How to read, to preach on these familiar stories, related to each other at the thematic level as the Lectionary is wont to do? The synoptic gospels draw heavily on the Elijah/Elisha stories, sometimes to characterize John the Baptist and Jesus and more often Jesus and his disciples. It appears in the first reading that Elijah recruits his successor in a rather flamboyant way, and that detail can catch and hold the eye. But perhaps we do better to understand that Elisha was known as Elijah’s disciple and successor, and the story emerges in order to account for what may have happened and in any case to attest to the “new man’s” authority and status. The “requirements” sound stringent, even harsh, but they are not so much literal as suggestive of the life of a prophet. The gospel story is similar. It can sound as though Jesus is laying down strict and even unreasonable requirements for discipleship, warning away those who hope for an easy gig.
And yet we do better, I think, to read this passage retrospectively as well, to understand that as the young project of following Jesus learns about what is needed, the sort of single-hearted commitment is urgent, whether for those who literally leave all things or for those (like most of the disciples, perhaps) who may not literally have no den, pillow, or parental responsibility left. Jesus describes, in figurative and yet powerful language, the sort of focus and commitment to himself and this project of God that is inevitably required when it is done well. It’s a matter of cart-and-horse: The pre-requisites that seem to be announced are in fact experiential data, discovered, tested, and validated in the long process of those who commit wholeheartedly to the service of proclaiming the presence of God in the world: no multi-tasking!
Barbara Green, O.P.