline his failure, Elijah also received orders to anoint a new prophet, Elisha, to take his own place as spiritual leader of the nation.
Unless one regards vss. 17-18 as an interpolation into the narrative, there seems little reason to omit them from the reading. In fact, they provide a reasonable assurance that Israel has not been completely apostate as Elijah had complained in his own pathetic defense (vs. 14).
Having done as directed, Elijah threw his mantle over Elisha who immediately ran after the prophet signifying his acceptance of his new role. Elijah hesitated about what he had done, but then relented when Elisha wished to return to say farewell to his parents. Slaughtering the oxen, Elisha used their equipment to prepare a sacrificial feast before leaving his family to follow as Elijah’s servant.
The story gives us insight into ancient prophetic succession. An oddity in this narrative is the anointing of Elisha when the normal practice was to anoint only monarchs. The cycle of stories about Elijah does not end here as might be expected, but there is an unmistakable break in the narrative between this episode and the next. Scholars believe that the two cycles probably come from different sources at different periods in the 8th century BCE as well as being adapted by the Deuteronomist editors after the exile in Babylon (586-539 BCE).
PSALM 77:1-2, 11-20. This complex psalm appears to have two quite separate parts. This has caused some scholars to suggest that it originally existed as two separate compositions woven together by a later editor. The reading includes only the introduction to a personal lament, then skips to the second part which sounds more like a hymn alluding to the mighty acts of God throughout Israel’s history. This suggests that the psalmist (or the final editor) was more troubled by some unnamed community calamity than by a personal disaster.
A profound spiritual lesson can be learned from this interpretation. In times of crisis and the fragmentation of communal ethics and social upheaval, a review of our religious history can be a helpful antidote to the fear and despair that tend to overwhelm us. This does not assume that all forms of religious response to social crisis should be regarded as beneficial. In this century as in most previous ages, religious leaders have frequently served those who would preserve the status quo rather than voice the need for radical change in the tradition of the great prophets.
When we call to God for help through our fear and despair, God leads us through mighty floods, though not necessarily into green pastures and quiet pools of fresh water. The double images of vss. 16-20 are of violent thunderstorms and Israel’s experience of crossing of the Red Sea. A cursory reading of the Exodus story reveals how turbulent and distressing was that period of Israel’s religious history, if indeed it was a historical event at all.
PSALM 16. (Alternate) This prayer expresses a profound trust in God very similar to Ps. 23 and other psalms (e.g. Pss. 4, 11, 62, 131) The psalmist meditates on the spiritual benefits of fellowship with God whose favour has yielded many blessings. He rejoices in his favoured status and is reassured that his righteousness will be rewarded. He will be received into Yahweh’s presence rather than being cast away into the shadowy existence of Sheol as the Jews regarded life beyond death (vss. 10-11.)
The mood of the psalm reflects the attitudes of the post-exilic period when strict obedience to the covenant law was linked directly to personal well-being.
GALATIANS 5:1, 13-25. Few passages in Paul Letter to the Galatians carries as much weight for the individual Christian and the faith communities to which we belong. Here the Christian ethics is writ large so that he/she who runs may read it. Douglas John Hall and other theologians have called attention to the ontological and intentional realities which must undergird ethical Christian behavior in the world now so confused as it is by secular and competing, but relativist, ethics. It is God the Spirit who gives us the ontological basis for our ethical intentions and actual performance as Christians in the local contexts in which we live and move. Nothing else more effectively defines who we are. In this passage Paul describes how this happens.
By the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we have been freed from all that prevents us from doing as God desires. In the words of Jesus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We are loved by God, therefore we can love others as well as ourselves. Any other ethic brings the catastrophic result of destructive conflict (vs.15).
“The works of the flesh” which Paul enumerates in vss. 19-21 are nothing more than the inevitable indulgences of selfish living. Because the reign of God is exclusively the reign of love, none of these acts can ever lead us, individually or communally, to experience, love and serve God in the mundane lives we all live.
Paul then enumerates the gracious gifts which come when the Spirit bears fruit in our lives. Acting from this premise, no law can regulate or deter us from holy living. Indeed, this is the life expected of those who would be followers of the Way. All this comes about because of Jesus Christ has pioneered the way for us. We belong to him; we can do no other than be enlivened by his Spirit whether in moments of spiritual contemplation or in the feverish activities of a busy day.
LUKE 9:51-62. Already bound for Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus decided to take the mountain route through Samaria rather than usual route down the Jordan valley. The hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews had lasted for more than eight centuries since the remnant of Israel’s Northern Kingdom had intermarried with the foreign population the Assyrians had imported into Israel following the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE. (2 Kings 15:13-31; 17) As with many political and ethnic rivalries still, this enmity took on religious overtones which John summarizes in Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Sychar (John 4:1-42.) Good Jews that they were, two of Jesus’ more hot-tempered disciples immediately expressed the traditionally hostility toward the Samaritans who refused them entrance to their village. James and John wanted to call down punishment on these people who rejected their beloved Master.
There is reason to believe that the text is corrupt at this point. Several ancient textual sources including those used in translating the KJV followed a reference first found in Marcion (c. 150 CE) adding the words, “as Elijah did.” (See 2 Kings 1:9-16) Most modern translations include this in a marginal note as they also do with a greater extension of vs. 55: “and he said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the son of man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”
In her study of Luke in the Westminster Bible Companion Series, Sharon H. Ringe (Westminster John Knox Press,1995) makes the point that the reference to Elijah is reminiscent of actions taken by that (2 Kings 1:1-12). Whereas in a previous situation, (Lk. 4:25-27) Jesus referred to Elijah in a positive way, here he rejected “the prophet’s fiercer side.” In both instances, however, Luke used the allusions to introduce major new sections of his narrative. Here he had Jesus make clear that “old animosities cannot define life in the new community gathered around Jesus.”
However the actual text may have existed in the original, Luke saw this as a teaching moment for Jesus. When an enthusiastic follower gushed about his loyalty, Jesus rebuked him with a promise of homelessness. This was not the kind of Messiah that prospective disciple was seeking. Jesus called another person to follow him, but the man offered the excuse of having to bury his recently deceased father. And yet another wished to say farewell to his family. Jesus responded to both with challenges that still seem harsh to our ears. Were these Jewish or Samaritans whose discipleship he refused? In either case, does this not contradict the previous reference that Jesus had ruled out “old animosities?”
In an “intimate biography” of Jesus, Rabbi Jesus, (Doubleday, 2000) Bruce Chilton inferred that Jesus himself had been forced to leave his home in Nazareth because of the hostility of the community and of some of his own family. Because of his status as a memzer (literally, “a bastard”) due to his suspect paternity, he had not even been permitted to attend the funeral of his father Joseph. If valid - and that is impossible to prove - such experiences may well have affected his attitudes expressed here.
However we may interpret this apparent harshness, Jesus was saying that the demands of God’s reign of love presents us with a higher loyalty than that of filial duty or family responsibility. He concludes with a metaphor that has little meaning for most people today. He likens this challenge of discipleship to that of a farmer plowing a field behind a single beast or a small team. One can only drive a straight furrow by looking forward to the distant goal, a point at the end of the field. In many respects, this kind of loyalty is characteristic of the eschatological age. As John Knox (the modern American biblical scholar, not the giant of the Scottish Reformation) commented in his expository note in The Interpreter’s Bible, (vol. 8, p. 183): “Only in a miraculously new order where men do not live on bread, and where they neither marry nor are given in marriage, can the Kingdom of God fully come. Whether we agree with such a view or not, a passage like this is bound to disclose the grounds for it.”
SOME ADDITIONAL PREACHING POINTS.
2 KINGS 2: 1- 2, 6-14. In recent years several appointments to the Senate of Canada, such as a Roman Catholic nun and the former Moderator of The United Church of Canada, Very Rev. Lois Wilson, (both now retired) gave a prominent public role to prophetic voices on the Canadian and global scene. However political such appointments may be, a true prophet will not necessarily be co-opted by the political system if she or he maintains her moral and spiritual independence, as did Elijah and Elisha in ancient Israel. The Very Rev. Dr. Wilson only accepted the appointment to the Senate on condition that she would sit as an independent.
On the other hand, the alliance of very conservative religious voices with conservative political parties in both Canada and the United States has introduced a negative element of political opportunism which has serious implications for social cohesion. As time passes, however, this disruptive influence may recede as conservative policies lead both nations away from their heritage as liberal democracies and into generally unpopular wars in Asia. It remains to be seen what long term impact these trends will have on the social fabric of both nations and the future policies of their respective governments.
1 KINGS 19: 15-16, 19-21. (Alternate) Elijah found his successor ploughing with twelve yoke of oxen. That is an extremely large team to draw a relatively small agricultural instrument. It must have some symbolic meaning beyond the narrative. Could it refer to the twelve tribes of Israel now deeply divided between the Northern and South Kingdoms? If so, it may have expressed the hope, possibly of a later editor, that the kingdoms would once more be united under a Davidic heir. OTOH, it could also refer to a series of pairs of oxen following each other, each at a different place across the breadth of a large plot of land. Ploughing or harvesting in tandem like this is often seen on the broad western prairies of North America.
PSALM 77:1-2, 11-20. Within the next week, both Canada and the United States will celebrate their national holidays. However comfortable many of us who are citizens of these two most blessed nations of the world may feel, we can readily see that beneath the surface there is a great deal of social unrest which breaks into the open from time to time. Current crises in the handling of public revenues, education and health services, energy and water supplies, the declining quality of the air we breathe and the imminent threat of climate change are symptoms of how distressed our society may be.
In this year 2010, there is the growing international dilemma of how to address the devastating oil well explosion, the death of thirteen oil rig workers and subsequent spillage of millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The future of traditional ways of life for many people living along the shoreline of the gulf is in grave doubt. So too is the effect this disaster will have on the worldwide production of petroleum products. Will there be political fallout for President Obama and the US Congress in the forthcoming midterm elections and beyond? Are not all these issues occasions for lament, not self-satisfied congratulations about the wealth and security of our two nations?
GALATIANS 5:1, 13-25. Father Thomas Keating, a spiritual companion to many from diverse denominational backgrounds, once described how the Spirit effects change in our ethical behaviour when we engage in meditative prayer : “We are sitting on the cross of Christ....thus, in a receptive mode of being,....consenting to God's grace. In emptying, we open ourselves to redemption.”
The late Professor James S. Thomson, then Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University, Montreal, in the middle of the last century, interpreted to his senior class what the person and work of Christ as Saviour and Redeemer implied. He said that we had gone about as far as we can in understanding what this meant for the behavior of individual Christians. That had been achieved through the evangelical movements from the mid-18th to mid-20th century, from the Wesleys to Bonhoeffer and Barth. What Christians in the next century or two would be required to achieve was the application of this same ethic to social and global issues of all kinds.
Fully sixty years after that prophetic observation was made, we are now in the midst of doing trying to do what that eminent teacher foresaw. What better guide to the missionary enterprise where each one of us lives can we find than what Paul cites in this letter to the Galatians?
A senior military officer joined a Bible study group after retirement from an outstanding military career. As the group worked through the implications of “the fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23, this officer shared some of his wide experience as commandant of several military bases. Moral issues had confronted him almost daily. Now, with both he and his wife suffering from cancer, he found no release from moral dilemmas. He accepted the invitation of his pastor to play a role as a pastoral counselor in his local congregation. He continued giving whatever help he could to other men struggling with complex moral issues. Even clergy of his acquaintance turned to him to share their moral dilemmas. The Spirit was working through him in many different ways.
LUKE 9:51-62. Many a modern minister’s family has been greatly distressed when the challenge involving a serious conflict of loyalties and responsibilities has been literally interpreted. Professor John Knox put the whole series of challenging incidents in this chapter in a different context. We do not know the concrete situation in which Jesus spoke these words. This series of incidents has the single purpose of setting forth the paramount importance of the reign of God and the supreme loyalty it demands of us. Everything else is irrelevant to that purpose. We must interpret many of the stories and parables of Jesus with this same characteristic economy.
There has been much discussion among Roman Catholic people as to whether married priests would have prevented much of the child abuse that has done great damage to that church in recent years. One of the arguments offered by the Vatican for a celibate priesthood is that the priest is able to offer himself totally to his ministry without the encumbrance of marital and familial duties. At the same time, numerous married clergy from other churches have been accepted and indeed invited to seek admission as Roman Catholic clergy while still maintaining their marital status. A Roman Catholic member of the administrative staff of a United Church congregation in my community told me recently in glowing terms of how excellent a pastor her priest had been. “And he is married with children too!” she exclaimed. She was speaking about a former minister of The United Church of Canada who at one time had been members of the same Presbytery as I. -30-