Monday, June 28, 2010

On Plowing and Looking Back

This Sunday's readings came from 1 Kings 19: 16b, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; and Luke 9:51-62. The first and last each use the image of plowing, but each in what would seem to be opposing ways.

Our departing parochial vicar, Fr. Mariusz Majewksi gave a great homily focusing primarily on the gospel reading, but he also addressed all three readings on his blog.

I puzzled over the reading of 1 Kings myself, because I was struck by verse 19: "So he departed from there, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing, with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth" (RSV)

The NAB phrases it differently: "Elijah set out, and came upon Elisha, son of Shaphat, as he was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen; he was following the twelfth."

The Septuagint translation from the Apostolic Bible Polyglot reads: "Twelve teams were before him, and he was among the twelve."

Jay Green's Hebrew/English interlinear reads: "twelve pairs before him, and he was with the twelfth."

Take note that he is not with twelve oxen, but with twelve yoke/teams of oxen, or in the Hebrew, 12 pair. That's a whole lot of oxen--at least 24. So we can see just what kind of investment such a number is and just why Elisha cannot turn back. He has destroyed any chance of return to his livelihood. Symbolically, what does this mean? Perhaps that he is taking up the mantle of a prophet. He is cutting himself off from the material concerns of the 12 tribes to put himself at the service of God, regardless of the cost. In any case, I find the wording interesting, particularly that he was "with the twelfth." The specificity here raises a flag and causes me to pause.

In Luke, Jesus uses a similar image in Luke 9:62 to talk about following God's will, evoking the scene between Elijah and Elisha: "Another said, 'I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.' Jesus said to him, 'No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'"

Now in 1 Kings, Elisha was plowing. When he asks essentially the same question of Elijah and is rebuked, he responds by ending his plowing in the most dramatic way possible. However, Jesus uses a different image here. The Greek text actually uses the words "looking at the things behind." The difference in the usage is striking. Here, the work of following involves plowing the field, not rejecting labor and not merely being a prophetic voice, but preparing the world for the kingdom. Why otherwise would it matter for someone plowing to look back? Because you cannot plow a straight furrow is you are not looking forward. In a sense, Elisha is preparing himself to put his work before him as well, slaying whatever life he had before to follow God's will.
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