In I King 19, we get the story of when Elisha is called to follow Elijah:
So Elijah left that place and found the son of Shaphat who was plowing with twelve yokes of oxen preceding him (he was driving the twelfth pair himself), and he tossed his mantle on him. 20 Elisha left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Please let me kiss my father and mother good-bye and then I will follow you.” But he said, “Go back, what have I done to you?”
21 He went back, and took a yoke of oxen and killed them. He used the oxen’s equipment to boil their meat, and he gave it to the people to eat. He then got up and followed Elijah, ministering to him.
Then in Luke we get a rather similar sounding story with two variations, but in which the would-be followers are unnamed and the teacher is Jesus:
59 To another he said, “Follow me.” The man replied, “Lord, allow me to go first and bury my father.” 60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. You are to go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61 Another man said, “I will follow you, Lord, but allow me first to say farewell to my family at home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Have you ever wondered at the difference in these two passages? In the Gospels, we’re given the impression that to “go and say goodbye” or “bury my father” is grounds for being rejected; yet in the Old Testament, Elijah says, “Hey, I’m not forcing you to do anything here. If you wanna say goodbye, go for it.”
Given how brief these passages are, my musing here is going to be pure conjecture…but hey, that’s why we’re here, right? To muse and consider.
One thing that I want to put out here right away is something I read recently in a biography of Mary Madgadelene: Biblical writers were very conscious of what they were saying about people either alive or revered. In the Old Testament, we regularly see sins of the patriarchs not expounded on. It wasn’t because everyone didn’t know they were sinning, but rather because they were giving respect to their ancestors. The same sort of thing often happened in the New Testament. If the person about whom they were writing was still alive and their privacy or safety was at stake, the writers chose to leave then nameless; they’d do the same if a story could reflect negatively on someone they didn’t want to disrespect. (I don’t know about you, but I found that fascinating and insightful! Like, oh, they were left nameless on purpose and for a reason. That explains a lot!)
So why might these nameless people in the Gospel have been dismissed? We can assume it was for a negative reason. That they made the wrong choice. That their intentions weren’t good. That the truth would have reflected negatively on them.
Elisha, however, is a different case altogether. Yes, he asked to go say goodbye…but what do we then see him doing? He’s not embracing his parents and weeping for the life left behind. He’s certainly not following Elijah half-heartedly. He returns to offer a sacrifice. More, he particularly chooses to sacrifice the work he had been doing. He uses the very oxen he’d been plowing with, and their yokes for the fire. This wasn’t just a farewell to his parents–this is a very symbolic action, in which he is giving all he was, all that represented his family and stable, even wealthy life, to God. He put it quite literally on the altar. We don’t actually see him saying that promised goodbye to his parents, but we can assume they came out to see what in the world he was doing and said goodbye.
The important thing here is that he didn’t just drop everything–he left it for good. When he decided to follow the path of the Prophet, he followed with his whole heart.
If we look at the disciples, we see similar stories. When Jesus called them, they came running. Now, we also know they didn’t just abandon their families–after all, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. They were still in the same neighborhood, they still stayed at their own homes at least from time to time. This was not a hateful, disrespectful thing they did. But in the moment, they came with their whole hearts. The questions of “how will we survive?” and “what will people think?” weren’t relevant to this decision.
Jesus called–or in Elisha’s case, God the Father called–and they answered. They answered with a resounding, “I’m coming, Lord! Here I am!”
Those two nameless would-be followers, though…one approached Jesus, but it seems He saw something reserved in the man. He issued a warning. We don’t even see whether this deterred the man or not, but we assume it did. Then He calls to another, who presumably wasn’t asking for a few minutes like Elisha was, so he could go and sacrifice everything–Jesus, who knew his heart, must have known that. That he wasn’t just asking to say goodbye…he was perhaps looking for an excuse to delay. He wanted to see the people who would talk him out of it, so he could come back, perhaps, and say, “Sorry, Lord, my dad really needs me, and we’re supposed to honor our parents, so…”
And we are. Of course we are. But here’s the thing: we’re not honoring our parents if we’re disobeying God. He is our ultimate Father. So when He calls, there is only one right answer. To follow. To follow without looking back with longing on the life you’re leaving behind. To follow without looking for excuses to change your mind. To follow with your whole heart–and to minister. Did you catch that in Elisha’s story? He followed Elijah and ministered to him.
God asks easy things of us, and He asks hard things too. He asks us to give of ourselves and put Him first. He asks us to draw ever closer to Him, knowing that the more we give up of our own lives, the more we’ll be given the life He wants for us. He promises abundance…but it just doesn’t always look like we expect it to. Elisha went on to receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and the disciples went on to perform miracles “even greater” than the ones Christ performed. They lived rich, full, crazy lives.
I like to think that those unnamed would-be followers in fact did become followers, and that’s why these stories don’t name them. Because they saw the fault in their initial reaction and shared the stories with the others of the time they messed up. But praise God, He doesn’t just call our name once. Much like He did with Samuel, He calls it until we learn how to answer him.
What sort of goodbye do you say when He calls you?