Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, June 30, 2019
The Books of Kings include stories about very faithful prophets dealing with only fairly faithful kings. Written well after the events they describe, the books encourage their audience to put faith in God's promises. Today's passage is about a senior prophet choosing his successor.
Some Jewish early Christians believed Gentile converts were obliged to keep the laws of Moses. Paul disputes this, labeling the old law a yoke of slavery, and calling all Christians to obey a new, higher law of love in Christ. This is life in the Spirit, he says, as opposed to life in the flesh.
Saint Luke makes his gospel pivot on this passage, the beginning of Jesus' final journey toward Jerusalem. There he, his disciples, and indeed readers of the gospel, know that the cross awaits him. This passage tries to prepare followers to accompany Jesus.
Our Liturgical Setting: Today's gospel, Luke 9:51-62, is the turning point of Luke's account, where Jesus "resolutely set his face toward Jerusalem" and his destiny there. Luke packs the passage with explicit and symbolic statements about the costs of being Jesus' disciple, in view of Jesus' journey toward his death. To prepare us for hearing the gospel challenge, the church recalls the call to discipleship of Elisha.
The Historical Situation and Theological Background: The Books of Kings were written well after the events they describe by an author who had this intent: His main interest is in keeping his audience faithful to the Lord. So he tells the story of each of Israel's kings, with emphasis on how the king was or was not faithful. "The faithful prosper; the unfaithful pay for their defections," as the Introduction to 1 Kings in The New American Bible explains. And when the author compares prophets to kings, the prophets are always the more faithful.
The gesture of draping one's mantle over a disciple is interesting, meant to signify a sharing of one's prophetic spirit. Later, when Elijah is drawn up to heaven, Elisha will retrieve his master's cloak and make it his own (See 2 Kings 2:7-18.)
The dialogue between the prophet and his apprentice is a bit puzzling. Elijah's testy question, "Have I done anything to you?" might mean "Hey, I'm not forcing you to be my follower. Make up your own mind."
The Lector's Proclamation: The name of the senior prophet in this story is Elijah ("ee LYE juh"). The name of the man whom Elijah drafts is pronounced "eh LISH uh" with a short e sound in the first syllable and short i sound in the second. You can safely pronounce the name of Elisha's town as "ah bell mah HO lah". Some readers of Lector's Notes suggest other pronunciations. However you say the names, help your listeners distinguish the senior prophet from the junior. Above all, decide ahead of time how you'll say them, and don't distract your listeners by improvising at the lectern.
As you proclaim this, read slowly and with expression when you describe Elijah's throwing his cloak over Elisha. That should sound strange to your listeners; give them a chance to absorb it and picture it in their minds. On a deep level, this rich and beautiful image will speak to their hearts. There's no need to "explain" it. Just don't rush it.
Say the last sentence slowly, with finality. That the one called finally followed the master is, after all, the bottom line.
The Historical Background: Among the Christians in Galatia, some were teaching that, in order to be saved, Christians still had to keep the Jewish law, even to the point of being circumcised. Saint Paul argues forcefully that there should be no such requirement. That false obligation is the "yoke of slavery" in the first sentence of this reading.
Now the old Jewish law was not a bad thing, but it promised more than it could ever deliver. Keeping the law could not save anyone. Salvation, Paul teaches, comes as an undeserved gift through Christ. We accept it by faith. That the Jewish law is out does not mean there is no law at all. The higher law of Christian love governs us now.
The Theological Background: The contrast of flesh and spirit is a favorite theme of Saint Paul's. But here the term "flesh" has a nuanced meaning. Living in the flesh means not just being ruled by one's carnal desires. It also means trying to live by law alone, trying to keep the old law by one's own moral strength. That is, using the resources only of one's own flesh to control one's own flesh and make oneself right with God. Paul is sure it won't work; we're not that strong morally; he has tried it himself. Only the Spirit can make us right with God. Good practices, even religious practices, that people attempt on their own, cannot make us right with God.
Proclaiming It: Emphasize the two contrasts:
Novelli, Pietro Antonio, Venetian, 1729 - 1804, Elisha Watching Elijah Ascend in the Fiery Chariot, 1750/1755; pen and brown ink with brown wash and black chalk; overall: 50.8 x 35.3 cm (20 x 13 7/8 in.).
Gift of Luca Baroni, 2001.50.1. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
The drawing depicts Elijah's disappearance from earth, 2 Kings 2:11, "there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both [Elijah and Elisha] asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven." This led to the expectation that Elijah, not dead in the normal sense, would return. So the prophet Malachi (3:19) has God declare, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord." Jesus says of John the Baptist in Matthew 11:14, "and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come." Other gospel traditions (Matthew 16:14 & Mark 8:28) have people struggling to understand Jesus as Elijah returned.
See the Wikipedia section about the continuing expectation of Elijah's return, and how that's expressed at seder meals.
This page updated June 25, 2019