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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 13 - Proper 8 - Year C
2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14; Psalm 77:1-2,11-20; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62
alt - I Kings 19:15-16,19-21; Psalm 16

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 13 - Proper 8 - Year C


2 KINGS 2:1-2,6-14       This story tells how the spiritual leadership of
Israel changed in the last half of the 9th century BC.  Travelling with his
mentor from one holy site to another, Elisha saw Elijah taken up in a
chariot of fire and picked up the older prophet's fallen mantle symbolizing
that he had become Israel's leading prophet. 

PSALM 77:1-2,11-20       This complex psalm has two quite separate parts.
The reading includes only the introduction to a personal lament, then skips
to the second part which sounds more like a hymn alluding to the mighty
acts of God throughout Israel's history.  This suggests that the psalmist
was more troubled by some unnamed community calamity than by a personal
disaster.


GALATIANS 5:1,13-25.     Here the Christian ethic is writ large so that
he/she who runs may read it.  It is God the Spirit who gives us the basis
for our ethical intentions and actual performance as Christians in the
local contexts in which we live and move.  Paul describes how this happens
according to the choices we make about our everyday behaviour.


LUKE 9:51-62             Already bound for Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus
decided to take the mountain route through Samaria rather than usual route
to the east down the Jordan valley.  As with many political and ethnic
rivalries still, this enmity took on religious overtones.  By Jesus' time,
this hostility had lasted more than 700 years since Israel's ten northern
tribes had been conquered by the Assyrians.
     
Good Jews that they were, two of Jesus' more hot-tempered disciples
immediately expressed the traditional view toward the Samaritans who
refused them entrance to their village.  James and John wanted to call down
punishment on these people who rejected their beloved Master.  Does this
not sound familiar in our day?


          NOTE: There are two alternative lessons from the OT and
          Psalms. The summaries and analysis of these passages
          follow those of the regular RCL lessons. 


1 KINGS 19:15-16,19-21   New orders from God for Elijah directed him to
return to Israel to anoint a new king for Israel and for their northern
neighbours, the Arameans, and to anoint a new prophet, Elisha, to take his
own place.  Having done as directed, he found Elisha ploughing with twelve
yoke of oxen. Slaughtering the oxen, Elisha used their equipment to prepare
a sacrificial feast before leaving his family to follow Elijah as his
servant.


PSALM 16                 This prayer expresses a profound trust in God very
similar to Ps. 23.  The psalmist meditates on the spiritual benefits of
fellowship with God. 

************

2 KINGS 2:1-2,6-14   What happens when the spiritual leadership of a
religious group or a nation changes?  That issue rises out of this lesson.
Before dealing with it, some other points need to be considered first.
     
In his introduction to I and II Kings in *The Interpreter's Bible,* vol. 3,
p.13, Norman Snaith notes the many similarities between the Elijah cycle of
stories in I Kings and the Elisha cycle in II Kings.  He also notes that
the latter group may have been written by a less competent author as an
imitation of the Elijah cycle.  They lack the same dramatic power in spite
of the similarities of expression.  Nonethless, Elisha did play a decisive
part in the shaping of the events of his time, and in some respects was
more outstanding than Elijah.  Perhaps the author had knowledge of Elisha's
political importance and this led his biographer to write up the traditions
which had gathered around him.  The claim that he was the true successor of
Elijah certainly was not far off the mark

This insight comes very much to the fore in the determination of Elisha to
travel with Elijah from one holy site to another until they crossed the
Jordan by a miraculous dividing of the waters.  The scene is reminiscent of
the crossing of the Red Sea and an intended symbol of the renewal of
Israel's religious heritage.  When finally Elisha saw Elijah taken up in a
chariot of fire and retrieved the older prophet's fallen mantle, he knew
that he had come into the inheritance he so earnestly sought. 

The existence of sizable "companies of prophets" at the various holy sites
of Bethel and Jericho (vv.3,5,7) indicates that the prophetic tradition did
not rest on haphazard, ecstatic inspiration of certain great individuals. 
A consistent system for maintaining "the word of the Lord" existed during
the period of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  In his seminal
book, "The Relevance of the Prophets" (Toronto: The Macmillan Company,
1947) Professor R.B.Y. Scott describes these "prophetic guilds" as

     "recognized bodies of prophets who appear to be acting in concert
     at various times in the history of the twin kingdoms....  As a
     rule they spoke with one voice.  But exceptional men among them
     (in addition to the 'Master') acted independently, and it was
     they and not the 'madmen of the spirit,' (i.e. ecstatic prophets)
     who stood in the line of Moses and were the ancestors of the
     great prophets of the classical period." (p.48)  

An obvious reference to this Mosaic tradition of prophecy stands out in the
dividing of the waters of the Jordan by both Elijah and Elisha.
     
All of this points to the conclusion that the succession of spiritual
leadership can be governed in an orderly fashion in which both human and
divine influences can be fully exercised.  In recent years several
appointments to the Senate of Canada, such as a Roman Catholic nun and the
former Moderator of The United Church of Canada, have given a prominent
public role to prophetic voices on the Canadian and global scene.  However
political such appointments may be, a true prophet will not necessarily be
co-opted by the political system if she maintains her moral and spiritual
independence, as did Elijah and Elisha in ancient Israel. 

On the other hand, the alliance of very conservative religious voices with
conservative political parties in both Canada and the United States has
introduced a negative element of political opportunism which has serious
implications for social cohesion.  Even as this analysis is being composed,
federal election campaigns in both Canada and the United States has brought
this disruptive influence to the fore.  It remains to be seen what impact
these campaigns will have on the social fabric of both nations and the
future policies of their respective governments.


PSALM 77:1-2,11-20   This complex psalm appears to have two quite separate
parts.  This has caused some scholars to suggest that it originally existed
as two separate compositions woven together by a later editor.  The reading
includes only the introduction to a personal lament, then skips to the
second part which sounds more like a hymn alluding to the mighty acts of
God throughout Israel's history.  This suggests that the psalmist (or the
final editor) was more troubled by some unnamed community calamity than by
a personal disaster.
     
A profound spiritual lesson can be learned from this complex
interpretation.  In times of crisis and the fragmentation of communal
ethics and social upheaval, a review of our religious history can be a
helpful antidote to the fear and despair that tend to overwhelm us.  This
does not assume that all forms of religious response to social crisis
should be regarded as beneficial.  In this century as in most previous
ages, religious leaders has frequently served those who would preserve the
status quo rather than voice the need for radical change in the tradition
of the great prophets.
     
When we call to God for help through our despair and fear, God leads us
through mighty floods, though not necessarily into green pastures and quiet
pools of fresh water.  The double images of vss.16-20 are of violent
thunderstorms and Israel's experience of crossing of the Red Sea.  A
cursory reading of the Exodus story reveals how turbulent and distressing
was that period of Israel's religious history, if indeed it was a
historical event at all.

Within the next week, both Canada and the United States celebrate their
national holidays.  However comfortable the citizens of these two most
blessed nations of the world may feel, we would do well to remember that
beneath the surface there is a great deal of social unrest which breaks
into the open from time to time.  Current crises in the handling of public
revenues, education and health services, energy and water supplies, and the
declining quality of the air we breathe reveal the  symptoms of how
distressed our society may be.  These could well be occasions for lament,
not self-satisfied congratulations about our wealth and security.


GALATIANS 5:1,13-25   Few passages in Paul Letter to the Galatians carries
as much weight for the individual Christian and the faith community to
which we belong.  Here the Christian ethics is writ large so that he/she
who runs may read it.  Douglas John Hall and others have called attention
to the ontological and intentional realities which must undergird ethical
Christian behavior in the world so confused as it is by secular and
competing, but relativist, ethics.  It is God the Spirit who gives us the
ontological basis for our ethical intentions and actual performance as
Christians in the local contexts in which we live and move.  Nothing else
more effectively defines who we are.  In this passage Paul describes how
this happens.
     
By the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we have been freed from all that
prevents us from doing as God desires.  In the words of Jesus, (vs.14) "You
shall love your neighbor as yourself."  We are loved by God, therefore we
can love others.  Any other ethic has the catastrophic result of
destructive conflict (vs.15).  

"The works of the flesh" which Paul enumerates in vss. 19-21 are nothing
more than the inevitable indulgences of loving oneself.  Because the reign
of God is exclusively the reign of love, none of these acts can ever lead
us, individually or communally, to know, love and serve God. 

Paul then enumerates the gracious gifts which come when the Spirit bears
fruit in our lives.  Acting from this premise, no law can regulate or deter
us from holy living.  Indeed, this is the life expected of those who would
be followers of the Way.  All this comes about because of what Christ has
done for us.  We belong to him; we can do no other than be enlivened by his
Spirit whether in moments of spiritual contemplation or in the feverish
activities of a busy day.
     
Father Thomas Keating, a spiritual companion to many from diverse
denominational backgrounds, once described how this happens through
meditative prayer: "We are sitting on the cross of Christ... thus, in a
receptive mode of being,... consenting to God's grace.  In emptying, we
open ourselves to redemption."

Professor James S. Thomson, dean of the faculty of divinity at McGill
University, Montreal in the middle of the last century, interpreted to his
senior class what the person and work of Christ as Saviour and Redeemer
implied.  He said that we had gone about as far as we can in understanding
what this meant for the behavior of individual Christians.  That had been
achieved through the evangelical movements from the mid-18th to mid-20th
century.  What Christians in the next century or two would be required to
achieve was the application of this same ethic to social and global issues
of all kinds.  Fifty years after that observation was made, we are now in
the midst of doing what that eminent teacher foresaw.  What better guide to
this missionary enterprise can we find than what Paul cites in this
passage? 
    

LUKE 9:51-62   Already bound for Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus decided to
take the mountain route through Samaria rather than usual route down the
Jordan valley.  The hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews had
lasted for more than eight centuries since the remnant of Israel's Northern
Kingdom had intermarried with the foreign population the Assyrians had
imported into Israel following the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE. (2 Kings
15:13-31; 17)  As with many political and ethnic rivalries still, this
enmity took on religious overtones which John summarizes in Jesus'
conversation with the woman of Sychar (John 4:1-42.)  Good Jews that they
were, two of Jesus' more hot-tempered disciples immediately expressed the
traditionally hostile view toward the Samaritans who refused them entrance
to their village.  James and John wanted to call down punishment on these
people who rejected their beloved Master.
     
The text is corrupt at this point.  Several ancient textual sources
including those used in translating the KJV followed a reference first
found in Marcion (c. 150 CE) adding the words, "as Elijah did." (See 2
Kings 1:9-16)  Most modern translations include this in a marginal note as
they also do with a greater extension of vs.55: "and he said, "You do not
know what manner of spirit you are of; for the son of man came not to
destroy men's lives but to save them."
     
However the actual text may have existed in the original, Luke saw this as
a teaching moment for Jesus.  When an enthusiastic follower gushed about
his loyalty, Jesus rebuked him with a promise of homelessness.  This was
not the kind of Messiah that prospective disciple was seeking.  Jesus
called another person to follow him, but the man offered the excuse of
having to bury his recently deceased father.  And yet another wished to say
farewell to his family.  Jesus responded to both with challenges that still
seem harsh to our ears.  In an "intimate biography" of Jesus, *Rabbi
Jesus,* (Doubleday, 2000) Bruce Chilton inferred that Jesus himself had
been forced to leave his home in Nazareth because of the hostility of the
community and of some of his own family.  Because of his status as a
*memzer* (literally, "a bastard") due to his suspect paternity, he had not
even been permitted to attend the funeral of his father Joseph.  If valid -
and that is impossible to prove - such experiences may well have affected
his attitudes expressed here.

However we may interpret his apparent harshness, Jesus was saying that the
demands of God's reign of love presents us with a higher loyalty than that
of filial duty or family responsibility.  He concludes with a metaphor that
has little meaning for most people today.  He likens this challenge of
discipleship to that of a farmer plowing a field behind a single beast or a
small team.  One can only drive a straight furrow by looking forward to the
distant goal, a point at the end of the field.  In many respects, this kind
of loyalty is characteristic of the eschatological age.  As John Knox (the
modern scholar, not the giant of the Reformation) commented in his
expository note in *The Interpreter's Bible,* vol. 8, p. 183 : "Only in a
miraculously new order where men do not live on bread, and where they
neither marry nor are given in marriage, can the Kingdom of God fully come.
Whether we agree with such a view or not, a passage like this is bound to
disclose the grounds for it."

Many a modern minister's family has been greatly distressed when such a
challenge involving a serious conflict of loyalties has been literally
interpreted.  Knox put the whole series of challenging incidents in this
chapter in a  different context.  We do not know the concrete situation in
which Jesus spoke these words.  This series of incidents have the single
purpose of setting forth the paramount importance of the reign of God and
the supreme loyalty it demands of us.  Everything else is irrelevant to
that purpose.  We must interpret many of the stories and parables of Jesus
with this same, characteristic economy.

************

1 KINGS 19:15-16,19-21   Soundly rebuked by Yahweh for deserting his post
under the strain of persecution, Elijah received new orders for his
ministry as Israel's leading prophet.  Yahweh directed him to return to
Israel to anoint a new king for Israel and for their northern neighbours,
the Arameans, (inhabiting modern Syria with its capital at Damascus).  As
if to underline his failure, Elijah also received orders to anoint a new
prophet, Elisha, to take his own place as spiritual leader of the nation. 

Unless one regards vss. 17-18 as an interpolation into the narrative, there
seems little reason to omit them from the reading.  In fact, they provide a
reasonable assurance that Israel has not been completely apostate as Elijah
had complained in his own pathetic defense (vs. 14). 

Having done as directed, Elijah found his successor ploughing with twelve
yoke of oxen.  That is an extremely large team to draw a relatively small
agricultural instrument.  It must have some symbolic meaning beyond the
narrative.  Could it refer to the twelve tribes of Israel now deeply
divided between the North and South Kingdoms?  If so, it may have expressed
the hope, possibly of a later editor, that the kingdoms would once more be
united under a Davidic heir. 

Elijah threw his mantle over Elisha who immediately ran after the prophet
signifying his acceptance of his new role.  Elijah hesitated about what he
had done, but then relented when Elisha wished to return to say farewell to
his parents.  Slaughtering the oxen, Elisha used their equipment to prepare
a sacrificial feast before leaving his family to follow as Elijah' s
servant. 

The story gives us insight into ancient prophetic succession.  An oddity in
this narrative is the anointing of Elisha when the normal practice was to
anoint only monarchs.  The cycle of stories about Elijah does not end here
as might be expected, but there is an unmistakable break in the narrative
between this episode and the next.  Scholars believe that the two cycles
probably come from different sources at different periods in the 8th
century BCE as well as being adapted by the post-exilic Deuteronomist
editors ca. 550 BCE.


PSALM 16  This prayer expresses a profound trust in God very similar to
Ps.23 and other psalms (e.g. Psalms 4, 11, 62, 131)  The psalmist meditates
on the spiritual benefits of fellowship with God whose favour has yielded
many blessings.  He rejoices in his favoured status and is reassured that
his righteousness will be rewarded.  He will be received into Yahweh's
presence rather than being cast away into the shadowy existence of Sheol as
the Jews regarded life beyond death (vss. 10-11). 

The mood of the psalm reflects the attitudes of the post-exilic period when
strict obedience to the covenant law was linked directly to personal well-
being.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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