Elijah and Elisha. What an epic story. It’s pure Hollywood! Mix together “Lord of the Rings,” Harry Potter and Indiana Jones, and this would give just some of the ingredients.
There are wicked kings and queens (they featured a couple of weeks ago), wild-bearded ascetic revolutionaries (that’s Elijah), wide-eyed acolyte disciples eager to drink from the deep well of the master’s wisdom (that’s Elisha), sacred, powerful garments (that’s Elijah cloak), incredible scenery (mountains, deserts, huge rushing rivers).
And we have not even considered the special effects. And what special effects they are. George Lucas would be so proud. Whirlwinds, rivers magically parted, firestorms beyond our pyrotechnical dreams, deep, booming, cavernous, thunderous, deafening roars. Sparks, spectacle, energy.
Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry – oh, wait – those aren’t from Elijah’s story, they’re from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.
And what a letter it is! Here’s that list again: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these.
Whatever those Galatians were up to, it certainly wasn’t stamp collecting. And what themes Paul raises: the dangers of replacing slavery of one kind with slavery of another – slavery to self-gratification and self-indulgence.
Let’s look at this in detail.
What a vivid description of Elijah: the whirlwinds, the fire. Rather like the disciples in that Samaritan village. They must have been thinking about Elijah as well. They ask Jesus if he wants them to summon down fire on the Samaritan village because the townsfolk didn’t receive him. What an extraordinary episode. What on earth were those disciples thinking, wishing a fiery immolation on that village?
“Foxes have their holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
“Let the dead bury their own dead.”
“No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
But weren’t we talking about the Galatians? We seem to have been distracted by Elijah, or was it the Samaritan village?
And that is precisely the point. There are so many wonderful, exciting, vibrant, insightful, diverting, important things that could be said about all of our readings today. We could so easily flutter from one to the other, alighting on some little vignette that takes our fancy, and then another. And what we’d end up with would be a glorious Technicolor mess.
In this day and age, distractions abound like mushrooms in a damp, dark basement. Far from avoiding them, we appear to seek them out. The term “multitasking” doesn’t seem to have negative connotations: In fact, we tend to view the ability to do more than one thing at a time as a virtue. Texting during a meeting? Sure, why not? Checking Facebook at a dinner party? Why, yes! Doesn’t everyone? It persuades the people around us that we have full, busy, important lives. Most probably we persuade ourselves, too. We flit from one shiny thing to another, wowed by things that are sleeker, faster, bigger, higher.
And that, also, is precisely the point. There are so many distractions, diversions. But each of these conspire to take our minds off the ball. Faced with a bewildering array of choices, we can easily become unfocused, lose our single-mindedness.
All of the characters that we meet in today’s readings – apart from Jesus – are distracted by something. The disciples of Jesus are distracted by their mistrust of the Samaritans. The people that Jesus and the disciples meet on the way are distracted by their material possessions, duties and social conventions. The Galatians are distracted by all manner of ephemeral, selfish gratifications or petty jealousies. Elisha is distracted by the thought that he might not inherit Elijah’s special powers.
Even Elijah had been distracted. Much earlier in his story, he had challenged the pagan prophets of Baal to a competition atop Mount Carmel to see which of their respective deities was the more powerful. In a story as equally full of impressive special effects as today’s, in which the pagan gods were crushed, the triumphant Elijah orders the massacre of all 450 of the prophets of Baal.
After all of this spilt blood, Elijah falls into a depression and hides in a cave. No doubt there were functional reasons for his dejection and his hiding, since there was probably a price on his head. But there was more to it than that.
“Enough, O Lord,” Elijah says. “Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Remarkably, this is nothing less than Elijah’s conversion. He had set his God, Yahweh, in competition with the gods of Baal, but all Elijah had achieved by this was to put himself on the same level as the pagan prophets he’d claimed to despise. The contest on Mount Carmel had merely ended up being a show of strength between rival shamans. Elijah had spent his life seeking God in the earthquakes, the winds and the fire, but had eventually found him in the still, small voice.
In his book “Faith Beyond Resentment,” the Roman Catholic theologian James Alison calls Elijah’s dark night of the soul his “un-deceiving” – his realization that what set his God apart from all others was not that he was more muscular, and whose religion was “more efficacious,” but that he was, in fact, the very antithesis of all that.
Elijah’s conversion experience seems not to have filtered down to Jesus’ disciples. They – along with the rest of their contemporaries – seem to prefer Elijah in his noisy showman phase. When Jesus’ disciples suggest raining down fiery destruction on the Samaritan village, their understanding of God is just as off-target as Elijah’s had been. Time and again we are shown how the disciples just don’t seem to get it. We know that eventually they do, but it’s a long journey for them to reach the realization that God’s strength is in weakness, God’s rule is in servanthood, God’s power is in humility and God’s judgment is in forgiveness.
Before we congratulate ourselves on being smarter and more insightful than those first disciples, let’s just take a moment to consider if we ourselves – and the church in general – get it any more than they did.
In “Faith Beyond Resentment,” James Alison suggests that what Elijah’s conversion experience tells us is that our own religious identity might need turning upside-down, too. “Here we are,” he writes, “face to face with the collapse of the sacred, a real demolition of personal structures and ways of speaking about God. This collapse is the crucible in which theological development is wrought.”
More and more people are saying that the church is at a pivotal point in its life. Some even describe it as a collapse. Certainly it is a time of wholesale reassessment.
But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Perhaps, as Christian commentators like Diana Butler Bass and Phyllis Tickle suggest, it is that we are on the brink of a new Great Awakening. Perhaps it is where we will hear afresh the still, small voice of God, and what his voice is inviting us to do, and where we will understand much better how to break free of the slavery of distractions.