Elijah the Prophet, Jesus the Lord

Today’s Gospel reading happens to correspond to a presentation that I recently made in one of my classes on Luke’s use of Elijah imagery in his Gospel.  Luke’s use of Elijah is complex.  He does not make a simply one-to-one typological correspondence, but rather seems as concerned to contrast Jesus and Elijah as compare them.  Luke contrasts Elijah and Jesus not to criticize Elijah, but rather to show that Jesus is something more than a prophet.  Jesus is the Lord, and a Messiah who will bring salvation to all people, not through violence but through the cross.

Jesus explicitly invokes Elijah (and Elisha) in Luke 4:16-30. Here, he reverses the people’s expectations that the Messiah would be a warrior king who would bring God’s blessings on Israel and his wrath on her enemies.  Jesus first reads a messianic passage from Isaiah about the blessings the Messiah will bring, and says that this passage is fulfilled in their hearing.  This accords with people’s hopes and expectations.  But then, he invokes Elijah and Elisha who gave God’s blessings to Gentiles, to say that God’s blessings will be extended outside of Israel.  This contradicts the people’s hopes and expectations about membership in the Kingdom of God, and provokes their wrath.

Again in Luke 7:11-17, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, there are allusions to Elijah raising the son of the widow who fed him during the famine (1 Kings 17:17-24).  Here, though, there are notable discontinuities.  Elijah uses almost magical efforts to raise the boy–laying upon him and three times breathing upon him (according to the Greek Old Testament which Luke would have used), completed by a powerful plea to the Lord (kyrios in the Greek Old Testament) to raise the boy.  By contrast, Jesus simply commands the boy and he is raised.  Elijah must beg the Lord for the miracle, whereas Jesus simply commands.  Significantly, Luke calls Jesus only “kyrios” in this passage.  Elijah must call on the Lord, Jesus is the Lord.

Today’s Gospel contains an evident allusion to Elijah calling down fire from heaven to destroy his opponents in 2 Kings 1:10, 12 (and also echoes of his calling down fire to consume the sacrifice on Carmel in his battle with the prophets of Baal, whom he then slaughters [1 Kings 18:20-40] and even Elisha’s curse on the children who mocked him and were then devoured by bears [2 Kings 2:23-24]).  The apostles want to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village who has rejected Jesus.  But Jesus rebukes his own apostles rather than this unbelieving village, again upending the expectation that the Messiah would bring God’s wrath on Israel’s enemies.  Jesus is not Elijah and will not destroy his opponents as Elijah did.  He is not a warrior Messiah, but a peaceful one.  The same point is made in Luke 22:47-53, where Jesus rejects the use of violence and the sword to defend him at his arrest.  Jesus the Messiah does not wield the sword, rather, it is wielded against him.  A significant textual variant brings this point out eloquently (this additional verse, present in a few ancient witnesses, is given as a footnote in the Revised Standard Version, and even in the main text of the King James Bible): “the Son of man came not to destroy men’s souls but to save them.'”

Today’s Gospel is at a critical juncture in the narrative of Luke’s Gospel: Jesus has “set his face toward Jerusalem,” and for the next nine chapters he willingly journeys toward his passion and death.   The text is rife with allusion to Jesus’ looming rejection and death at the hands of men: he has twice predicted it and his journey is introduced in its context: “When the days drew near for him to be received up.”   Jesus is going to Jerusalem, straight into the hands of his persecutors, and to his death.  By contrast, much of the drama of the entire Elijah narrative comes from Elijah fleeing from his persecutors.  He originally meets the widow when in hiding from Ahab (1 Kings 17:3) and he encounters God in the cave when he is fleeing Jezebel’s murderous vengeance (1 Kings 19:2-3).  He ultimately eludes even death, to be taken up to heaven in a chariot (2 Kings 2:11).  Jesus by contrast accepts his suffering and death for the salvation of the world.  His glory is not that he avoids death like Elijah, but that he embraces it.

This has implications not only for Christology–that Jesus is a non-violent Messiah who effects salvation through the cross, not the sword–but also for discipleship.  The context of today’s Gospel is also Jesus’ training of his disciples: from the instruction to take up one’s cross (9:23-27), the dispute about greatness (9:46-48), the man casting out demons in Jesus’ name (9:49-50); the would-be disciples (9:57-62); and the mission of 72 (10:1-12).  Jesus is teaching his disciples that they are to follow their master.  Jesus’ followers are not to wield the sword, but to take up the cross.  This is played out after Pentecost when we see the apostles doing just that, with the ironic touch that in Acts 8:4-25, the Gospel is preached and accepted even in Samaria, surely including the same village the apostles wanted to destroy with fire from heaven.

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3 Responses to Elijah the Prophet, Jesus the Lord

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Hello Matthew (aka “new kid”)! A very insightful, spiritual and accademic view of the usage/juxtaposition of OT prophets in the NT. Our Lord had a tight-rope to walk; update the message while not coming out and saying “you got it wrong the first time” so as not to break continuity. While this was not very important to the Gentiles (i.e. Marcion) it certainly was crucial to the first converts, being faithful Jews.

    Throughout the centuries AFTER the gospels, many church fathers (and the church in general) warns against and condemns Judaizers; those who would impose Jewish traditions over our Christian ones, specifically because of the dangers to the truths in our Christology. We see the same thing even today; witness the other thread on the two species. As you rightly point out, we cannot sacrifice our own theology to misguidedly simulate Jewish appearances, simply because they pre-date Christianity. In the same vein, this compare/contrast of the OT prophets with Our Lord show the clear dangers and traps that we modern Christians can fall into; i.e. the OT prophets did some extraordinary things, just like Jesus did…so, they’re all pretty much equal, right?

    Once again, very wonderful post. Kudos and thanks.

    • Matthew Monnig, SJ says:

      Thanks for your complimentary comments. You are right to note the Marcionite possibilities of this passage and its interpretation. In fact, Marcion himself used this passage to argue for an Old Testament God of wrath opposed to a New Testament Christ of mercy. Tertullian counters that both God in the OT and Christ in the New use justice and mercy as appropriate to diverse situations. The New Testament continues and develops the Old, it does not repudiate it. It’s not that Elijah was bad, but Jesus is something different. He’s something much greater.

  2. Qualis Rex says:

    Fascinating insight! Tertullian is one of my favorite among the African fathers, so thank you so much for bringing him up (don’t hear him mentioned much these days : )

    God bless you now and always!

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