Passing the Mantle - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3C (2 Kings 2)
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
2 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.
6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
As I grow older and can see retirement on the horizon, texts like this begin to speak more loudly. I’m not Elijah or Elisha. At one level, I don’t claim to be a prophet in the form that these two figures take. At the same time, as an ordained minister, who has preached most Sundays for the past twenty-one years, I hear in this story a word spoken to my own journey. To preach requires the Spirit. The same is true for all acts of ministry. Different people will have different takes on this passage. Personal context matters. For me, it’s that sense of seeing the current pathway closing. In other words, I’ve begun to see more clearly that a time when the mantle must be passed on to the next generation. In fact, a few years back, when I was inducted into the College of Fellows of the Academy of Parish Clergy, I saw this as a recognition of a call to assist younger clergy in furthering their journeys. This is an important calling since at least half of all clergy will leave the ministry within five years of ordination. Many leave due to disillusionment. Some of that disillusionment rests at the feet of older clergy who may feel threatened by the emerging generations. Instead of offering to help with the passage into the future, they cut themselves off and important forms of wisdom don’t get passed on. When God said to Elijah that he should anoint Elisha as his successor, Elijah could have resisted. He could have felt threatened. But Elijah understood the need to mentor his successor. So, he took up the task (1 Kings 19).
This passage also came to mind as I was planning for my upcoming sabbatical. The grant application the congregation was submitting required a theme, and we chose “River Crossings” because that spoke the journey ahead. A time of transition stands on the horizon for me as a pastor and for the congregation I serve. So, stories that speak of transition stand out. There is the story of Moses, who led the people to the Jordan but didn’t cross over. That was left to his apprentice, Joshua. Elijah crossed the river, together with his apprentice, Elisha. Once they crossed the Jordan, Elijah passed the mantle. These are two images of transition. The one before us pictures Elijah and Elisha crossing the river, but in the end, it is Elisha that continues the ministry that had once been Elijah’s. His ministry would be different from his predecessor, but Elijah was willing to serve as his guide.
These two figures can leave us confused. Who comes first, Elijah or Elisha? The writers of 2 Kings, let us know that it is Elijah first and then Elisha. When last we saw Elijah in the lectionary readings, he had fled to the desert, where he hoped to die, feeling abandoned. His cry to God was something like “Woe is me, nobody likes me, everybody hates me.” (1 Kings 19:1-15). After that experience in the desert, Elijah is told to anoint “Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.” With that instruction, Elijah found Elisha plowing his field and threw his mantle over him, and after a bit of negotiation, Elisha followed Elijah, becoming his apprentice (1 Kings 19:16,19-21). Now it was time to pass the mantle. It was time for Elijah to leave and Elisha to take his place. This didn’t occur until Elijah had fully instructed his apprentice, and for his part, Elisha is faithful in his following of Elijah. Elijah is the more famous of the two, but both men spoke for God to a people who didn’t always appreciate the message.
The passage begins with Elijah and Elisha heading out from Gilgal. Elijah told his apprentice to stay behind as he headed to Bethel, but Elisha declared his desire to continue on with his master. When they arrived at Bethel, the disciples of the prophets came out and warned Elisha that God would be taking Elijah away from him. He acknowledged the fact. Elijah and Elisha would repeat this pattern regarding staying behind at each juncture on the path to the place where God would take Elijah. Each time Elisha pledged to stay with him. As they made the journey from Bethel to Jericho and then to the Jordan, fifty disciples of the prophets followed along with them, but at a distance, until they reached the Jordan. Here is where the moment of transition begins.
Once again, Elisha is told to stay behind, as Elijah follows his path beyond the Jordan, but Elisha refuses. At this point, Elijah takes his cloak or mantle, rolls it up, and then slaps the water of the Jordan with it. With that, the water of the river divides, much like it did when Joshua led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Though, on this occasion, Elijah intends to cross to the other side, out of the Promised Land. As they cross the river, Elisha having demonstrated his loyalty to Elijah, his master asks him: “what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” Elisha answers: “Let a double portion of your spirit pass on to me.” (vs. 9 Tanakh). That’s asking for a lot, says Elijah. But, he’s open to the possibility, as long as Elisha keeps his focus on his master as he is taken up into the whirlwind. If not, if he fails to keep his concentration on Elijah’s departure, the deal’s off. All along the way, from Gilgal to this moment, it seems as if Elijah is testing Elisha’s resolve. This will be the last test before the mantle is passed.
It is at this point, as they are walking and talking that a fiery chariot descends from the heavens and sweeps in to take Elijah from the earth. And as Elisha watched Elijah taken up into the whirlwind, he cries out “oh father, oh father.” When he could no longer see his master, he took his garments and tore them in grief. With that expression of mourning, Elisha picked up the mantle of his master, which Elijah had dropped. He struck the river, which parted, and he crossed over. Here is the evidence—Elisha has the spirit, perhaps more than did Elijah. He is the heir. His turn has come. Thus, begins a new chapter, a new ministry.
Life is like that. It never stands still. Elijah was a great prophet. In actuality, his prophetic efforts were probably grander than those of Elisha, but there comes a time for the mantle to be passed. In this story, Elijah is taken from the earth. He doesn’t die; he simply is taken up. Only Enoch has the same experience. That is, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24 Tanakh). Elijah walks with God and God takes him. Elijah had his struggles. He had his victories, but he also had to flee. But the ministry goes on. A new person steps to the plate. He has shown his mettle. He stood steadfastly with his mentor. He didn’t aside and follow another pathway. But he went forward in the spirit, having received the same spirit that empowered Elijah. The mantle, the cloak, is not the source of power but is the symbol of a spiritual power that Elisha discerned was necessary to fulfill his calling. And off he goes, in the spirit. The same is true for us. To fulfill our callings, whether we would term them prophetic or not, requires the presence of the Spirit of God.
Picture Attribution: Swanson, John August. Elijah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56543 [retrieved June 24, 2019]. Original source: www.JohnAugustSwanson.com - copyright 2008 by John August Swanson.