Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- In our readings, from the Book of the Kings (1Kings 19:16.19-21) and our Gospel (Luke 9:51-62) we are entering two very different worlds. The first, from Kings is about an ancient Iron Age society of kings and powerful prophets, of warfare and political coups. The second, our Gospel, is about Jesus’ outreach to people and the very different requirements and demands this makes upon us.
In Kings, we see Elijah the Prophet acting as kingmaker and deciding who is fit to rule and who not. Quite clearly he and his followers were pretty disillusioned with the House of Omri and Ahab its latest ruler in Samaria, the Kingdom of Israel, at a time when Judah and Israel were two separate states. Ahab had adopted Baalism, and many in Israel had turned away from worship of the God of Israel. Elijah and his supporters clearly sided with the Arameans/Syrians in a period of general upheaval in the Near East, and planned a coup to unseat these kings and replace them with others more to their taste. Our reading from 1 Kings omits the first part of the story where he anoints other kings to rule the Arameans and Israelites, and clearly had a hand in promoting the rise to the throne of Hazael who seized Syria by murdering its reigning king. The account of the selection of Elisha as his successor as prophet in Israel is part of this story. Clearly the young man came from a wealthy family, from the details of the twelve yoke of oxen. In an action reminiscent of the Ruth-Boaz story, we find that Elijah claims the young Elisha as his by throwing his cloak over him, and he apparently cannot refuse this summons. Appropriately respectful, he organises a feast, cooking two of the oxen, and then formally bids farewell to his parents. Now he belongs to Elijah. I am sure our translation, “For have I done anything to you.” is totally misleading – he has in fact done a great deal, taking this man from his family to be in effect his son, and heir to the prophetic tradition. We are in a world of very carefully placed gestures, laws and ways of behaving, attitudes which were fixed and could not be broken.
In our Gospel however, we enter a much more fluid and chancy situation, and one in which Jesus deliberately refrains from forcing anyone’s hand in the risky matter of faith in him and the exploration of its meaning. Hence, he is quite content to accept the rejection of an entire Samaritan village and simply moves on. His disciples would have preferred to zap the lot, in a typical Old Testament act of vengeance or honour killing for such a slight. This Jesus firmly rejects. He also rejects the wavering and uncertain follower who is clearly attracted from the wrong motives, presumably because he expected the disciples to be housed and fed along the way, and would soon give up when things got tough. Similarly with the person wanting to follow later “Once I’ve attended to my familial responsibilities.” Here we see someone careful and calculating, possibly without passion for the Gospel, and almost certainly unwilling to follow the radical way of Jesus, and the same appears true of the final vignette with the man who is rejected for saying he wants to say good-bye to his family. It is clearly not that Jesus had a down on friends and families, or on human needs and our obligations to others, far from it, as the Gospel accounts of his interventions continually demonstrate. What does seem to be the case is his requirement that a passion and a commitment for the Good News of the Kingdom of God fire their bellies. True, Jesus knows that they may all do a runner at the crucifixion, but he had a sense that they had enough understanding ultimately to put aside their day jobs, and devote themselves unrestrainedly to the gospel, to his way and that is what he wanted.
This is about being able to think for one’s self, to set aside the beliefs one has grown up with, and the social norms of the day. That was and is what mission is about. It was what St Paul was about too, and why, in writing to the Galatians (Gal 5:1.13-18) against those who would persuade the Christians to adopt Judaism and all its rules, he was so insistent on a law-free way of faith. Put quite simply, their one rule was the law of love, of putting others before self and one’s own needs and values, what he here calls self-indulgence. In Greek they are sarx, attitudes of the flesh, by way of contrast Jesus, through Paul, urges each and every Christian to think carefully and critically about his/her actions in the light of the life of Jesus, and to act accordingly.