The language of the Bible can be gently potent. Biblical texts are not usually wordy, nor do biblical characters elaborate their feelings in lengthy soliloquies. A few words are offered to be pondered, measured and considered. People speak directly, but sometimes the meaning is mysterious or opposed to closely held expectations of how God ought to act or what God’s spokespeople ought to say. Before jettisoning the peculiarity of God’s ways or the idiosyncrasies of God’s representatives, we ought to consider why God speaks to us in this way. If hard or direct words evoke discomfort, what is God telling us and what do we need to hear?
When the prophet Elijah came to anoint Elisha to take his place as God’s prophet, Elisha was plowing with 12 oxen. Elijah called him by placing his cloak over Elisha’s shoulders, a symbolic action signifying his prophetic call and an action that Elisha understood. Elisha seems not to reject the call, but says to Elijah, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Elijah responds to this seemingly innocent request with what appears to be a sharp rejection, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?”
How does a newly anointed prophet respond to Elijah’s question, “for what have I done to you?” It is not clear if (1) Elijah is telling Elisha to “go back” on his prophetically—that is, overturn what God has done through Elijah, if he is not prepared to leave immediately or (2) Elijah is telling Elisha that nothing has been done to him if he cannot respond to the call without turning back to his family, if only for a moment.
Either way, prophetic values trump family values for Elisha, as he slaughters his animals, cooks them over his burning plows and feeds his people before leaving with Elijah. There can be no clearer statement of the rejection of his past life than his burning up his livelihood and feeding it to others. I interpret Elijah’s words to Elisha in this way: Keep doing what you do or start doing what God has called you to do, but you can’t do both; so make a decision. This is why Jesus rejects the question asked by James and John, when the Samaritan village they passed through ignores Jesus’ call: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” It is a startling human reaction by the Sons of Thunder—you have snubbed the Messiah; now face a fiery punishment—but Jesus rebukes them and their desired payback for the perceived slight. There is no point in crushing the Samaritans for the choice they made. They have chosen to keep doing what they do and there is no point in seeking vengeance. They are, like all of us, ultimately answerable for their choices and there is no way to know if it will be their final choice.
The Samaritans in Luke’s scene simply do not follow, but many others claim that they will follow Jesus wherever he goes, but when profound human and familial needs arise, they are torn. The choice to follow is put on hold, while human calculations are made. It is not that these concerns are minor—”Lord, first let me go and bury my father”—it is that God’s call is preeminent over all things and at all times. To the would be follower who says, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home,” Jesus, reformulating Elijah’s question to Elisha says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
These are not easy sayings; and if the hardness of them has been lost to us, it may be because we have been too focused on making hard words soft and comfortable. Jesus announces that the call takes precedence not just over our leisure and amusements but our families and professions: Will you follow or will you not? It is a daily choice, perhaps more realistically a constant choice, as to what we decide to do, whether we follow or turn back to our plows. And if we turn back, we must choose to return to the comfort of work and family or to burn our plows.