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 Elijah cycle of stories includes the selection and call of his successor Elisha. This is done at the command of the Lord God. The time of these two prophets is the ninth century B.C. The setting for both prophets is in the northern kingdom called the Kingdom of Israel. This kingdom lasted 200 years, 922-722 B.C. (The southern kingdom was called the Kingdom of Judah. It lasted from 1000 to 587 B.C.) Elijah comes on the biblical scene during the reign of King Ahab, 874-853 B.C. The Book of Kings’ description of Ahab is not complimentary, “Ahab did what was displeasing to the Lord, and was worse than all his predecessors.” In the context of today’s first reading, Elijah had just returned from a forty-day flight (on foot) to Mt. Horeb (Sinai). In a frenzy, he had killed all 450 prophets of Baal, the god worshipped by Queen Jezebel, wife of King Ahab. She sent him the equivalent of a text message, “By this time tomorrow, I will make your life like the life of my prophets,” (who were all dead). So Elijah fled for his life.
On Mt. Horeb (Sinai) Elijah encountered the Lord, who sent him back north to the Kingdom of Israel to continue his prophetic ministry. This phase of his ministry began with the call of his successor Elisha. Our first reading is the story of that call. Elisha was a farmer, in a big way. He was plowing with 12 yoke of oxen, 24 animals. Elijah approached him and threw his cloak over him. Meaning: “Follow me” and ultimately, “Replace me.” Elisha knows the meaning, leaves the 24 oxen in the field, and begs permission from Elijah to kiss mom and dad goodbye, “Then I will follow you.” Elijah is not pleased, but seems to allow this brief diversion from the call. Elisha returns and performs a symbolic act to demonstrate his complete cutting off from his former life to follow Elijah. He slaughters the 24 beasts. He burns the 12 wooden yokes to cook the huge pile of meat, throwing a going away party for his employees. What mom and dad thought of the loss of farm equipment is not said. The reason for selecting this story for this liturgy — in the Gospel, Jesus puts out a similar call for a disciple. The words of Jesus to the disciple are even more puzzling than the response of Elijah.
The Responsorial Psalm 16 picks up or at least implies a theme of the first reading, choosing the Lord as one’s inheritance. Thus Elisha left all things, just as Jesus’ call in the Gospel implies leaving all to follow him. The Psalmist proclaims the Lord as “my fortune, nothing else but you, my heritage, my cup.” The people respond five times with the same theme, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.” The second reading is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. The context is Paul’s battle with his former colleagues over the question of male circumcision of Gentiles who become Christians. Do they have to become Jews to become Christians? Paul emphatically opposes this requirement. He becomes characteristically crude about it. Just before our reading begins, he expresses the wish that the circumcisers would emasculate themselves. Not a pretty thought! The reading itself emphasizes that Christians are called to freedom, a freedom not to be bound by ritual laws of the Old Testament, but freedom “to serve one another through love.” He sees this debate as a battle between spirit and flesh. The “flesh” is symbolized by the yoke of circumcision. The spirit is symbolized by understanding circumcision in a way that the prophet Jeremiah understood it a half-millennium before St. Paul, “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord. Remove the foreskin of your hearts.”
Our Gospel reading is the beginning of a long section called the Journey to Jerusalem. Jesus had already spoken twice to his disciples about what was to happen to him there. Luke places the transfiguration of Jesus in glory between these two predictions of his suffering. Within the story of the transfiguration Luke notes that Moses and Elijah, appearing with Jesus in glory, dialogued with him about his Exodus in Jerusalem. Jesus was fully aware of the horrors that awaited him, still Luke writes, “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He was determined to go through with it. Therefore it is significant that he took the shortest route directly south through Samaria. It could be dangerous for Jews to pass through Samaria. Jews and Samaritans held grudges against each other from centuries ago. As the Gospel notes, Jesus and his companions were not welcomed. James and John, two young firebrands, probably first cousins of Jesus, (on his mother’s side, of course), wanted to call fire from the sky to burn up the unwelcoming Samaritans. A mature Jesus rebuked them and all moved on southward.
The Gospel is similar to the first reading, the call of disciples. The first man is not called, but offers himself, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Luke writes a puzzling answer of Jesus, “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man (a title borrowed from the Book of Daniel and used for Jesus in all four gospels) has nowhere to lay his head.” True, he was no longer at home in Nazareth, but he did have two homes away from home. The first “home” was at the house of Simon Peter and Andrew in Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. The second “home” was the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus on the eastern slope of the Mt. of Olives near Jerusalem. Now Jesus takes the initiative, when he says to a man, “Follow me.” The man replies, “Let me first bury my father.” Jesus’ response is again puzzling, “Let the dead bury the dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” A third man says to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord.” He adds the words of young Elisha in the first reading, “but first let me say goodbye to my family at home.” The Lucan Jesus is even more uncompromising than the prophet Elijah. Luke borrows the plow-symbol from the Elijah-Elisha story, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” That’s tough love. In Luke’s theology, nothing may interfere with the call to follow Jesus.