By FATHER DONALD DILGER
First Reading: 1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21; Response: Psalm 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11; Second Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Gospel: Luke 9:51-62
The first reading takes us back to the ninth century B.C. The authors of 1 Kings situate us in the Elijah cycle of stories – overlapping into the Elisha cycle. The place: the northern kingdom called the Kingdom of Israel. At one time, the 12 tribes of Israelites had been united into one kingdom under King David, 1,000-961 B.C. David’s successor was his son Solomon. He died in 922 B.C. Under Solomon’s son Rehoboam, the tribes split into a northern and a southern kingdom — the Kingdom of Israel, 922-721, and the Kingdom of Judah, 922-587. The prophet Elijah is active in the Kingdom of Israel from about 860-850 B.C.; his successor, Elisha, is active from 850-800 B.C. As our first reading opens, Elijah is way down south in the Sinai Wilderness at Mt. Horeb (Mt. Sinai). Why? He had gotten himself in deep trouble with the royal couple in the northern kingdom, Ahab and Jezebel. Jezebel was a Phoenician and a worshipper of their god Baal. When she married Ahab, she moved to his kingdom, bringing with her the worship of Baal and Baal’s herd of prophets. Pious Israelites were not pleased with this importation of idolatry. Elijah, as prophet of the Lord God of Israel, would not tolerate this idolatrous invasion.
He staged a contest: the Lord God of Israel vs. Baal. Two stone altars were set up with sacrificial meat placed on them. Elijah and Baal’s prophets would take turns calling on their respective divinity to send fire from heaven to burn up the meat. The Baalites went first. After all their efforts, they were unsuccessful. Baal was taking a siesta. It was Elijah’s turn. The Lord sent fire from the sky. It burned up not only the sacrificial meat but even licked up the water in the trench surrounding the altar. In a burst of craziness, Elijah got a mob of bystanders to massacre all 450 prophets of Baal. Her Majesty Jezebel was not pleased. She “texted” him: “I swear that by tomorrow you will be where my prophets are,” or “You’re dead!” He had to flee from the kingdom southward to Mt. Horeb. There, the Lord instructed him to anoint the young farmer Elisha to succeed Elijah as prophet. The call of Elisha is our first reading. Elisha was ready to go, but first wanted to kiss his parents goodbye. Elijah was not pleased. Elisha had been plowing with 12 yoke of oxen. He slaughtered them. Using the wooden plows with which he had been plowing, he roasted the flesh of the 24 oxen and gave it to his employees to eat. “Then Elisha left and followed Elijah and his disciples.” There is no indication of how Elisha’s dad and mom felt about the destruction of their “tractors” and farm implements. Why this fantastic story on this Sunday? In today’s gospel, Jesus calls various men to follow him, but with mixed results.
Psalm 16 responds to the first reading. A connection between the psalm and the reading may be seen in Elisha cutting all ties with his past to dedicate himself entirely to the prophetic ministry. Thus the psalmist speaks of the Lord as his inheritance, his cup. Cup is used as a symbol of the life experience the Lord pours out upon his clients. The Lord is always in front of the psalmist and at his right side, keeping him safe. He knows the Lord will not abandon his soul to the netherworld, nor let him undergo corruption. The latter phrases were used by Christian interpreters as a prediction or proof of the resurrection of Jesus (See Acts 2:25-28; 13:35).
Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is his coarsest and angriest. The reading for today is mild compared to other parts of the letter – for example, 5:12. After Paul concluded his ministry in Galatia, some agitators came into the Christian community. They questioned his authority as an apostle and claimed that he was not preaching the true gospel. One of their corrections was Paul’s teaching that male circumcision was not required of converts from heathenism. This is part of the reason why, in today’s reading, Paul begins, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
Today’s gospel has two parts. The first part introduces the section of Luke called “The Journey to Jerusalem.” Luke notes, “He set his face for Jerusalem.” Why noteworthy? Because Jesus was aware of what awaited him there — arrest, torture, crucifixion and death — as he earlier had warned the disciples. They remained clueless. To them, the journey to Jerusalem was to be a triumphant march followed by the establishment of the kingdom of God as they chose to understand it— quite contrary to what Jesus was trying to teach them. Jesus and Co. took the direct route from Galilee in the north, through Samaria, then on to Judea and Jerusalem. Jews and Samaritans were usually hostile toward each other. Thus, we see in our gospel that a Samaritan town closed its entrance to the town. James and John Zebedee, two young hotheads, probably first cousins of Jesus, asked his permission to call fire down from heaven to burn the town and its inhabitants. No doubt, they had heard in synagogue how the prophet Elijah successfully dabbled three times in heavenly arson (See 2 Kings 1:9-14 and the first reading above). Jesus quickly cooled his two disciples’ fiery intentions.
The second part of today’s gospel deals with the matter of vocations by three examples. The first man volunteers, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus warned him of the difficulty of being a disciple of his. We are not told the outcome of the encounter. In the composition of the second and third examples Luke was influenced by the story of the call of Elisha by Elijah (in our first reading). Jesus says to a man, “Follow me.” He replied that he could comply later, after his father’s death and burial. A harsh reply from Jesus: “Let the dead bury the dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” The third man is a volunteer. “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say goodbye to my family.” Another harsh reply from Jesus: “The one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.” Tough love! In Luke’s teaching, the call is initiated by Jesus (first example), and nothing may interfere with that call (second and third examples). See 1 Kings 19:9-13 for the Lord’s mysterious call of the prophet Elijah.