Scripture readings: 2 Kings 2: 1,7b-14 and Luke 9:51-62 Jan Savory
Our readings today are about discipleship.
Elijah and Elisha
In our OT reading, we heard how Elijah’s disciple, Elisha, followed him to the end of his life and how this faithful disciple received Elijah’s mantle. Literally the mantle is a coat or cloak, but figuratively refers to a person’s role or responsibility. In asking for Elijah’s mantle (and even a double share) Elisha is anticipating the words of a prayer many of us will remember from the funerals of our loved ones where we prayed that “nothing good in this person’s life will be lost, but … they may go on living in their children, their family and their friends; in their hearts and minds, in their courage and their consciences”. Elisha was Elijah’s spiritual son and he carries on with Elijah’s vision and mission.
How different was Elisha from the would-be disciples in our NT reading where we have 5 cases of rejection of Jesus.
Journey to Jerusalem
Today’s gospel reading starts with Jesus’ resolutely turning toward Jerusalem, and we know, since we know the end of the story, that this is far more than some little itinerary detail from Jesus’ travels. It is the road to the cross. From now until October, all of the Gospel readings on Sundays will come from Jesus’ journey.
Jesus is rejected by Samaritans
Between Galilee and Jerusalem lies Samaria. Usually, Jewish travellers avoid Samaria, taking the longer route around this area to avoid passing through the land of their enemies. Up to now, Jesus’ relationship with Samaritans has been harmonious, but not this time. The Samaritans, who recognize that Jesus “has set his face to go to Jerusalem” and will not receive him.
Jesus’ way of peace rejected by disciples
The disciples, in turn, react to this rejection with a surprising – and frankly rather alarming! – request: they want to call down fire from heaven to devour the Samaritans. Well, perhaps it’s not as surprising as we’d like to think. Jews and Samaritans did not get along, the disciples were apparently not above ethnic prejudice, and they knew their biblical history enough to know that Elijah had done something similar years before (see 2 Kings 1). But Jesus isn’t Elijah and he wasn’t in favour of incinerating those who didn’t follow the rues of hospitality. So, they all continue on their journey and meet all sorts of people on the way.
Jesus is rejected by would be disiples
We read about three of them today. Two asked to be disciples. Jesus discouraged the first one by pointing out his homeless situation and rejected the other one who wanted to say his Goodbyes first – who can blame him? This seems like a reasonable request. Yet Jesus expects him to drop all his plans. Following Jesus is not an easy road and doesn’t leave room for divided loyalties.
The other one was called by Jesus. He too had a prior commitment, to bury his father. Jesus reply is somewhat enigmatic: ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God’. I had some qualms about this being a suitable reading for the day when we remember our loved ones, whom we have buried, here or elsewhere, with great love and sorrow. Is Jesus being unfeeling? Possible not, when you thin about burial practices as laid out in the Torah.
First century burial practices
In Jewish tradition, within 24 hours of the death, the body was laid in the tomb, wrapped in cloth and spices. This is accompanied by a period of 3 to 7 days of intense mourning. It is unlikely that this man is out and about with the crowds around Jesus during this period. But after roughly a year, the family would return to the tomb. They collected the bones and placed them in an ossuary (a small funerary box). They would then place that box in the back of the tomb with other boxes of its kind. When we consider that it may be up to a year before this second phase of the burial would take place, this appears more of a delaying tactic than filial devotion.
So, what we hear today in these conversations with would be followers is that the choice to follow Jesus means that some things one might normally do automatically may simply not get done. Whether it’s sleeping in a house, family gatherings or duties. Some things will not happen when we decide to follow Jesus. This choice may well take priority over what others in our culture or our families would say is most important. Indeed, it is altogether likely that faithful choices will defy the expectations of this world now. The call is different for everyone. And it’s not about making only a one-time choice. Rather, it means wrestling with such choices almost every day.
Failure and forgiveness
Frankly, none of us are going to make the cut to follow Jesus. Our desires for soft pillows and comfortable beds, for fulfilling family and social obligations will frequently have higher priorities than following Jesus — especially following Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and the cross. We might be willing to give up some evils in our lives to follow Jesus, but to give up all these good things — to put them as a lower priority than Jesus? That is radical discipleship, but Paul writes about doing this in Phil 3:4-11. He considers all his past, good, religious deeds as “rubbish”. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Yes, we fail; but God loves us and God’s forgiveness and grace are abundant, and like a polishing cloth on tarnished silver, he restores us to our original state of being in the image of God.