The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8, 26 June 2016

Track One:
II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
Track 2
I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Psalm 16

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Saint Luke 9:51-62

Background: Elijah and Elisha

Since both tracks are focused on the prophetic work or one or the other of these men, it might be good to point out an excellent study of their prophetic work seen in the context of what is viewed as a historic review of the Kings of Judah and Israel. That these background characters, with certain legendary elements to them, gives us a screen through which to see the sacred history of kings, and the attempt to tie their history to the worship of YHWH. In the context of king and prophet the prophet is always striving for the God of Israel and providing context, history, and interpretation to the acts of the kings. Such commentary and pronouncements on their part, however, to do not reveal a static understanding of the state of the religion. One can see movements out of nationalism into a more universal understanding of God. It has been my goal lately to recommend commentaries and works that help us in our endeavor to either understand so that we might read, or preach, or simply meditate. Robert Alter’s Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets is an excellent resource.  Here is the tantalizing quote:

“Elijah does not die but ascends in a chariot of fire to the heavens. In the actual miracle-count, Elisha somewhat surpasses his master Elijah, but it is Elijah who is embraced by later tradition, singled out at the end of Malachi as the man who will announce the coming of the redeemer; serving as a model for the Gospel writers in their stories of the miraculous acts performed by Jesus; and becoming a cherished folk-hero in later Jewish tradition.”[1]

Track One:

First Reading: 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.

If we are in doubts as to who Elisha is or will become (even though we have met him earlier (see Track Two First Reading below), all misgivings or suspicions are laid aside in this encounter. We meet other “sons of the prophets” (or as Alter calls them, “acolyte prophets)[2] in this reading, but it is Elisha who is the true son. He requests and is given several things that point to his election or adoption: his mere presence at this important event, one that Elijah seems to want to experience on his own. Elisha prevails, and has the boldness to ask for a double-measure of Elijah’s spirit. The mantle and a bit of the tunic are Elisha’s as well, all signs of his continuation of the prophet’s ministry. It is the vision, however, that is the most convincing – for the event is not like any other in the Hebrew Scriptures. We do have the story of Enoch (Genesis 5:24), but it is not as concrete as this reference to an avoidance of death, and the common descent to the Pit. Truly we are witnesses to a great transformation, and transfer of power and vision. And just to prove that it was all meant to be, Elisha replicates the miracle of Moses at the Red Sea.

Breaking open II Kings:
  1. Why do you think does Elisha desire this task and mission?
  2. Who have been compelling teachers under whom you have studied?
  3. How do you mentor others?

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.
2      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.
11    I will remember the works of the Lord, *
and call to mind your wonders of old time.
12    I will meditate on all your acts *
and ponder your mighty deeds.
13    Your way, O God, is holy; *
who is so great a god as our God?
14    You are the God who works wonders *
and have declared your power among the peoples.
15    By your strength you have redeemed your people, *
the children of Jacob and Joseph.
16    The waters saw you, O God;
the waters saw you and trembled; *
the very depths were shaken.
17    The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered; *
your arrows flashed to and fro;
18    The sound of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world; *
the earth trembled and shook.
19    Your way was in the sea,
and your paths in the great waters, *
yet your footsteps were not seen.
20    You led your people like a flock *
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

This is a psalm that begins as an individual’s prayer, but the bulk of our reading appears as a remembrance of the great events of Salvation History, specifically the Red Sea. With verse eleven we begin these remembrances and while our translation records it as “the Lord”, the writer in Hebrew remembers the acts of “Yah”, a form of the divine tetragrammaton, YHWH. With that introduction, we are invited by the psalmist to ponder the acts of God. Verse 15 underscores the theme of this section, “By your strength you have redeemed your people.” The psalmist continues with a poetic eye, recalling the waters, the thunder in the skies, What our translation renders as “The sound of your thunder was in the whirlwind” is rendered by Alter as “Your thunder’s sound under the wheel”,[3] a reference to the heavenly chariot, perhaps a borrowing from Canaanite literature. Here it seems to function, in the lectionary, as a connection to Elijah’s fiery vehicle.

Breaking open Psalm 77:
  1. What wonders have you seen God perform?
  2. What are the wonders in your life?
  3. How do you thank God for them?


Track Two:

First Reading: I 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.

Here we are introduced to Elisha who will become the great student of Elijah. You might be interested to read Track One’s First Reading and its commentary to give you some future context. This pericope follows the awe-inspiring reading where Elijah encounters good in sheer silence. Just like Jesus at the Transfiguration, God will have none of it. Pausing to reflect, perhaps, God pushes him on, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” With this we discover that the old misgivings and reservations have not gone away. “I alone remain.” God directs Elijah to return and to initiate a new order – things will not remain the same.

Nor is the prophet to remain the same, for on the way to do his mission he encounters Elisha, who had been introduced to him in the new mission that God have given Elijah. Now we are greeted by several symbolic gestures and references, the mantle, the twelve yoke of oxen, the leaving of home and parents, and finally the sacrifice. This communion offering is shared with the people – so all are involved in this initiation of a new prophet.

Breaking open I Kings:
  1. How might one study to be a prophet?
  2. What prophets have you known in your life-time?
  3. How is Elisha like the disciples?

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."
2      All my delight is upon the godly that are in the land, *
upon those who are noble among the people.
3      But those who run after other gods *
shall have their troubles multiplied.
4      Their libations of blood I will not offer, *
nor take the names of their gods upon my lips.
5      Lord, YOU are my portion and my cup; *
it is you who uphold my lot.
6      My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; *
indeed, I have a goodly heritage.
7      I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel; *
my heart teaches me, night after night.
8      I have set the Lord always before me; *
because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.
9      My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; *
my body also shall rest in hope.
10    For you will not abandon me to the grave, *
nor let your holy one see the Pit.
11    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.

This psalm seems to be used here in the lectionary to give voice to Elijah’s on-going misgivings voiced in the initial part of the First Reading. In this psalm we have a confession of faith – a contrast to those who still follow other gods, “their libations of blood I will not offer.” With verse five we have a different vision – a new place, actually. Not only are the psychological realties pleasant and convincing, “my heart teaches me night after night,” but the actual physical space speaks of God’s grace, “my boundaries enclose a pleasant land.” The closing verses contrast death and life, and the call of the psalmist for life. This, again, is a pleasant recollection of the first reading.

Breaking open Psalm 16:
  1. When do you pray during the day?
  2. What are your prayers about?
  3. Do you pray about death?

The Second Reading: 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.

There are three major themes here: slavery, the flesh, and the spirit. It is the idea of slavery that leads us into this reading, for it is redolent with Paul’s reminders to us about the nature of the Law, both Roman and Jewish. There is a proclamation of freedom from these institutions, and a description of the true service that a Christian owes. In typical Pauline fashion, Paul provides to “catalogues”, lists that from which we have been set free, and another list of that to which we have been called. The former are “works of the flesh”, while the latter are “fruit of the Spirit.” It is these distinctions that will define those who follow Christ, and who make their way in a foreign and difficult world, as they seek the Kingdom of God.

Breaking Open Galatians:
  1. To what or to whom are you a slave?
  2. What are your works of the flesh?
  3. What are your fruits of the Spirit?

The Gospel: 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 prophetic determination here. If Elijah is reticent, Jesus is not, “He set his face to go up to Jerusalem.” This is Luke’s goal – to get Jesus to Jerusalem, where the times will be fulfilled. What Jesus has pioneered in the past chapters seems to fall away in the face of this determination to reach Jerusalem. The Samaritans see this determination and do not deter him. The disciples of course do not understand. Here we meet an anonymous character that says the right thing, “I will follow you wherever you go.” As such this individual seems to mirror Elisha’s conviction from the first readings. There are others, however, who do not share those convictions – seeing family obligations as superior. It is interesting that here the story as Luke tells it does not allow for this leave-taking of family, while the Elijah-Elisha story does. Jesus wants to see his own determination mirrored in those who might follow him – but it is a stiff requirement. No Lot’s wives here.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What things are you determined to do?
  2. What do these things have to do with your faith?
  3. What have you given up for others?
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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Alter, R. (2013), Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: A Translation and Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Location 13313.
[2]Alter, Kindle Location 19049.
[3]Alter, R. (2009), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Location 6185.


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