Signpost for Sunday 30 June 2013: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Gal 5: 1, 13-25; Luke 9: 51-62.
Sometimes I read what the lectionary has prescribed and a common thread just strikes me. That didn’t happen this week.
That’s because I am stuck in the 21st century. I look at Jesus saying he has nowhere to lay his head unlike the foxes and the birds of the air and I think, that’s a lovely piece of poetry that makes me realise what he had given up. I hear him tell someone not to bother burying his father before he follows Jesus and I think, that’s a bit harsh, but God comes first. I read about Elijah being taken up to heaven in a chariot and I think, that’s obviously not really true but I get the symbolism, I think.
Then I stick my ancient Jewish hat on and it looks a bit different. With my ancient Jewish hat on I realise that Elijah is very important in all of this. There he was just a few verses earlier in the New Testament (Luke 9: 28-36) and that makes all the difference.
Look again at Luke 8:54. It’s a direct reference to 2Kings 1 9-16, and my Bible tells me that some translations even retain the words ‘as Elijah did’.
Then there’s Luke 9: 59, 61 and 62. Aren’t these echoes of Elisha’s response to Elijah (1 Kgs. 19:19-21)?
But what about Elijah’s chariot ride? If I was a Jew living around 900BCE I wouldn’t assume it had anything to do with eternal life after death. For a start, I would know Psalm 115: 16-18, which pretty much spells out the relationship between heaven and earth. I’d also think of heaven quite literally as the sky, because ancient Israelites pictured the universe as being made up of a flat disc-shaped earth floating on water, with heaven above and the underworld below. More importantly, they believed humans inhabited earth during life and the underworld after death. And the underworld (Sheol) was a just place of rest. The idea that it’s a place of punishment for misdeeds, and that the righteous enjoy an afterlife in heaven is a Greek notion. It wasn’t until about six hundred years after Elijah that the Jews started to take that up. They ditched their picture of the universe at the same time and replaced it with the Greek concept of a spherical earth suspended in space.
Nevertheless, Elijah’s departure in the chariot does mark him out as someone very special indeed.
But don’t stop reading where the lectionary tells you to. Go just one verse further to 2 Kings 2:15. when Elisha strikes the water with Elijah’s cloak and the waters part as they had for Elijah himself. When that happens his followers say that Elijah’s spirit is now present in Elisha. I don’t know about you but I see a parallel with Christ’s spirit empowering his disciples and the proof of that in the various miracles performed by the disciples themselves (just as Elisha carries on where Elijah left off).
I wonder if here we have a clue as to how the new Christian Jews might have been seen by the Jews they were trying to spread the good news to: where the prophets of old succeeded each other one by one, the greatest prophet of all is succeeded by many, even by all, who follow him.
In other words, Jesus, God’s greatest prophet, has empowered every one to be a prophet of God’s word and work, in his name. Well, that’s my theory anyway.