Our readings for this coming Sunday are about true freedom – and truly being ruled by love.
And so they are also about turning points.
The first reading is about the great prophet Elisha, successor to Elijah. He will have a great career, through the books of First and Second Kings, as a healer, above all of Naaman the Syrian leper, but also fighting poison, restoring wells, recovering what was lost – and battling and anointing kings.
But this prophetic career begins in our reading today. Elijah has just heard the still small voice, and he has been sent with three tasks: to anoint a King of the foreign nation of Syria and a new king of Israel, to scourge the wicked house of King Ahab – and also to anoint this great prophet Elisha. These are men on a mission. We are not fooling around.
He finds Elisha plowing. Notice in the reading how it emphasizes that Elisha had twelve yoke of oxen. That’s a lot! He was a rich man.
But the central point of our reading is that Elijah casts his spirit on Elisha, and Elisha is driven.
There is one strange line. Elisha asks to say goodbye to his parents. In the translation at Mass, Elijah will respond, “Go back! Have I done anything to you?” But the original is simpler. Elijah says (he does not ask): “Go, return, I have made” – that is, Elisha is free to go, because Elijah has done something to him, changed him.
There is no rebuke, and Elisha’s actions indicate no hesitance: he slaughters all those oxen, gives them to the people, and follows. Elisha is not hesitating, he is going. Elijah has cast the spirit on him, and he is driven.
Our Gospel reading is the turning point of Luke. Again, our translation is weak. It says, “He resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” But the Greek, here and through the rest of the Gospel, is more vivid: he sets his face toward Jerusalem. He is focused. He knows exactly where he’s going.
He passes through Samaria. Now, the Samaritan religion is precisely a Judaism that thinks that Jerusalem is unnecessary. Can’t we just stay here? It’s the perfect foil for Jesus’s determination.
But it’s interesting: the disciples are too focused on Samaria, too. “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them.” Our translation says, “Jesus turned and rebuked them.” The Greek is stronger: Jesus twists around. He has to twist because his face is set on Jerusalem, and the disciples are stuck behind him, focused on Samaria. Our anger, too, prevents us from journeying on. But Jesus is focused, driven.
There follow three more short stories about being driven. First: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The head is a nice juxtaposition to the face: Jesus does not rest, because his face is set on Jerusalem. Forward!
Second: “Let the dead bury their dead.” Ah, the Greek is so tight in this week’s readings. The real tension is not between burying our father or not – again, Elisha is not condemned for burning his oxen and feeding the people in preparation to follow Elijah. The question is how we do it.
Jesus says, “Send away the dead to bury the dead, but you, going, proclaim the kingdom.” The dead are those who merely go away. The living are those who, going, proclaim. Do what you need to do – but as you go, proclaim the kingdom, be ruled by the kingdom. As you bury your father, keep your face set on Jerusalem.
Third: “Let me say farewell to my family”; “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom.” (The references to Elisha are clear – but what is the lesson of Elisha?)
With the plow, you have to keep looking straight ahead or your furrows are crooked – if you look back, you will see that you are not plowing straight. With the kingdom, you have to keep your eye on the prize, your face set toward Jerusalem. In fact, it doesn’t say, “no one who looks behind is fit,” as in, worthy. It says, “no one who looks behind is set, or fixed, on the kingdom.”
We have to have our faces set. We have to be ruled by the kingdom, driven.
Jesus doesn’t scold any of these three. The first says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” That’s a good thing. But Jesus says to each one, do what you need to do, but with your face set toward the kingdom. Be driven, ruled.
Our reading from Galatians reminds us that the key is grace, the Holy Spirit living within us.
The Spirit is both freedom (“you were called for freedom”) but also service (“serve one another through love”). If we love, if we are driven, if our face is set toward Jerusalem, we are set free from all that would distract us (“for the flesh has desires against the Spirit”), and the obligations of our faith don’t feel like obligations at all (“if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law”) but the desires of our heart.
The Spirit reigning within us is the freedom to love. Jesus and Elisha are not constrained by the kingdom, they are on fire for it.
What makes your heart wander from our true love?