13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: ‘Speak, Lord, Your Servant Is Listening’

SCRIPTURES & ART: Jesus demands that we ‘take sides’ — clearly, firmly and finally.

Abraham Bloemaert (1564-1651), “Elijah and Elisha”
Abraham Bloemaert (1564-1651), “Elijah and Elisha” (photo: Public Domain)

To say farewell or not to say farewell, that isn’t the only question.

Today’s First Reading and Gospel go hand-in-hand. In the First Reading, Elijah prepares Elisha to succeed him as prophet. Elisha asks to take leave of his people, Elijah appears to repulse him, Elisha goes back to them and then rejoins Elijah. In the Gospel, Jesus alludes to the same situation, but tells his Apostles pointblank that, if they turn back after reaching for the plough, they are not “fit for the Kingdom of God.”

So which is it?

Elijah was the first and greatest of the prophets. His significance is clear from the fact that he appears alongside Moses with Jesus in the Transfiguration. The greatest lawgiver is Moses; the greatest prophet is Elijah. Jesus surpasses them both.

Elijah fought the introduction of false gods into Israel by King Ahab and his foreign wife, Jezebel. In punishment for Israel’s infidelity to God, Elijah brings a three-year drought upon the country, a drought from whose consequences even Elijah suffers, having to be fed by ravens and later by a foreign widow. He then defeats and slaughters the false prophets of Baal, which further brings Jezebel’s anger and plotting for his death upon him, causing him to flee. 

In the end, Elijah is commanded by God to prepare Elisha as his successor. That is the scene captured in the First Reading. Putting his cloak on Elisha meant that he was receiving the mission and power of Elijah, a designation the young man understood. He asks to bid farewell to his parents, something not alien to the Fourth Commandment’s injunction to “honor your father and your mother.” Elijah’s answer is blunt: “Go back! Have I done anything to you?” Elijah wants a firm decision. Well, Elisha returns, takes leave of his parents, and prepares a sacrificial feast from the oxen he was working. With it he feeds his people, but he also symbolizes that he has now undertaken a new mission: he has a new field to plough. “Then Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.” 

In the Gospel, Jesus is set on his mission, on his way to Jerusalem. As he makes his way to that goal, he stops in the towns along the way. One of them, a Samaritan town, refuses to welcome him “because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem.” The Samaritans rejected Jerusalem and its Temple; they insisted that the proper place of worship was Mount Gerizim, a site about 60 miles north of Jerusalem, claiming Mosaic justification for their alternate worship place. We see traces of this clash in the John’s Gospel of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, read during Lent: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.” (Jesus, of course, answered her about the approaching hour when men will worship “in spirit and truth” and not by geographical locations). James and John, in the usual low-key approach of the “Sons of Thunder” to things, want to call down a heavenly conflagration to eliminate these ingrates, but Jesus “rebuked them” and continued on his way. As is the case with Christianity, the invitation of Christ does not always get a positive response, but Christ continues on his way, in search of those ready to receive him.

Along that way, there are at least three people who promise to “follow” Jesus “but.” One will follow him but it seems that his vocal zeal is not matched by his actions.

The second will follow him after he buries his father. Like Elisha, who wants to part with living parents, this potential disciple wants to carry out a normal filial duty. To “bury the dead” is even a corporal work of mercy. But Jesus cuts him off: “Let the dead bury their dead.”

The third, like Elisha, simply wants to part with his family. 

Jesus seems harsh, almost inhuman, in his responses. But the call of God is not human, it is super-human. It is a call that trumps everything else. It is the priority that puts all other priorities — even those nearest and dearest to us — behind it. Elsewhere, Jesus makes clear that his mission is not to effectuate some kumbaya harmony but to decide where one’s heart lies: “Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on, they will be divided … father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother …” (Luke 12:51-53). 

Did the young man take leave like Elisha and follow Jesus? Did the man follow Jesus after performing his post-mortem tasks? We don’t know. But the choice to follow Jesus is what’s at stake, and some opportunities never come twice. The Polish poet Roman Brandstaetter wrote a haunting poem about the rich young man who, in his youth, “went away sad” because he could not part with his goods to follow Jesus. In his old age, he looks at himself, regarded by everyone around him as having “made it,” living a rich and blessed life. But he recognizes an emptiness, a void in himself that he attributes to one spring morning in his youth.

Jesus is demanding, in an uncompromising way, that we decide on our priorities. Does he or doesn’t he come first in our lives? That decision entails consequences, including consequences we might not otherwise even expect. Like Elijah, he does his prospective follower “no wrong.” But the call of grace demands we choose.

In the 1994 Macedonian film Before the Rain, a photojournalist, Alexander, gives up his profession because in trying to get a picture of brutality in the Yugoslav Civil War, a camp guard pulled a man out of rank and shoots him for the photo. Alexander wants to return to Macedonia and take his married mistress, Anne, back with him. She wants to but doesn’t want to leave her husband, so the two separate, appropriately in a London cemetery. Alexander’s last words to her are: “Take sides.” Within a day, her husband will be murdered; not long afterwards, so will Alexander, after “taking sides” back in Macedonia.

Jesus also demands we “take sides.” Clearly. Firmly. Finally.

Today’s readings are illustrated in oil by the circle of Abraham Bloemaert (1566-1651), a Dutch painter and engraver whose work transitioned from mannerism to the early Baroque. Mannerismimposed a certain artificiality of form on paintings, where figures and images were subject to the dictates of technical requirements. Holland was one of the centers of mannerism, but it eventually yielded to the Baroque.

In this painting, Elijah is vesting Elisha with his cloak, a gesture at least surprising to the young man. The youth stands behind the oxen with which he has been ploughing the fields and which soon would be slaughtered and sacrificed. The agricultural context is underscored by other oxen team behind Elijah and Elisha on the left and presumably some of the family from whom Elisha wants to part on the right. Though Elisha lived in ninth century BC Israel, Bloemaert dresses him as a 16th-century Dutchman (along with the ploughman on the left). The skies are stormy, perhaps indicative of the critical moment Elisha is facing or perhaps commonplace in Low Country meteorology.

The German theologian Bernard Häring used to point out that Greek had two words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos was the thing we measure, the thing that “passes.” Kairos is the “moment of opportunity, the moment of grace.” It is the moment that is God’s free gift and grace, with no guarantee of repetition, that is offered for us and for our salvation. Do we grab it? Or do we grab it “but” for other, “pressing” excuses? That’s the question of today’s readings.