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Why did Jesus forbid his disciples to say goodbye to their families?

Luk 9:59-62 NKJV

59 Then He said to another, "Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." 60 Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God." 61 And another also said, "Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go [and] bid them farewell who are at my house." 62 But Jesus said to him, "No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."

Yet Elijah permitted Elisha to go back to his own family to say his farewells?

1Ki 19:19-20 NLT

19 So Elijah went and found Elisha son of Shaphat plowing a field. There were twelve teams of oxen in the field, and Elisha was plowing with the twelfth team. Elijah went over to him and threw his cloak across his shoulders and then walked away. 20 Elisha left the oxen standing there, ran after Elijah, and said to him, "First let me go and kiss my father and mother good-bye, and then I will go with you!" Elijah replied, "Go on back, but think about what I have done to you."

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    One should look to Elisha to see a figure of Christ. Elijah, Elias, as many scriptures make clear, is the figure of John the Baptist's, not Jesus', ministry.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 25, 2023 at 15:47
  • in some respects perhaps, but it is hard to see Elisha as a figure of Jesus when he anointed Jehu to usurp the political kingship of Israel and commanded him to massacre his opponents. Jesus command his followers to love their enemies not slaughter them. 2 kgs. 9:2 Mar 25, 2023 at 16:38
  • @DanFefferman That Israel, the figure of that which was yet to come, had to be a nation among other nations, and that Israel had to be defended (physically, by war) at the time, does not compromise the figure set forth of a king and a kingdom that would be one of peace and would have no reason to fight or war.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 26, 2023 at 0:13

4 Answers 4

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The first important point is that Jesus did not forbid "people" in general. In two successive examples, he forbad a person. Jesus is not applying a law here. He is giving someone the recommendation which that person needs. Just as he did not give to everyone the advice which he gave to the rich young man.

We may note that in Mark ch 1 v17 he tells Simon and Andrew to "follow me" and they leave their nets, but in v29 he is entering their home. Obviously he has not required them to separate from their families. And in the previous verse of the Luke passage he gave mildly discouraging advice to someone who offered to follow him; "The Son of man has nowhere to lay his head".

His answer to the last of the three candidates in Luke warns of the danger of putting the hand to the plough and then "looking back". I suggest that in this particular case (and probably the previous case) "looking back" would have become a permanent "turning back". Jesus would be fully aware of this because "he himself knew what was in man" (John ch2 v25). Presumably there was no reason to fear this result in Elisha's case.

At the same time, there is the difference between Jesus and Elijah. Jesus is giving an outright command (to selected people), because he has the right to demand that someone should follow himself. Elijah's approach is more diffident. He is not giving a command in his own right but passing on God's command. Elisha is to become a fellow-servant of Elijah, not a "follower" in the sense in which we become followers of Jesus. It is an invitation, given in the symbolism of allowing Elisha to "try on" his cloak,the equipment of prophecy. And the RSV translates the second half of his response to Elisha as "For what have I done to you?" I have always taken this to mean "You're free to do as you wish; I haven't laid any compulsion on you". This brings us back to the difference in Elisha himself. It is apparently safe to rely on the strength of Elisha's inner prompting.

The short answer is that the advice is different because the situations are different.

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  • Good answer, I agree fully with your first 3 paragraphs. But your last paragraph says Jesus gave commands from himself, not God, but Jesus was the same as Elijah that way and only did what His Father told him. Jn 8:28 "Jesus said..I do nothing on my own but say only what the Father taught me." Also, we do "take up our cross" do the will of God and become brothers and sisters of Christ, not just followers. And in Jn14:12b Jesus says "anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works", just as Elisha did the same, and even greater works than Elijah did.
    – user61518
    Mar 26, 2023 at 12:38
  • @Nate I take your point, while remembering also the difference between "faithful over God's house as a son" and "faithful as a servant" (Hebrews ch3 v6). There is a sense in which Jesus did have more authority in his own right than Elijah did. Mar 26, 2023 at 13:15
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Good question, but perhaps no simple answer. It would be good to include the whole of the relevant passage: the first speaker said, "Lord, I will follow you whereever you go" to which our Lord replied "Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has no where to lay his head", Luke 9:57-58.

In the case of the three volunteers offering to be disciples of Christ they are volunteering themselves. In the case of Elisha, Elijah did not choose him, God, who knows the hearts of all, has already chosen him.

It looks to me as if our Lord is looking at their hearts. He sees their motives and sees also how important is following Christ for each of the three speakers. He is sifting them: are they really serious? Have they weighed the cost of following Him, or are their declarations of allegiance shallow?

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  • True, but doesnt that same statement from Christ not apply to each and every one of us today, as it did back then? If so, are you implying that Christ is still suspicious that we all have shallow allegiances to him?
    – user61518
    Mar 26, 2023 at 12:42
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    @Nate - The passage is about being a disciple: Christ claims total surrender of our lives to him. "Follow me, though it means no creature-comforts; preaching the gospel is more important than burying your father; if you want to follow me do it fully right away, no delays, no preparations. Following me is all that matters." - We should take his words on board and act. We should be constantly suspicious of ourselves, and earnest in our pursuit of him. The words are to help us get the right priorities in our life. Mar 26, 2023 at 18:54
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First we should consider that Elisha was already on his family's property when Elijah commissioned him. Unlike Jesus' disciple, he did not need to leave his mission to take care of his family. Indeed his immediate response was to leave behind his oxen and follow Elijah, much as the Jesus' first followers did with their nets:

He left the oxen, and ran after Eli′jah, 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?” 21 And he returned from following him, and took the yoke of oxen, and slew 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 Eli′jah, and ministered to him.

If we wish to parallel the scene to Jesus' ministry, it would be as if Peter leaves his nets to follow Jesus and then invites the community to share a huge fish dinner to mark the event. There is no sense of Elisha separating from Elijah here. Indeed he goes beyond what Peter did by leaving his nets; he slaughters his oxen and feed them to the people. Elisha is celebrating his commission with an act of generosity, not leaving his mission for the sake of his family.

We may also consider that Jesus needed his disciples to spread the Good News urgently. Elijah apparently believed there adequate time for Elisha to be trained before his own time was complete. Elijah could bide his time, relatively speaking, as there was no urgent need to teach large numbers of people -- only to ensure Elisha would eventually inherit his mission.

Conclusion: Elisha did not ask to leave his mission to go home. He responded to Elijah's commission positively, then slaughtered his oxen, held a feast and immediately joined his master. Also, in Jesus' case there was an urgent need for the disciple to affirm the priority of God's will to spread the Gospel. In Elijah's case the was no such urgent need. Elisha was responding positively to his commission; Jesus' disciple was doing the opposite.

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Why did Jesus and Elijah act so differently?

There are several reasons for this:

  • Their sacred missions were different, Elijah was a Prophet of the Lord who preached to the Ancient people of Israel, while Jesus was the Son of God and was born of the Holy Spirit in order to save humanity from their sins.

  • Jesus is the second person of the Sacred Trinity and as such commands more authority than the Prophet Elijah or any other Holy Prophet for that matter.

  • Elijah and Jesus had their own sacred missions at different times in the history of salvation and as such their teachings were naturally expressed differently to affect their missionary teachings of the times they dwelt in. Their primary missionary activities reflect the differences in their missionary goals.

  • Elijah preached to the Hebrew nation while Jesus commanded his disciples to preach to the ends of the world.

  • Elijah ended his mission on a chariot of fire going to heaven; while Jesus hung on a Cross to save us from our sins.

In short the situations between Elijah and Jesus are different, but Jesus also commands more respect in his words than the Prophet Elijah. Recall the words of Jesus to the disciples of St. John the Baptist: “Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet (Matthew 11:9).

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