Burning the Plow

So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him.

1 Kings 19:19-21 (ESV)

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik concludes his classic book The Lonely Man of Faith with a comparison of Elisha and Elijah as archetypal figures representing the “two Adams” or two different types of men of faith: material and spiritual man. I recently suggested that what makes the man of faith lonely isn’t just the inability to adequately connect to God, but the difficulty in developing a true relationship between the spiritual and material persons that “live” inside each of us.

How do we resolve this conflict, or is it unresolvable? I’m inclined to believe the latter, since Rabbi Soloveitchik introduced his book thus:

I have no problem-solving thoughts. I do not intend to suggest a new method of remedying the human situation which I am about to describe; neither do I believe that it can be remedied at all. The role of the man of faith, whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation, has been a difficult one since the times of Abraham and Moses.

-Soloveitchick from the Foreword of his book

So if there are no “problem-solving thoughts” and no “new method of remedying the human situation” of the man (or woman) of faith, then why continue to belabor the point? Faith will always isolate us from God, from society, from each other, and even from our own personalities. But Soloveitchick did not end his book on a note of despair or futility.

Elisha was a typical representative of the majestic community. He was the son of a prosperous farmer, a man of property, whose interests were centered around this-worldly, material goods such as crops, livestock, and market prices. His objective was economic success, his aspiration – material wealth. The Bible portrays him as efficient, capable, and practical, remindful of a modern business executive. When Elijah met him, we are told, he was supervising the work done by the slaves. He was with the twelfth yoke in order not to lose sight of the slave-laborers. What did this man of majesty have in common with Elijah, the solitary covenantal prophet, the champion of God, the adversary of kings, who walked as a stranger through the bustling cities of Shomron, past royal pomp and grandeur, negating the worth of all goods to which his contemporaries were committed, reproaching the sinners, preaching the law of God and portending His wrath?

Yet unexpectedly, the call came through to this unimaginative, self-centered farmer. Suddenly the mantel of Elijah was cast upon him. While he was engaged in the most ordinary, everyday activity, in tilling the soil, he encountered God and felt the transforming touch of God’s hand. The strangest metamorphosis occurred. Within seconds, the old Elisha disappeared and a new Elisha emerged. Majestic man was replaced by covenantal man.

This isn’t really what I was looking for. Elijah represented the covenantal man, the man of God, while Elisha possessed the role of majestic, material man, in command of his environment, aware of God but not consumed by Him. The answer to the dilemma of how to connect spiritual and material man seems to be to convert one to the other. Elisha effectively becomes Elijah, and one man is substituted for the other rather than resolving the conflicts and distance between the two which would have allowed them to co-exist.

Interestingly enough, this wouldn’t be the last time such a conflict is described in the Bible and such a resolution is attempted.

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” –Luke 9:59-62 (ESV)

The transactions between Jesus and those he called to be his disciples seem to be functionally similar to the interaction between Elijah and Elisha. Jesus, the “ultimate covenental man” encounters various “material men” in the process of performing their usual routines and commands them to follow him. Those who hesitate or who desire to fulfill their material obligations first, he says are unfit for the Kingdom of God.

The response of material man to spiritual man it seems, must be immediate or it does not work at all. So what did Elisha do according to Soloveitchik?

He slew the oxen and fed the meat to the slaves who, half-starved, tilled the soil for him and whom he, until that meeting with Elijah, had treated with contempt. Moreover, covenantal man renounced his family relationships. He bade farewell to father and mother and departed from their home for good.

The level of commitment called for both by Elijah and by Jesus seems abrupt and absolute and anything less is considered a failure in terms of entering the Kingdom of God. But that isn’t the end of the story.

Elisha’s withdrawal from majesty was not final. He followed the dialectical course of all our prophets. Later, when he achieved the pinnacle of faith and arrived at the outer boundaries of human commitment, he came back to society as a participant in state affairs, as an adviser of kings and a teacher of the majestic community. God ordered him to return to the people, to offer them a share in the covenantal drama and to involve them in the great and solemn colloquy.

I’m not satisfied. The book ends with Elisha lonely but not despairing, discovering triumph in defeat, hope in failure, and sheltering the Word of God in his bones like an all-consuming fire burning in his heart. In his loneliness, Elisha discovers a God who resides in the recesses of transcendental solitude.

But is that all there is?

None of us bear the mantle of prophet and holy man in the way of Elijah and Elisha, but we see that a similar process occurs when Jesus calls each of us into discipleship. We are all called to leave our former life, to metaphorically burn our plow and slaughter our oxen in order to feed the poor and enslaved, and then to follow the Master on a completely new course of life, interacting with the material world as a messenger for the spiritual world. Is that what’s supposed to happen?

And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. –John 17:11-14 (ESV)

We aren’t taken out of the world to become completely one with the spiritual realm. There’s an interactivity between who we are as spiritual people and the role we play in the material world around us. We cannot serve the purpose God created us for if we merely retreat into our spiritual reality and ignore the majestic and material environment where we happen to live.

Soloveitchik is right. There is no cure for the loneliness of a man of faith but that’s to be expected. We don’t belong here, none of us. We are the proverbial strangers in a strange land, pilgrims in a broken world, carrying a message from the Master to everyone else not to give up hope. It’s a hope that no political figure or celebrity can offer because they are wholly one with the material and are limited by the boundaries of their devotion to only the physical. The hope we offer as messengers of our Master is the love of God and the promise of redemption, not only of created world, but of our very beings.

The loneliness of the man of spirit will end, but not yet.


3 thoughts on “Burning the Plow”

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