In the First Reading, Elisha is called by the Lord to be the helper and successor of the prophet Elijah. When in response to God’s call the prophet comes to get Elisha, Elisha really wants to follow the prophet. Only he wants to kiss his mother and father goodbye first.
The prophet responds negatively to Elisha’s desire to go home first. “Go back!” the prophet says to him. And he means, “who wants you anyway?”
Why does the prophet take such a stern attitude?
Well, it is God who is calling Elisha, isn’t it? If the President of the US were to call you and ask you to meet him, would you pause for anything? Wouldn’t you race out in excitement? Pausing before going indicates that you don’t really understand or don’t really care who it is that is calling you.
And, then, too, if you don’t care very much about who is calling you, you might in the end fail to answer his call. It is undeniably easier to stay at home in the midst of what is small and familiar than to hazard the perils that come with answering a great call.
In Elisha’s case, the prophet’s dismissive response to Elisha’s temporizing puts the fire of God in Elisha. He kills all the oxen he was plowing with when the prophet called him. He uses their yokes for firewood to roast the oxen, and he gives the flesh to his servants to eat. Elisha is making sure that he can’t go home now, isn’t he? How could he, after what he did to the family oxen and their yokes?
So here is the moral of the story: there isn’t room for hanging back when the Lord calls. If you hesitate, if you think of an excuse to postpone answering the call, you aren’t really hearing the Lord calling; and so you aren’t really going to follow him either, not now, not later. That is why in the Gospel Reading Jesus says that no one who sets his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of Heaven.
But each human person is called to follow the Lord, to turn his back on his own sins, to live a life of love and holiness. Answering that call can’t wait for later, after whatever else a person thinks needs to be happen first. There is no place for temporizing when the Lord calls. The Lord’s call has to be answered now.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University