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2 Kings 2:1–12

The stories concerning Elijah and Elisha in Holy Writ are so vivid and shocking that they have quite disproportionately occupied the attention of preachers and other storytellers for centuries. Elijah is fed by ravens, as he hides from his enemies (1 Kings 17:2–16). Elisha sends bears to maul a large group of boys after they have mocked him (2 Kings 2:23–24). Elijah raises a widow’s son from the dead (1 Kings 17:17–24). Elisha makes the head of an axe float (2 Kings 6:1–7). And then this story of Elijah’s “spirit” and Elisha’s desire to inherit “a double share” of it, a request that is followed by such a startling image that it has been exploited even by conspiracy theorists and others with vivid fictive imaginations: a “chariot of fire” drawn by “horses of fire” appears, forcing the prophets apart, and Elijah, not in any obvious way dying, departs, taken away into the sky by a “whirlwind.” It is no surprise that scholars inclined to imagine the literary history of the Old Testament in terms of cultural evolution would put these stories in primitive Israel, when it still operated in the shadow of animism. And even now, in “enlightened Western Civilization,” the faithful are tempted to think of “spirituality” as quantifiable, due to large or small amounts of some divine stuff deposited in one’s “heart.”

Perhaps as an antidote to this imagination, it would be helpful to consider a New Testament story not entirely unlike this one, namely, the story of the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17), James and John, who asked Jesus to give them seats of honor, one on his right and the other on his left, once Jesus had come to power (10:35–45).

James and John do not come off well in this story. They not only seem to be impervious to the message of the gospel proclaimed by the Jesus of Mark, thinking it is about the triumphal rise to power of Jesus and his crew—perhaps after a bloody war for apocalyptic supremacy. They also fail to understand Jesus’s caveat before directly addressing their request. “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’” (35–37). This request is not in every respect different from the one of Elisha to Elijah—but situated in the gospel, the reader (or hearer) immediately wonders how these brothers could be so blind to what Jesus has again and again demonstrated, that to enter into the gospel is to serve, not to be served.