1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21
Psalm 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11
Galatians 5:1, 13-18
Our first reading from the 1st book of Kings has the great prophet Elijah choosing his successor, Elisha. The scene in our reading is fairly straightforward (which I will discuss in a moment…), but the context of how we got here and where we are going in the narrative also play an intriguing roll, because for at the moment, Elijah is on the run. Through Elijah the Lord has brought the great drought to an end, and King Ahab and the people rejoiced in the Lord, while slaughtered all the prophets of Baal (one of the great Canaanite gods) in the process. This infuriated Jezebel (Ahab’s Canaanite wife and queen), who ordered that Elijah should die. Fearing for his life, Elijah flees to Mount Horab (in the Sinai… some 150 miles south of Jerusalem… yes, that same mountain where Moses was given the 10 Commandments… and don’t for a moment think this is a coincidence…). During his time on the mountain, which the narrative tells us was (surprise) a 40 day journey, the Lord tells Elijah to, among other things, find Elisha and anoint him as a successor (it would seem the Lord is also concerned about Elijah’s life). This takes us to the moment in our first reading, where Elijah finds and commissions Elisha.
Forgetting for the moment what Elijah was fleeing from, and where he was headed toward, this commissioning of Elisha is meant to show us what it means to follow a great prophet. The commissioning is quite simple… he places his cloak on him, whereupon Elisha, knowing what this means, wishes to take a moment to bid his family farewell. Elisha knows his life is about to be dramatically different… like a Baptism, dying to our old self so we can rise as our new self… a new creation. To stress the point of this transformation, we have Elisha slaughtering the oxen and instruments he was using to plow the fields. The fact that he was using 12 oxen indicates he had substantial wealth… for normally a field would be plowed with only one or two oxen. The act of slaughtering the oxen, though seemingly wasteful to our modern eyes, signifies the extent to which he is giving up his former life to take up following the prophet. And Elisha appears to do this with little hesitation, signifying his willingness to follow.
Complementing this is our Gospel form Luke, whereupon Jesus and his followers are having a difficult time finding a place to stay. The Samaritans don’t want to take him in because they know he’s Jewish. As Jesus laments that they have no place to stay, still others are coming to him wishing to follow. These new would be followers, however, ask Jesus if they can effectively get their affairs in order first before they join the caravan, whereupon Jesus basically tells them that there’s no room for those who need to look back.
To our modern ears, this behavior sounds a little harsh. After all, it doesn’t seem like they’re asking for much in return for leaving everything behind, but Jesus is trying to make a point… and that point is perhaps better told through our second reading from Paul in his letter to the Galatians, where he tells us that our call to Christ sets us free.
Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, is trying to teach us that in order to follow him, you need to leave your “baggage” behind. No matter how burdensome or light that may be, we need to let it go. Now. What does that do for us? Paul tells us… it frees us! And through that freedom we can now focus on what is really important, “to serve one another through love.”