When tempted to say, "I quit," or "I'm indispensable," consider whether this might signal a kind of self-importance that has lost sight of the greater mission. Learn from the story of the Prophet Elijah who was tempted to despair and presumed he stood alone in the mission for the Lord.
What is Doulos?
The Doulos podcast explores servant leadership in an Orthodox Christian context.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. Fr. Timothy Lowe joins me again today. Fr. Timothy is a retired priest who serves within the Orthodox Church in America, most recently the Albanian Archdiocese in Worcester, Massachusetts. Previously, Fr. Timothy was the rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. So welcome back, Fr. Timothy. I'm very grateful to be speaking with you again today.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:42
Well, thank you, Hollie. Here we are in the first week of Lent. So let's see what we can do.
Hollie Benton 0:48
So to kick off our conversation, I'd like our listeners to imagine finally landing that promotion or a new position where you feel you can really now make a difference and be appreciated for the experience and skills that you bring. Now, fast forward a few weeks or months later in that job, and you realize it's a bit harder than you first imagined. And people aren't so appreciative of your skills and experience. In fact, they seem to be working against you, you might feel like quitting, this isn't what you signed up for. Maybe you should just walk away and find a place where your skills and experience are valued, and you can really thrive and make a difference, and the whole cycle starts over again. Or on the other hand, despite the hard work and disrespect, maybe you stay, convincing yourself that you're the only one with the unique set of skills and experience who's capable of doing the job. If the job is to be done, and be done right, you're the only one who can do it. Notice that either attitude or response smells a bit too self-aggrandizing. It's something likely we've all experienced, I know I have. On the one hand, I might want to quit because I feel I deserve better. Or on the other hand, I might stay because I feel I'm indispensable. It's an attitude of self-importance that scripture addresses through many stories and parables throughout. Even the prophets and disciples, we often think of as heroes in the Bible, stumble over their own self importance. One such instance comes through the story of the Prophet Elijah. So Fr. Timothy, we all like to be told that we deserve better or we like to hear the words, "Oh, we couldn't do it without you." And I mean, maybe just for starters, what's so bad about wanting appreciation and respect?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 2:43
Appreciation respect, were always keys, especially for myself as a manager, I must admit it was actually quite transformative. My context for that was always nurturing communities. And not just church communities, even Institute Tantur, you mentioned in Jerusalem, was a key. You know, there's nothing wrong with respect and appreciation, essential, I think, for all working relationships, be at work, marriage, family, friends. Without it, as you see happening, and I couldn't even speak of only family members who during the pandemic have looked to change their jobs because of it, or if it's in case of a marriage, it can totally destroy a marriage, friendships and families can divide. So I'm all for it. But I think when you frame it this way, when it comes to the story, we're going to read today about the prophet Elijah, it's a little bit different.
Hollie Benton 3:33
So I Kings chapter 19, starting with verse three. "Then he was afraid and he rose and went for his life and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, it is enough now, oh, Lord, take away my life for I am no better than my fathers. And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, Arise and eat. And he looked, and behold, there was at his head, a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank, and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time, and touched him and said, Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you. And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food, 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb the mount of God. And there he came to a cave and lodged there and behold, the word of the Lord came to him. And he said to him, What are you doing here, Elijah? He said, I have been very jealous for the Lord, the Lord of hosts, for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down the altars and slain thy prophets with a sword. And I, even I only, am left and they seek my life to take it away." So I encourage our listeners to go and read the entire story of Elijah to understand the greater context. In fact, I was noticing some similarities with this lying down and wanting to die with the prophet Jonah. The passage here in First Kings comes right after Elijah had the Baal priests slain after they lost a contest with him to see which God would heed prayers to ignite a bull offering. Baal or Yahweh. And of course Yahweh won that. When Queen Jezebel heard of the slaughter, she angrily swore to have Elijah killed, forcing him to flee for his life. So this is the passage that comes right after Jezebel had threatened Elijah. And we see Elijah struggling here on the one hand, he wants to quit, he wants to die, he's had enough. But then after the angel of the Lord visits him, and his strength is renewed, Elijah declares his loyalty and hard work for the Lord, and believes he is the only one, the only one left who is committed to doing the work of the Lord, even though his life is threatened. So shortly after this passage, we hear the Lord makes Elijah just stand upon the Mount before the Lord. He encounters a strong wind and earthquake and fire. And then there's a still small voice. And the Lord asked him a second time, what are you doing here, Elijah? And Elijah answers exactly as he did the first time. And then the Lord tells them that he's to return to the wilderness of Damascus and anoint a king over Syria and a king over Israel, and Elisha as His Prophet to take his place. The Lord also declares that after the two kings fight and slay the people of each other, of each land, that the Lord will leave a remnant of 7000 faithful who have not bowed to Baal. So it doesn't sound like Elijah is getting that retirement party with accolades from the Lord, and a slap on the back, "We couldn't do it without you, Elijah." It sounds to me like Elijah has been fired. He's shown to be dispensable. And there's a new prophet Elijah to take his place, along with the 7000 others among the remnant. So what else is going on here, Fr. Timothy?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 7:09
Well, as you pointed out to our listeners, it is important to know the events that has brought Elijah to this point of total despair. And that's the point in which you see total despair, where he begs to God, and the Hebrew is very simple, "Enough of this, take my life." And this is an odd statement, "for I am no better than my fathers." Now we're talking about appreciation and respect. And this is dissing his fathers, okay, dissing his fathers, you know, I'm going to explain a lot of these nuances so that people will understand that you got to listen to the details, and not just scan it. Because I'm afraid now most of us read the Bible and read anything we're scanning. It's called scanning or scrolling. It's not called reading anymore. He says, I am no better than my fathers. So this statement raises an alarm in my brain as I train my brain to listen to what people might be saying without realizing it. So as you said, this statement comes on the heels of his seminal victory on Mount Carmel. And I don't want our readers to get freaked out here, but the text in Hebrew says literally that he slaughtered 450 prophets, he personally, so anyway, it insults our sensibilities. But anyway, then there's the end of the drought. And this other image, and this is why when we talk about reading the context, it's his strange image unique only to Elijah, of him, running miraculously before the chariot of Ahab. And the image is one of the herald coming to announce the victory and the good news. But what is the victory? It's the destruction of the prophets of Baal. So he thinks it's all great news. You can imagine the adrenaline right now. Also, if you read closely, the earlier chapters, you will see what I think, is a repeating flaw in Elijah's character, now fully revealed in what we just read. And again, this is just me, but I've trained myself to listen. And this is that he constantly talks about himself in the first person, always taking praise, praising himself, and sometimes at the expense of the one who we should be praising which is Yahweh. So it should not surprise us that immediately upon reaching the palace after his great victory, he assumes, and hearing the Queen's threat, that he flees in total despair. It's immediate. Immediate. And then his request to die and confession, "I'm no better than my fathers," which we briefly talked about, and you know, I'm old, I can't do drama anymore, Hollie, I just can't. Whenever I see it in anybody, I just can't. The self-absorbing drama! He flees, he thinks his life is threatened. He completely dismisses all the power in the presence of God that has already happened in chapter 17 and 18, as if they're no longer functional. So there you have it, he takes it, he flees. So in time of temptation, he falls away, he falls away. And this is what I think we need to see what is happening here, despairing unto death, and then begging God. He is asking God to take his life away. So the reason this section I think is important is because it covers a very common pattern, and many of us who consider ourselves servants of the Most High God, right, disciples of the crucified Jesus, and like so many people in the parables in the biblical text, New Testament, in time of trial, we simply fall away. Okay, this is the first week of Lent, we can be extra humble, but wait until Holy Week and Gethsemane, when we see the same patter of Elijah repeating itself among the Twelve. Now, what readers of Scripture they need to catch is that God did not call Elijah to Mount Horeb at the beginning. There was no "The word of the Lord came to me." So that's what separates a prophetic action in response to the Word of God coming, and then someone doing their own thing. So his flight is doing his own thing. And I want people to understand that. It is only after he asks to die that the scene will shift to the mountain, which functionally and this is very odd, also in the scripture has not been referenced at all since the departure of the Israelites with Moses. So we need to see this, in my exegesis here, as bad news for Elijah, even though it says it is the angel who wakes him and tells him twice, notice twice, to eat and drink, and then the miraculous journey. We want to get excited about that. But we can't get excited because of what takes place on the mountain. In my ears this is a very odd story, and it continues to get odder. Because once he gets there, not a warm celebratory greeting, but God asks him, Why are you here, which makes my point that it was not initially a blessed thing. Because why would God ask him, Why are you here? Okay, it makes no sense to my ears. And then of course, his grandiose confession, you see about "I am zealous, and I'm the only one," and proclaims himself as the single, and this is grandiose again, the last remnant, the only one. Again, more drama and emphasis, and therefore God's only hope and look what's happening. Twice this happens, the vanity and emptiness of his words. And if it's coming from the mouth of Elijah, the biblical Elijah, and then we have the liturgical Elijah, in our church. Now, I don't have time to read the hymnography, but if someone wants to look it up, they can do a Google search and find the hymnography for the feast of Elijah the prophet. It is unbelievable. Compared to the biblical Elijah, there is such a contrast. Here you have Elijah, one of the greatest, therefore our elder, but also suffering from fear, self-doubt, failure to trust, and so you get the picture. So how does the God of the fiery, quaking, holy mountain respond to him? You all need to see the irony, when the all powerful God of Mount Horeb finally decides to speak, not in the power in the fire in the wind and the earthquake. But he's speaking, and the Hebrew is very odd here, it says a small, barely audible, but thin voice, thin as skinny. In other words, it's not very powerful. It's just the absolute diametrical image against what we always attribute to God as they are a powerful metaphor. So it's not very impressive on the surface, the Epiphany, the manifestation of God in this small, teeny little voice, okay. And that I think, is intentional by the writer. Ironyand satire.
Hollie Benton 14:06
Even contrasted with the fire brought down on the offering when Yahweh defeated the Baal.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 14:10
Yes, because all of that is to publicly demonstrate the power of God, in other words, to scare them out of their wits. Because often with miracles of this kind, we think that it's going to impress and convert people. But if we know from the story of Moses, all the signs and wonders did nothing to increase the faith of the followers. Just as we will read all of during Lent, the signs and wonders done by Christ will do nothing ultimately to persuade and bring the others to faith. Anyway, the thin voice sets out three very specific tasks for Elijah, which you read, to complete since he already wants to die. Okay, so okay. We're gonna give you your request. Here are three tasks, and notice the tasks all involve anointing people. This is an act, a royal act. And that's what I want you to see. The first two, of course, he is supposed to anoint two kings. And the last one, same language, same royal context, same public reality, anoint Elisha. And I want to express that because I'm not going to read the rest of the text. Because the point is, Elijah will not do any of these. Elijah's days are clearly numbered. Three tasks. That's it. He's being dismissed. This is bad news. And so the point, I think of the writer, in his own glory of storytelling, tells us that no one in the Bible is irreplaceable. And here to think we all have a secret, or not-so-secret messiah complex. I mean, I've been a priest for almost four decades, and we all carry within us, I'm convinced, a secret or not so secret messiah complex. We are called, gifted, anointed, ordained, set aside, however you want to put it.
Hollie Benton 16:04
Yeah, and if no one in the Bible is irreplaceable, how much more so am I myself, right?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 16:10
And that's the point, okay. It's not about not being appreciated or being underemployed and not thanked. It's ultimately about a call and a place, and just to do, what the Lord God of Heaven wants us to do. Now, I want us to catch all of this, and we don't have enough time right now to finish the whole, what I call, sad tale of Elijah, is that he does none of the three things as I said. And so that leaves the question, what are we to make of this? Why does he ignore the very three things that God asked him to do? And then I would say, what is the biblical text trying to say to us? What is his message about his failure, about his rebellion, about his despair? I want to leave you and the listeners hanging. I do not want to answer all the questions, but rather, I want to ask some questions. If this brief exegesis of mine is generally accurate, then how might this change how we look at his glorious whirlwind, ascent, and the fiery chair into the heavens? How might this change how we look at it? Is it, as we all read, and certainly our texts read it, and scholars, and they all see it as a sign of his holiness, and thus, along with Enoch, the only other biblical character who is taken up into heaven, and who does not die? And I must confess, this is certainly the dominant exegesis. And again, as I said, our Orthodox hymnography goes on and on about all of this. But as I've tried with you briefly today, the devil is in the details. For example, why does Elijah leave the promised land and ascend on the other side of the Jordan? That's symbolic. Has he been exiled? He's left the Promised Land. Anytime you leave the Promised Land, it's bad news in the Bible, you've suffered judgment. You've been found wanting or lacking. And my point is, I think Elijah has. So has he been forced into exile in a manner alla Moses? Another question, are there scriptural parallels between the story of Moses and Elijah that might support this interpretation? Is it God's way of rejecting his request to die? He wants to die. In other words, get rid of me. But in fact, he takes him into heaven. But is it as a sign of his holiness? Or my question is, Something opposite of that? In other words, you're not getting off quite so easily. You have unfinished business. Now in the biblical texts, Elijah becomes an apocalyptic figure. He's repeated in later prophets, about the coming back of Elijah. And then of course, the New Testament picks up also about the return of Elijah, before the coming of the Lord and so on. The guy's got some unfinished business to do. He doesn't get to rest, he's going to come back.
Hollie Benton 19:17
It's always good to end with the questions and leave us on the mountain with the earthquake and the fire and the wind and wondering what's going to happen.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 19:26
He's just an instrument, a servant, who's utilized, fails, has a crisis, and therefore, like Moses, doesn't get to go in. And the fact that he doesn't do the three things commanded by him, and tries to escape constantly from Elisha, treats him as his servant, instead of as his replacement. It's different because it's supposed to be replace, get out of the way, I'm going to work with this guy. I'm one who believes that the Bible deconstructs everything.
Hollie Benton 20:00
Yeah, no heroes, and we would do well to listen and obey and not get so caught up with ourselves in thinking that we're the only ones doing the work. You know, Martha and Mary.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 20:12
Exactly. You hit it right on the spot. We want to sit at the right or the left, before the baptism.
Hollie Benton 20:19
Yes. I think too, having just an attitude of being replaceable, an attitude of being dispensable, can be so helpful, not even for your own position and serving the community, but also for the community itself. So when a person carries an attitude that I can't be replaced, they might take on an inhuman amount of work and burnout, or they start to obscure what they do and keep important things hidden from the rest of the group to kind of prove their expert knowledge or skill to the rest of the team. And then they drag the entire team down from doing their best work.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 20:56
Absolutely. They become a nightmare, a torment to everybody and to themselves, right?
Hollie Benton 21:01
Right, and to themselves. But then people who view themselves as more replaceable, dispensable, they do better at sharing the work and not making it about them and not making it about their egos and they do better with their successors, encouraging their successors and setting them up, equipping them to do even better than what they might have done themselves. The work, the mission is the focus rather than the ego of the person doing the work.
Yes. It's not about us. Absolutely.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai