Once, long ago—3000 years ago, actually– there was a boy out plowing in the field with 24 oxen, plodding along side by side in 12 sets of two. This was the boy’s life—staring at the butts of oxen all day, trying not to slip in their poop, trying to keep them plowing a straight path under the broiling sun, carrying water for them, trying to get them to engage in very un-oxen-like behavior by pulling a plow all day rather than finding a nice mud puddle in the shade and just chilling. This was the boy’s life—and it will tell you something about how different our world is from the world of this boy that that job was actually a pretty good one at the time. This kid was actually pretty lucky. He had a mother and father. He had a home. He had a field—which needed to be plowed and planted and harvested. But this was a good life. It was as secure as any life in the 9th century BCE could be. I mean, if worse came to worse, you at least had a field, and had oxen, and had a job.
One day, though, a crazy-looking old man came wandering up over the hill, and stood watching the boy plowing. The boy was so engrossed in his task he didn’t notice the old man until he was close enough to smell him. And–phew! The crazy old dude smelled worse than the oxen! But there was a strange blue light in the old man’s eyes. There was a silence and stillness and power within him, and it brought that boy and his oxen to a halt as if they’d dropped anchor. The crazy old man may have had hair that stood out all over his head like a halo, but he also had on a fine mantle that stood out from the rest of his dust-stained, sweat soaked clothes, thrown over his shoulder casually. That mantle also caught the boy’s attention. Who WAS this old fossil?
The man looked into the boy’s eyes, and some sort of strange shiver went through the boy as if he had just dived into a cool spring on a hot summer day. Without a word, the old man threw his mantle over the boy, and the boy knew. He just knew he had to follow this old man. Dreams danced before his eyes as that mantle touched his shoulders. Power coursed through him like a lightning strike and it was almost painful, contracting his muscles.
But he was a good boy, and wanted to not worry his parents, so he spoke first, and asked if he could kiss his parents good-bye. The old man turned, almost triumphant at this sign of what he considered to be doubt—what any of the rest of us would consider to be good common sense. I mean, this kid could have ended up side of an ancient equivalent of a milk carton! “Do what you want. What’s it to me?” the old man hissed, and he whipped his mantle off the boy’s shoulders and turned and stalked off as if he had won a bet with someone and wanted to collect.
This response stung the boy. So he decided to show this old man he was serious. He took those oxen, still hitched to the plow, and slaughtered them, and then fed them to his dumbstruck neighbors, kind of as a parting gesture that probably made them think he had lost his mind. There was no going back to plowing now, though. He then ran off and followed that crazy old man, serving him and the God the old man served, leaving his former life behind without a backward glance.
That old man was the prophet Elijah. And that boy was Elisha. Elijah was one of the greatest prophets in all of Israel—which means he was also one of the most hated and most feared men in the land, because prophets tend to be bearers of bad tidings and ill portents. God usually doesn’t send prophets around to proclaim that everything’s rosy. Prophets are called to speak God’s word to the powerful who have shut their ears and their hearts to anything but their own desires, their own lust, their own muscle, their own bellies. Responding to God’s call to preach and prophesy like that probably would at least give most people pause. Prophets like Elijah literally gave their lives to God, which didn’t mean that things were easy for them. Even after Elisha was at Elijah’s side, Elijah kept telling truth to power. He kept rebuking the rich and powerful for their idolatry, for their worship of other gods—gods like Baal, a local storm god. Gods like greed, and oppression, and prejudice, and malice. And Elisha was swept up with along with Elijah, spending his life staring at the back of a crazy old man, and doing the old man’s dirty work, all on the old man’s say-so.
This is the backstory for our first reading from 2 Kings for this coming Sunday, which tells the story of Elijah leaving Elisha a few years after Elijah called Elisha away from his plow, his oxen, and his home. Elisha has given everything up to follow Elijah, and not just follow Elijah, but take up the unfinished task of ministry and truth-telling that God still needs embodied in the world. Elisha knows that Elijah is going to be taken from him. He is concerned he is not up to the task. Elisha has been faithful—and even stubborn in following Elijah as his protégé and disciple. Three times, Elijah tried to shake off Elijah in our story—and three times he flatly refused to turn back. Yet how can he go on by himself? He betrays his worries by asking for a double share—the eldest son’s portion- of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha asks for this double portion because he is afraid he is not up to taking up Elijah’s ministry—and he knows he is going to need help.
The reading from 2 Kings closes with Elijah being taken up to heaven by a chariot of fire, even as Elisha struggles to keep his eyes on the old man as he disappears into the clouds in a dazzling display of light. When the glare wears off, Elisha looks down and sees the old man’s mantle—that same mantle Elijah had draped on his shoulders back when he was just a farm boy plowing the fields—laying at his feet. Ad so a final decision: should Elisha take up that mantle, and thereby also commit himself to continuing speaking truth to power?
Now, here we are living half a world away and thousands of years beyond the stories of the ancient prophets of Israel. Most of us no longer worry about whether the harvest will be good, or if an invading army will sweep in and carry our loved ones off into captivity. The only oxen most of us see are in the zoo or as a piece of meat in a really expensive bowl of soup. What have we got in common with characters like Elijah and Elisha living in their dusty backwater that literally ends up being the nowhere at the corner of three great empires—the 9th century BCE version of “flyover country?”
Maybe nothing. But isn’t it possible, that for all our modern context, many of us still walk around in circles, staring at the ugly ends of the brutish animals in front of us, going through our daily lives, adjusting ourselves to the scenery, no matter how disgusting or appalling it might be? Isn’t it possible that some in our society go around engaged in extolling themselves to the oppression of others, and others look away rather than work for the common good?
And isn’t it possible that times like these call for people who can speak those truths about justice, equality, and hope—people who can dream dreams, and point the way, and pull back the curtain on our divine spark to encourage us to act on a faith that we as a society can be better?
Times like these call for prophets.
Times like these call for healers and workers of miracles, even if one of those miracles is simply loving the people others say are unlovable with everything you’ve got.
Times like these call for someone who can speak God’s truth into the world, even if that truth may seem to be the last thing the world wants to hear.
Dare we consider taking up that same mantle today?
May we have faith enough in the promise of God to be with us, and put our feet on the warm dry ground of that pilgrim path. Take up your power. Step out in faith and hope. Sing out the glory of God’s loving-kindness that walks alongside us even when we feel most alone. Take up your mantle. It’s laying at your feet for a reason.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and priest in the Diocese of Missouri, currently hanging her vestments at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, when she isn’t serving as a supply priest. Her blog is Abiding In Hope.
Image: Icon: 14th century Russian icon of Elijah and Elisha from Wikimedia commons