Once again this week, the lectionary demonstrated to me that, even having taught the Bible for fifteen years, having completed a college minor in Bible and a Master of Arts in Old Testament, and having lived as “the Bible guy” in UGA’s English department for a few years, there are connections that just never occurred to me. I’ve heard more than one sermon on today’s strange New Testament text, each of them trying to make something of it in isolation but none of them even looking to Elijah and Elisha as precedents. Taking it as an island, preachers I’ve heard have insisted that the father-to-be-buried wasn’t dead yet (cue Monty Python), that Jesus was making a relativistic argument about holding things like family lightly in light of devotion to God, and other unsatisfying moves, but with 1 Kings in the background, Jesus’ strange sayings about family make some more sense.
When Elisha is following Elijah, the prophetic call is certainly harsh, but the aim is a basic continuity: there is a way of life which YHWH has set out for those descended from the Exodus generation, and those descendants in the day of Ahab are not adhering to it. As Elisha grows into Elijah’s successor, he prepares to become a voice that calls Israel backwards to the Torah, envisioning a common life without the idols of Tyre and characterized by justice for the weak, but his call remains essential conservative. When Jesus refuses to allow would-be followers to bid farewell to living and dead family, he signals that whatever he’s doing, it’s going to be novel, something that the world has never imagined before. (I often bring up Jesus when people quote nihil sub sole novum at me–after all, did not Jesus come after Qoheleth gave us that proverb?) When Jesus does what Jesus does, the old family lines of Israel will not determine who is Israel and who is not, and when Jesus dies at the hands of Empire and God raises him, funerals will shift so radically in significance that those burying the dead who do not have the hope of resurrection will themselves be as good as dead. In other words, as I’ve noted before (and as I must attribute to John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas), the call to the plow is not any code of universal ethics, applicable to the generic modern/liberal individual, but a vocation for a chosen people to be a chosen people, to signal to the world through their own demise that death itself has been defeated. So while calling a man away from his parents’ funeral is certainly a harsh word, it’s certainly no more harsh than the call to follow the crucified one right onto the Roman cross.
Looking at Paul’s fruit of the Spirit in light of this radical call, I realize that whenever I think of love, peace, patience, and kindness as generic Stoic virtue or midwestern “family values,” I miss entirely the strangeness of what Paul was actually calling for. May the grace of Christ remain always strange to us, even as we attempt to be God’s strangers to the world.