Luke 9:51-62 A DOUBLE PORTION OF THE SPIRIT Our Old Testament lesson about Elijah’s ascension to heaven and Elisha’s reception of a double portion of Elijah’s spirit is one of those great biblical narratives that mixes the mundane with the fantastic in an amazing manner. The author seems not to know anything about spoiler alerts, or to care about them, since right at the beginning he gives away the surprise ending, opening the passage with the words, “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind…” Presumably, then, his first audience already knew the outlines of the story about Elijah ascending to heaven, and perhaps their interest was in exactly how the narrator would retell this well-known and well-loved story, what unexpected nuances he could bring to it, what twist she could put on it.
And one of the most attention-grabbing twists here is that, in this narrator’s hands, the story of Elijah’s departure from this earth becomes such an affectingly human narrative. This is the story of the glorious ascension to heaven in chariots of fire of perhaps the greatest Old Testament prophet after Moses, the prophet whose deathless end made people expect that he would return from heaven right before the end. He would be able to come back without being resurrected because he had never really died.
But it is also such a human story. Elijah seems to know that his departure from Elisha will exact a heavy price, and he wants to spare Elisha the blow. He says to him at the beginning, in effect, “Let me go off by myself so that you will be spared the pain of seeing me depart from this earth.” He repeats this request twice more in the narrative, and each time Elisha responds, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Elisha refuses to leave Elijajh. He will stay with his old lord and master to see how things turn out; he will not leave him to face his end by himself.
Even more moving is another conversation, again a repeated one. After the first two times that Elijah says, “Let me go off by myself,” and Elisha says, “No, I’ll go with you,” Elisha encounters a group of prophets who come from the next city to have a private chat with him. Each time these charismatic virtuosos proudly display their spiritual gift: “Did you know that the Lord is taking your master away from you today?” In other words, “Do you have as much prophetic insight as we do?” And each time Elisha responds, “Yes, I know it—but can you please shut up?" Prophetic insight is a great thing, but it is not the greatest thing; and sometimes flaunted spiritual capacities can be destructive. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 13, “Where there is prophecy, it will fail.” And of the things that will not fail, the greatest is love.
Our seventeen year-old cat, Horace, whom we adopted as a kitten in 1996 from an animal rescue shelter in Scotland when I was teaching at the University of Glasgow, died ten days ago, on June 19. Horace moved with us to Boston in 1999 and then down here to Durham in 2001. He was kind of a small gray tabby with eyes that never lost their inquisitiveness. He came to us when my 22 year-old daughter Rachel, who runs the nursery here every other week, was five, and he’s been with us through our ups and downs and through big changes in our lives. He was a good cat, though, like all cats, he had his quirks. The only unpleasant one I can think of right now is a habit of sidling up to you, rubbing himself against your elbow, sniffing your facing affectionately, as if he wanted to give you a kiss—and then when you leaned forward to receive it, he would try to bite you on the nose.
He had been having various sorts of strange digestive disorders for the last few months, and then in the past few weeks he began eating less and less, or, rather, he kept eating, but he couldn’t keep anything down, and day by day he seemed to lose weight and become more frail. It was becoming easier and easier to give him his pills--and, believe me, when it becomes easy to give your cat a pill, you know that there’s something wrong. Gloria and I both felt that it was only a matter of time before we lost him.
But he still remained our Horace, right up to the end, and that was a great blessing; even in his last days, he could still climb onto my lap and doze there and purr, though he seemed to have more and more trouble settling down and getting comfortable. He even clambered into my lap the night before he died. He was nothing but skin and bones by then, and he felt light as a feather; and I remember thinking, “This might be the last time.” And there was a sadness about that moment, but also a sacredness about the realization of its finality--that it was the final step in a long, long walk. “Do you know that your friend will be taken from you today?” “Yes, I know it; but hush.”
But, of course, there are special dimensions to our story of Elijah and Elisha that transcend even our relationship with Horace. Elijah may have meant even more to Elisha than Horace meant to us. Because it is clear from the sweep of their overall story together that Elijah is a sort of surrogate father to Elisha. When they first encounter each other, in a tale reminiscent of the call narratives of the Gospels, Elijah throws his cloak over Elisha’s shoulders, symbolically adopting him. Elisha recognizes what is happening, and only begs for a few moments to kiss his biological parents goodbye before following this adoptive father into the unknown. Elijah tells him, “Go ahead, who’s stopping you?,” and he does. Then he traipses off to become Elijah’s follower, servant, and surrogate son. So it is a demanding relationship; like Jesus in our Gospel lesson, Elijah asks for nothing less than all Elisha has to give.
But it also is one that seems to fulfill a need in Elisha that was never met in his biological family--a deep craving that had never found the food it needed, as happens to the title character in Kafka’s terrible story, “The Hunger Artist”: you can starve to death, spiritually, in your own family, because you never find the food you need. So if you meet someone who cansupply that food, you leave everything and follow. There are cravings that a biological family sometimes will not or cannot meet, and one of those cravings may be the quest for a true father or a true mother. Some people lack such a parent even though they grew up with one who was physically there. So they look for others to fulfill that role; and if they’re very, very lucky, they may find someone to do it, and, what is even rarer, to do it in a healthy way. So perhaps it is not by accident that, when Elisha sees Elijah taken up to heaven, his first cries are, the “My father, my father.” And in some ways this is a terrible moment because, as the text explicitly says, the chariots and horsemen of fire that sweep Elijah up to his heavenly also separate him from Elisha forever. And the moment of separation from one who has become a surrogate parent, the good parent you never had—that can be a hard moment.
So there is a lot that is easy to relate to in the first part of our Old Testament story, which ends with Elijah’s assumption to heaven. But, of course, the main point of the story is in its second part, when Elijah is taken up and a double portion of his spirit descends on Elisha. But how can we relate to that? Whenever I think of questions like this, I’m reminded of the remark of an Israeli friend with whom I toured the traditional site of Emmaus, a few miles west of Jerusalem. This is the site where, according to Luke’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus appeared to two disciples, broke bread with them, and then vanished from their sight. I told this deeply secular, deeply cynical Israeli friend the story as we picked our way through the ruins, which in their present form date from the Crusader period. And when I got through, she said, “Thank you for telling me that story. I like fairy tales too.”
Well, even if our story of Elijah and Elisha is in some ways like a fairy tale, maybe fairy tales shouldn’t be treated so dismissively, especially if Bruno Bettelheim is right (and I think he is) that they often portray in symbolic form some of the deep dynamics of the psyche as it struggles upward toward growth and maturity. But is there anything in our experience that corresponds to receiving a double portion of a departed prophet’s spirit?
Well, I don’t know about a double portion, but maybe the amount isn’t really the point. There are people who have gone on, or who will probably go on before me, from whom I’d be happy to receive just a tiny tiny bit of their spirit, as long as I knew that that eensy weensy particle really was a bit of the same sort of spirit that had turned itself towards me through them. If I could be sure that I had incorporated some of that spirit—if I could be sure that, partly because of what I’d received from these forebears, I had been enabled to become to others something like what they had been to me—well, I think I could curl up on the lap of the big cat-owner in the sky and pass away relatively peacefully.
And I do think of the last conversation I had with an old New Testament professor who graciously hosted me at his apartment in Oslo a year or two before he died. He didn’t get around very well anymore at this point, but he shuffled around between his refrigerator and the good Norwegian wood of his kitchen table, bringing me smoked salmon and bread and mustard and coffee, and talking away about things he’d worked on in his long life of scholarly teaching, writing, and mentoring. And at several points in the conversation he told me of ideas he’d had for further work, and of questions that had occurred to him that needed exploring, and then said, “But I won’t get back to that now.”
And that kind of made me sad, because I thought I heard regret in what he said. And I related the conversation and my feelings about it a few days later to some of the younger colleagues (that is, people my age) at the university. And they all nodded—they’d had similar experiences with the old professor —and one of them said, “Yes, but you don’t understand. He’s passing that problem on to you.”
And being in such a line of transmission, and being able to carry on the work of those who have gone before, and to develop it in ways that they had not forseen, but perhaps drawing from the same mysterious wells of the spirit that they did—well, maybe that’s not everything, but maybe it’s enough.