The power of God’s Spirit is transmitted from leaders to followers, imposing great demands, but opening a life of mutual love.
The fifth Sunday of this Ordinary Time continues the sequential readings in the prophets, the apostle, and Luke’s narrative of Jesus turning toward Jerusalem.
II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
The reading from the prophets is the story of the passing of the mantle from Elijah to Elisha. For the age of the kings, Elijah is as massive a founding figure as Moses is for the Sinai age. When Moses was taken by God (Deut. 34), all the provisions had been made for Israel’s life in the promised land, but the work of occupation was yet to be done. It was Joshua who was to complete the work (Deut. 31:14-15, 23). The same was true of Elijah. He had been the model of zeal for the Lord: he had defeated a mob of Baal prophets on Mount Carmel, he had received the new revelation on the holy mountain authorizing him to overthrow the royal houses of Damascus and Israel, and he had delivered the word of judgment on King Ahab and Queen Jezebel What was left undone at Elijah’s departure was to be finished by Elisha. Elijah was a new Moses for the northern kingdom and Elisha was his Joshua. (All this is in I Kings 18-19; 21; and II Kings 2; 8-10.) Both Moses and Elijah were taken away to God (in approximately the same geographical location), and both were taken away before the completion of their work.
The enigmatic but clever story of Elisha hanging on to Elijah to the last second shows that Elisha was worthy of Elijah’s mantle (which he actually picks up in verse 13). As the story is presented, Elijah, on his way to his rendezvous with God, keeps trying to put off Elisha, telling him there is no need for him to go further. But Elisha knows better. (Verses 3-5, omitted from the reading, present several speeches to Elisha by the local companies of prophets, who sound like the chorus of a Greek tragedy: he is leaving you, you know!)
Elisha hangs on, and is rewarded by being present when God’s fiery horses and chariot whisk Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind. At the last minute, Elisha had been wise enough to ask Elijah for a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit. (In inheritance law, the first-born son received twice as large a share as the rest of the sons, Deut. 21:17.) Receiving this prophetic spirit is the real mantle of the prophet. Elijah, for his part, was such a favored one of God that, like Enoch before him (Genesis 5:24) he was taken to God without seeing death.
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
The Psalm reading presents a speaker who is in trouble and cannot find comfort. As the psalm goes on the speaker resorts to reciting to God the mighty deeds of the past. An outflow of powerful liturgical poetry reminds God of the spectacular explosions with which the Storm God made the cosmos shudder in order to lead the redeemed people through the flood – as Moses and Aaron led out the people of Israel. The speaker yearns for a new redemption of that kind.
The psalm refers particularly to Jacob and Joseph (verse 15), ancestors especially of the northern Kingdom of Israel – Elijah and Elisha’s territory. Thus Elisha could be thought of as reciting such a psalm, after he had acquired Elijah’s mantle, during his long wait before he could initiate the divinely-sanctioned Revolution. During those years, while he was busy with the routine tasks of a miracle-working leader of “the sons of the prophets” (told about in II Kings 3-8), Elisha could have groaned with the suffering of Israel and consoled himself with such magnificent recitals of the world-changing deeds of God in the past as are given in this psalm.
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
While the prophetic reading dealt with the transmission of the prophetic spirit, in the Epistle reading Paul contrasts the old life under the law with the new life in the Spirit.
The Galatians have known the power of the Spirit – “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:2). What other Jewish-Christians are trying to persuade the Galatians to do is add the works of the law, beginning with circumcision, to make them fully-qualified Christians. Circumcision is a matter of the flesh, and Paul argues that to resort to such group-identifiers as circumcision (which divide people from each other) is to become slaves again to “the flesh.”
He portrays “the flesh” in opposition to the Spirit, and in this passage they are roughly equal to a life of self-obsession (the flesh) as opposed to a life of committed mutuality (love in the Spirit). As other Jewish teachers, including Jesus, did, Paul says the whole law can be summed up in the one saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Note, it is not total absorption in the other; it is love for the other as one loves oneself. It is mutuality.) Living out of love will fulfill God’s will more truly than working at hundreds of commandments of the law.
Paul then deals with the details. What is life like when guided by the flesh? He lists fifteen pejorative terms to describe the misery of such self-absorbed existence (verses 19-21), and contrasts with them a list of nine terms to describe the life of mutual love guided by the Spirit (verse 22). In fact, all the details of how to live by the law of love cannot be spelled out. The right things to do are given, moment by moment, by the Spirit; it is a spontaneous life. Or, as Paul said at the beginning, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (verse 1, NRSV).
The Gospel reading continues the story of Jesus but with some overtones of Elijah and Elisha. For people who compare the Gospels with each other, Luke 9:51 is the point at which the Gospel According to Luke departs from Mark. Up to this point, Luke has mainly followed Mark’s outline of Jesus’ activities in Galilee, but from here to Luke 18 or so, Luke gives episodes and teachings not found in Mark.
For Luke, this is a solemn turning point. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to Jerusalem” (verse 51, NRSV). Everything that follows is encompassed by Jesus’ sacred destination; everything is set within the “journey” of the Anointed One to the holy city. Therefore, the immediate incidents have to do with how Jesus was received along the way and with what is required to “follow” Jesus on this journey.
The direct route from Galilee to Jerusalem takes you into the territory of the Samaritans. (This can be avoided by a long route east of the Jordan River down to Jericho.) These Samaritans, however, will have none of Jesus. They regard him as another of those snobbish Jews who read Deuteronomy as referring to Jerusalem instead of to Mount Gerizim for the single place of proper worship. They have no hospitality for him.
Jesus’ disciples James and John, called “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), think Jesus should treat these Samaritans as Elijah treated the arrogant soldiers who came to arrest him, that is, call down fire from heaven to consume them (verse 54, referring to II Kings 1:9-15). Jesus rejects this violent proposal, and some later copyists of the Gospels felt that he should have explained more fully why this was a bad idea. Many late Greek manuscripts of Luke add Jesus’ reproach to the disciples: “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them” (verse 55, reading the NRSV translators’ note.)
From Luke’s overall viewpoint there would be a better way to deal with Samaritans. He describes it in Acts chapter 8. When Jesus had accomplished his mission in Jerusalem, there was a new word of forgiveness and acceptance for Samaritans – instead of a word of judgment and doom.
The beginning of the journey is the time to assess the requirements of the traveling companions. Luke accordingly gives here three sayings about the extraordinary demands of discipleship to follow Jesus. There is a curious alternation of initiative between Jesus and the would-be followers. First a volunteer offers himself, and is warned that he is joining the homeless (verses 57-58). Jesus then calls one who has just lost his natural father, and tells him (harshly, it seems to us) to forget about the funeral ceremonies (verses 59-60).
A third candidate wants a short leave to go home and arrange matters for the family he is leaving behind. This person is like Elisha, who answered Elijah’s call by saying, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Elijah concurred with this request, and Elisha dissolved his large farming business by slaughtering his oxen and giving a going-away banquet for all the people (I Kings 19:19-21). Jesus in his time, starting his journey to Jerusalem, will not make even this accommodation: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (verse 62).
What Jesus has come for has an urgency that will allow no compromises or delays!