The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 8, 30 June 2013

II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
St. Luke 9:51-62

Background: Elijah, and Elisha
In today’s first readings in both tracks we meet the disciple of Elijah, Elisha.  Although stories of wonderful deeds accrue to both men, it is Elijah that will survive as an epic character, influencing the aspect of Jesus as well.  What of these men, however, who appear in what is ostensibly a royal chronicle.  It is at this point that we need to remember that the writers and compilers of these stories were not historians, at least not in the sense that we understand this term.  Along with the events that are chronicled, there are also numerous stories that are told.  These are stories that have a folksy nature to them, with the characters, here Elijah and Elisha, written large.  So why this admixture?  Why the confusion of styles and material. 

Even in our own history, carefully managed, written, and compiled, we have the same elements (George Washington and the Cherry Tree, Abe Lincoln studying by the light of a fireplace, and similar stories) that aim at describing the American experience in deeper tones.  So it is with the compiler of kings.  Mixed into his desire to write a record of the kings of Judah and Israel is the more compelling desire to tell the nation’s story, and to enliven it with characters that embody the broad themes of the story, and its connection to God.

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

When the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah 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.

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. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then 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.

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." He 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." As 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. Elisha 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.

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He 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.

We are introduced into a deeply personal story, one in which Elijah is soon to depart from this life, and the desire of Elisha to remain with him to the bitter end.  The crossing at the Jordan and the sojourn at Beth-el place the pair at important places in Israel’s history – the Jordan as a double for the Red Sea and Beth-el (The House of God) as the site of dreams and worship.  Both of these important figures participate in the nation’s story in their placement here.  There is another device here as Elijah leads Elisha on a bit of a goose chase, thus demonstrating the disciple’s fervor and faithfulness. 

At the Jordan, Elijah repeats the Red Sea miracle by striking the water with his rolled up mantle.  The miracle is in the reverse, however, with Elijah and Elisha going to “the other side,” to a place where something new was to happen.  Elisha answers Elijah’s request about what he might want – and Elisha is brave in his response.  He wants nothing less than a double measure of Elijah’s spirit.  Elisha proves his metal by witnessing the passing of Elijah in the fiery chariot.  Here the storyteller takes us into a new theological place.  Elijah does not go to Sheol (the place of the dead) but rather to some other place, above.  The mantle, as a symbol of power, seems to work with the crossing of Elijah across a dry Jordan again. 

Breaking open II Kings:
  1. What do you think of Elisha’s loyalty – of his request for a double measure of the spirit?
  2. Have you ever known a powerful prophet?  What distinguished them to you?
  3. What do you expect from prophets?

Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 Voce mea ad Dominum

I will cry aloud to God; *
I will cry aloud, and he will hear me.

In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; *
my hands were stretched out by night and did not tire;
I refused to be comforted.

I will remember the works of the LORD, *
and call to mind your wonders of old time.

I will meditate on all your acts *
and ponder your mighty deeds.

Your way, O God, is holy; *
who is so great a god as our God?

You are the God who works wonders *
and have declared your power among the peoples.

By your strength you have redeemed your people, *
the children of Jacob and Joseph.

The waters saw you, O God;
the waters saw you and trembled; *
the very depths were shaken.

The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered; *
your arrows flashed to and fro;

The sound of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world; *
the earth trembled and shook.

Your way was in the sea,
and your paths in the great waters, *
yet your footsteps were not seen.

You led your people like a flock *
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

This psalm begins as a supplication of an individual, the writer.  The degree of sorrow is profound, especially with the wording of verse two.  Our translation speaks of a hand, but Robert Alter suggests that it is really the eye that is the focus here, using the words of Lamentations 3:49 as a substitute.  It becomes a profound description of sorrow, “My eye flows at night, it will not stop.” 

The liturgical reading skips the following verses and goes to verse 12, where the sense of the writing is no longer personal but national in scope.  “I will remember the works of the Lord” adroitly avoids addressing the name of God, which in the Hebrew appears as “Yah”.  In the following verses, various names are used for God: “El” (god) and “Elohim” (gods – although it is seen as a ‘proper name’ for the God, YHWH.  What the author does is to rehearse the wonders that this God has done for the nation.  Perhaps the use of the several names rehearses the peoples, and the ages that have called upon YHWH.  The allusion to the “waters” would be standard fare for writing about any Canaanite god, who like God were seen as organizing the chaos of the water.  Here, however, there is a deeper meaning associating the water with those of the Red Sea, and the passing of Israel there.  “You led your people like a flock” makes the association sure, and the memory of Moses and Aaron is invoked.

Breaking open Psalm 77
  1. What do you weep about in life?
  2. Do you ever weep to God?
  3. What is the answer to your sorrow?


1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21

The LORD said to Elijah, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place."

So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. 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. He 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?" He 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.

Please look at the background note, and also the notes for the Track 1 reading.  They may be helpful here.

In this reading we are introduced to Elisha the disciple of Elijah.  First, however, there is some history to relate.  What is related here is theology, not chronology.  The theme is that the God of Israel is the God of the nations, and Elijah as the prophet of the Most High is the messenger of royal succession.  The final announcement of the appointment of Elisha is also written using royal terminology.  The reading’s second pericope (verses 19-21) is rich with symbolism – the twelve yoke of oxen (Israel and its tribes) and the mantle, which is thrown over Elisha.  He leaves the oxen, displaying his love and loyalty to Elijah, but first rushes to kiss his father and mother, which is a reference to an earlier verse (18) “And I shall leave in Israel seven thousand, every knee that did not bow to Ba’al and every moth that did not kiss him.”  Elisha is the faithful one, and leads a remnant (an idea that both Jeremiah and the Isaiahs will expand upon) in worship of God.  The sacrifice of the oxen and the subsequent cooking of their flesh are reminiscent of a “communion sacrifice” common to the Temple.  In it the people participate in Elisha’s commitment to his new vocation.

Breaking open I Kings:
  1. Is there an equation of prophet and king?  Why?
  2. Have you ever been anxious to take a new direction in your life?  What was it?
  3. How have you been faithful to God?

Psalm 16 Conserva me, Domine

Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you; *
I have said to the LORD, "You are my Lord,
my good above all other."

All my delight is upon the godly that are in the land, *
upon those who are noble among the people.

But those who run after other gods *
shall have their troubles multiplied.

Their libations of blood I will not offer, *
nor take the names of their gods upon my lips.

O LORD, YOU are my portion and my cup; *
it is you who uphold my lot.

My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; *
indeed, I have a goodly heritage.

I will bless the LORD who gives me counsel; *
my heart teaches me, night after night.

I have set the LORD always before me; *
because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.

My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; *
my body also shall rest in hope.

For you will not abandon me to the grave, *
nor let your holy one see the Pit.

You will show me the path of life; *
in your presence there is fullness of joy,
and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

If the story of Elijah and Elisha envisions a land that is caught between the gods of the neighbors, and the God of Israel, this psalm of confession might offer a similar vision.  In verses three and four, Robert Alter’s translation makes this situation a bit clearer.  Compare the two translations:

All my delight is upon the godly that are in the land,

upon those who are noble among the people.

As to the holy ones in the land

And the mighty who were all my desire

But those who run after other gods *
shall have their troubles multiplied.

Their libations of blood I will not offer,
nor take the names of their gods upon my lips.

Let their sorrows abound-
Another did they betroth.

I will not pour their libations of blood,
I will not bear their names on my lips.
Much of the Alter translation is conjecture, but the phrase about the libations of blood is totally unambiguous, and underscores the theme of a prior condition or mindset that the author alludes to. 

The subsequent mindset is one of inclusion in God’s family, “An inheritance feel to me with delight” or “indeed I have a goodly heritage.”  The author rejoices in the new life that has been given, and makes reference to the places of the dead (Sheol and “the Pit”).  The psalm is in praise of a new relationship with God.

Breaking open Psalm 16
  1. When did you first believe?
  2. Did you leave another belief behind?
  3. What do you think of your decision now?

Galatians 5:1,13-25

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Paul quickly establishes the theme of these comments by underscoring the notion of “freedom”.  That is what we have been called to in Christ, he asserts.  He is speaking against those who were trying to convince the Galatians that they needed to submit to circumcision.  Paul disagrees. 

The reading skips to verse thirteen, where he juxtaposes the notion of freedom with the “discipline of the Spirit.”  Implicit in his argument is also a juxtaposition of “flesh” and “spirit”.  The argument is simple, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the Law.”  What follows are two lists, a list of vices that follow from “works of the flesh” and a list of virtues that flow from a life in the Spirit.  In speaking of the “crucifixion of the flesh” he brings up the image of the crucified Christ as well.  In following the Spirit, we like Christ, survive the death on the cross and are raised to a different kind of living.

Breaking open Galatians:
  1. What does freedom mean to you?
  2. What does it mean to “crucify the flesh”?
  3. How are you a new person?
St. Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When 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?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

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." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." 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 plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

There is a phrase in this pericope that is reminiscent of Elisha’s request to Elijah, “first let me go and …” What is related here are the difficulties in following a prophet.  We see Elisha’s zeal in both of the first readings, and here we sense another kind of spirit that has swept over the disciples.  They don’t understand why they are following.  The request to “bring down fire” upon the Samaritan’s is a complete misreading of Jesus presence in Samaria (especially after the healing of the Gerasene Demoniac – see last Sunday).  The following pericope then points out the cost of following Jesus – the prophet.  Jesus doesn’t promise much, other than urgency – “Let the dead bury the dead.”  There is no looking back, only a hand firmly on the plow.  Elisha seems to be the model here.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How was Simon inhospitable?
  2. How is his inhospitality answered by the woman?
  3. How might this teaching affect your life?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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