Pick Up the Mantle
2 Kings 2:6-14
© Hilary F. Marckx, all rights reserved
It is our time to pick up the mantle.
“What mantle?” You ask.
There is a mantle that is offered to us.
It is a virtual mantle,
not imaginary, not pretend, not phony.
It is the mantle that those who
speak for God wear.
This mantle in no way is like
the cape of a super hero.
It is not like the
one worn on a production
of World Wide Wrestling.
It is invisible, but it is God’s
given authority for us to speak
in God’s name.
Under that mantle we speak
for justice, for hope, for life, for Jesus,
we speak for all those who have no voice,
and we surely speak the Good News
is on the way—here!
The words we speak when we wear that mantle
are not our words based on our comfort or our convenience,
but are words that challenge
the very heart and soul of every
that would do harm.
The mantle is not of a glorious nature,
but it is of an eternal nature…
Go ahead, pick it up and put it on…
it will fit you well.
# # #
The mantle of Elijah that Elisha picked up and put on was the powerful mantle of a prophet. It was not a fashion statement, or anything of that nature. It was the symbol of the authority given by God to speak God’s truth to bad leaders and false prophets. By parting the river, Elisha proved that not only did he have Elijah’s mantle, but by the story having him strike the river and part the water we are shown that the power in that mantle goes all the way back to Moses. We are shown that there is real power attached to Elisha!
The fifty men from the Guild of Prophets watching on is significant as well. The Guild itself may well have been akin to a denomination or a region or conference of ministers. They are the witnesses to the transition of power from Elijah to Elisha. They are the ones who work as a unit of prophetic action.
In Hebrew Scripture, the number 50 is the number following 7 squared—7 being the number signifying “spiritual perfection,” and 50 then signifying jubilee or deliverance. It stands for deliverance and rest, and the perfect consummation of time. Here it reflects back to the three squads of fifty soldiers of King Ahaziah who three times challenged Elijah in the last chapter. But this time instead of the 50 being witness to the end of Ahaziah’s days, the number 50 is used to witness the turning over of Elijah’s mantle to Elisha. A completion of time and a fresh beginning as well as a continuance of God’s companionship to the Hebrews.
These prophets were fearless, more or less. They spoke out. They also ran and hid. They were protected by God because they served the function of God speaking to God’s people. God cared for them because of that.
Who are we and what will we be? Will we speak for God or not? What will we do with the mantle? Will we put it on, or will we step away from it and its obligations? How much spiritual courage do we have? Will we stand alone with God and speak out against injustice and evil? Will we hit the river with the mantle and challenge God to act or will we act as if we just misplaced it?
We live in a time where prophets are needed as much as they ever have been needed. Our culture has been victimized by a religiosity that pretends to speak for God, but in reality only posits its own fears and hatreds as if they are the word of God. Is it no wonder that people are leaving the church, denying affiliation with any organized religion, when we’ve got people who claim to be ministers of God proclaiming that things which they feel uncomfortable with are sins?
But more, the number 50 in signifying Jubilee and deliverance, signifies all that Jesus came to bring humanity–— The Good News! The Good News, or the Gospel, is that there is a work in the universe that supercedes Law, Code, Doctrine, Dogma, and culturally appropriate behavior.
In John 5 and in Mark 2 Jesus clearly breaks the law of the Sabbath, by both healing someone, and by picking ears of corn. What Jesus did that is so phenomenal is that he acted against the laws of his time when people needed help. Jesus was a law breaker. It seems that his definition of sin was somewhat different than that of the Pharisees of his time and of the biblical literalists and proof-texters of our own time. From the John text and the Mark text it would appear that sin, for Jesus, rather than being a breaking of a law or a code, would have been using the law or code as an excuse for not helping someone. Jesus was really big on helping.
Let me take a few words and try to explain the terms Pharisee, Sadducee, biblical literalist, and proof-texter in a way that they might make sense as I am using them. The Pharisees and Sadducees were political-religious parties. They were the lawyers and bean counters of Jesus’ time. The Pharisees as a group were less strict in applying the letter of the law than were the unbending Sadducees, yet it was the Pharisees who were constantly attacking Jesus for his stand. There are some scholars who suggest that it was not the Pharisees as a whole who beleaguered, but just a handful of antagonists from within the sect. These were the people who counted Sabbath steps, kept a supply of big rocks on hand to stone people with, and just looked for wrongdoers to point out so as to make themselves feel superior.
A biblical literalist is a term that on the surface seems fairly self-evident. It means to take the bible literally with no room for interpretation at all. A proof-texter is one who uses scriptures out of context as a way to prove their arguments by way of scripture. Both the biblical literalist and the proof-texter claim an unearned innocence insofar as the harm their mis-placed beliefs cause. Their usage of out-of-context scripture to reinforce their fear-claims supporting bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, polygamy, slavery, and war seem ignorant and self-serving. Yet, to listen to them it is pure, unreflective, and unquestioned faith that drives them. And ironically, then their victims rise up to challenge their mis-conceptions, they act as if they were the victims themselves.
What the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time and the biblical literalists and proof-texters of our own time have in common, is that they demand the letter of the law. Though they would argue otherwise, they seem to care less for the personal well-being of individuals than that the letter of the law or the demands of the text be kept. Somehow, in their need to proclaim their faith, they have lost the heart and soul of that faith.
Jesus kept faith with the spirit of the Law while on occasion ministering outside the Law. Don’t get me wrong here. Laws are good things when they are for the good of the people. But they are not good when they are only for the good of the religious/political ruling parties. Laws that harm the weak and bolster up the powerful must be stood against, challenged, broken. Moses knew this. Elijah new this. Jesus knew this. Gandhi knew this. Mandela, knew this. Martin Luther King knew this. The Founders of our nation knew this. Do we know this?
Sometimes picking up the mantle of God, the mantle of the prophet calls the wearer into places never before considered. Who or what are we called to stand against? How will we do what we are called to do? Will we actually pick up the mantle? I am reminded of the James Russell Lowell poem, “The Present Crisis,” later shortened, put to the Welsh melody, Ebenezer, and re-titled, “Once to Every Man and Nation.” The original poem was written to protest the War with Mexico in 1846-1848:
THE PRESENT CRISIS
James Russell Lowell 1819-1891
When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast
Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west,
And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb
To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime
Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.
For mankind are one in spirit, and an instinct bears along,
Round the earth’s electric circle, the swift flash of right or wrong;
Whether conscious or unconscious, yet Humanity’s vast frame
Through its ocean-sundered fibres feels the gush of joy or shame;—
In the gain or loss of one race all the rest have equal claim.
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.
For Humanity sweeps onward: where to-day the martyr stands,
On the morrow, crouches Judas with the silver in his hands;
Far in front the cross stands ready and the crackling fagots burn,
While the hooting mob of yesterday in silent awe return
To glean up the scattered ashes into History’s golden urn.
Careless seems the great Avenger; history’s pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness ‘twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
And while the lyrics were significantly changed to make the poem into a hymn, the editor was able to hold most of the power of the original:
Once to Every Man and Nation
By James Russell Lowell
Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.
Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.
By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
# # #
2 Kings 2:6-14 — The Message
Then Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here. God has sent me on an errand to the Jordan.”
Elisha said, “Not on your life! I’m not letting you out of my sight!” And so the two of them went their way together.
Meanwhile, fifty men from the guild of prophets gathered some distance away while the two of them stood at the Jordan.
Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up, and hit the water with it. The river divided and the two men walked through on dry land.
When they reached the other side, Elijah said to Elisha, “What can I do for you before I’m taken from you? Ask anything.”
Elisha said, “Your life repeated in my life. I want to be a holy man just like you.”
“That’s a hard one!” said Elijah. “But if you’re watching when I’m taken from you, you’ll get what you’ve asked for. But only if you’re watching.”
And so it happened. They were walking along and talking. Suddenly a chariot and horses of fire came between them and Elijah went up in a whirlwind to heaven. Elisha saw it all and shouted, “My father, my father! You—the chariot and cavalry of Israel!” When he could no longer see anything, he grabbed his robe and ripped it to pieces. Then he picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him, returned to the shore of the Jordan, and stood there. He took Elijah’s cloak—all that was left of Elijah!—and hit the river with it, saying, “Now where is the God of Elijah? Where is he?”
When he struck the water, the river divided and Elisha walked through.