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13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (26.06.16)
“No one who sets a hand to the plough and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Being an island people we tend towards nautical figures of speech. To emphasise that there is ‘no going back’ we talk about ‘burning our boats’. More inland folk might speak of ‘burning their bridges’. In ancient times, when everyone had some agricultural content to their life, they might have spoken about ‘burning their ploughs’.
That is precisely what Elisha, the young man chosen by the Lord to succeed Elijah as prophet, did. We read about it in the extract from The First Book of the Kings (19:16, 19-21) in our first Reading for the 13th Sunday of the Year.
Beware the similar sounding names - ‘Elijah’ and ‘Elisha’ - in this Reading! It can be confusing, so here is an outline to make it easier to remember who is who.
Elijah (his name means ‘my God is the One God’) appeared in the 9th century BC. He is noted for his opposition to those Israelites who had broken God’s Covenant and adopted the worship of the false God, Baal. Ahab, king of Israel at that time, was a promoter of Baal ably supported by his wife Jezebel. That she was aptly named is evidenced by her name still being in use today to identify, as someone once said, ‘a brazen hussy of a woman’. I Kings 16:29 – 19:18 and 2 Kings 2. is, in part, a fascinating if bloodthirsty read!
Elisha (his name means ‘my God is salvation’) was both a prophet and a wonder-worker. Elijah was commanded by God to anoint the young Elisha as his successor. Elijah tutored Elisha for some years in the role of a prophet. Elisha struggled with his vocation, his being called by God to serve as a prophet. People feel sympathy with Elisha when he makes his request to Elijah to be given time to visit his kith and kin to make his farewells.
By way of response Elijah, effectively, said: ‘The choice is yours and you must make it’. Elijah helped Elisha to learn, as we all must, that he could not barter with God. Elisha’s choice had to be decisive, whole-hearted not half-hearted. Elisha did choose, he chose God first and foremost. It was a significant ‘rite of passage’ moment for him to believe that, in choosing God, he was not disowning his parents and family. Down the centuries countless women and men have done likewise and continue to do so. For not a few there will be some figurative ‘burning of the plough’ (or, for coastal people, a ‘burning of the boats’). That said, experience shows that it is often the ‘religious’ son or daughter who comes home to be a carer for the parent in their time of need.
Elisha became noted in Israel and, for six decades (892–832 B.C.), held the office of "prophet in Israel". He is perhaps best remembered for his interaction with the powerful Syrian commander and leper, Naaman (2 Kings 5)
Everyone experiences numerous ‘Rites of Passage’, major and minor, some more memorable than others. They can be ceremonies marking important transitional periods in a person's life, birth, and puberty, dedicating one’s life to God in religious or clerical life, equally in marriage and the bringing up of children, and dying. Rites of passage can involve ritual activities and hereditary teachings designed to enable individuals to move on from their original roles and be constantly readied for new ones. Rites of passage generally affirm community solidarity, especially in times of change or crisis.
Our first ‘rite of passage’ is the process of coming to independent life. At this stage we are utterly dependent upon others, principally our mother and father. In a never ending process of making progress we begin, from early years, to plough our own furrow, as the saying has it. Even identical twins elicit distinctive differences in their manner of coping and exploring.
Time passes. At some point we stand at the threshold of what is, for us, unchartered territory. Armed with accumulated knowledge, but possibly less experience we grasp the handles of the plough, metaphorically speaking, and we are off! Whatever the computer and the Internet has replaced, human hands are still needed to bring sensitivity and care as well as to express love. Tools may change but they will never fully replace the human touch.
The first time you may have navigated even a small boat, with motor or sail, on a reasonably calm stretch of open water there will have been an experienced voice nearby. You likely will have been advised to keep you eye on a fixed point ahead – a lighthouse or a visible rock promontory – and told to steer the boat towards it.
With the confidence of youthful inexperience you will feel an achievement if the boat nudges the point for which you had aimed. You may believe you have steered a straight course. But then the experienced voice will invite you to face aft (that’s the opposite from the prow - front end, for landlubbers). There’s no straight line behind you! As you look back along your so-called straight line, you will see that you have veered to left and to right repeatedly and yet you have no recollection of having done so! The experienced voice will explain that, though there was little or no contrary wind, the sea was ‘alive’ beneath your keel. In its incessant movement the sea’s hidden currents could move your boat to right or left despite the firm grip you kept on the tiller or wheel.
And so it is in life. Whether we are immobile or flying at 33,000 ft. we are ‘awash’ with influences that have power to affect the direction we believe we are taking in life. Like the sea invisibly yet really pushing that small boat off-line, the influences at work just below the level of our conscious appreciation are able to even massively take us off our route, unless we are aware of them and take prompt remedial action. There are major upheavals in life that can constitute painful and draining ‘rites of passage’, but, normally, they are not a daily occurrence, thank God. The more serious threats to our ‘ploughing the furrow’ we have chosen are the myriad influences, like small but powerful currents in the sea, nudging us towards where wisdom would not have us go. It all depends if we have the compass setting constantly on wisdom namely, the Holy Spirit.
Pope Francis recently spoke about "The indispensable role of the lay faithful in public life.” He went on: "No one is baptized a deacon, a religious, a priest or a bishop. We were baptized as laypeople and the Sacrament is the indelible sign that no one can ever wipe away." But that indelible sign can be partly or wholly covered by the unspiritual equivalent of the barnacles and limpets that attach themselves to the hull of a boat and distort its behaviour in the sea. Pope Francis said that he remembered the famous expression: “'It is the hour of the laity,' but it seems that the clock has stopped.”
The Pope says: “The Church must recognize the lay person "for their own reality, for their own identity, for being immersed in the heart of social, public and political life."
For this to become a reality, all the Baptised, without exception, need to focus daily on their personal relationship with Jesus and so with one another. The more Europe chooses not to do this, the more the Baptised must treat its proposals with caution. We must have Jesus in the forefront of our mind wherever and whatever our engagement in the world. Whether immobilized in a hospital bed or respite centre or leading a nation or an international company, the Baptised person must never let her or his attention stray from the Rite of Passage that is (not was) their Baptism. This is the Rite of Passage that is to accompany us from font to resurrection and, in the process, we must be continually wary of the underlying malevolence of this land of exile through which we must journey.
Sometimes, our defense of that Rite of Passage requires us to emulate Elisha.
“Elisha left Elijah, and taking his (Elisha’s) yoke of oxen, slaughtered them; Elisha used the ploughing equipment for fuel to boil their flesh, and gave it to his people to eat. Then Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.”
Sunday 26th June 2016 - 13th Sunday of the Year