How does a person say goodbye well?
That question seems to stump even the prophet Elijah. Twice, Elijah tells Elisha in today’s passage to “stay here,” and not follow him any further. He says the Lord is sending him on, first to Jericho, and then to the Jordan. Both times, Elisha refuses to be left behind, even though he and the entire company of prophets know what is about to happen, that Elijah is, in fact, going to leave him behind. He doesn’t want to let Elijah go without a proper goodbye.
Does Elijah feel guilt regarding his departure? Does he feel that he owes Elisha more, or the people of Israel more? Perhaps. Perhaps he knows there’s more he can do by sticking around longer, continuing to do the work that God ordained for him in Israel. But, for whatever reason, God is calling him Home.
And Elijah tries twice to avoid goodbyes, both times slipping away without notice. Only Elisha will have nothing of it.
Why might the one left behind want closure more than the one leaving?
Each time that Elijah tells Elisha to stay behind, Elisha’s response is the same: “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” His repetition of the phrase “I will not leave you” leads me to wonder whether Elisha is holding a mirror up to Elijah to make him see what he is doing, even if Elijah is unwilling to admit it. Elijah is leaving Elisha behind.
Finally, Elijah says to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you,” as though Elijah is finally taking responsibility for his leaving. Using the passive voice, “taken from you,” Elijah seems finally to recognize that Elisha will be left alone, without his mentor. How can Elijah make his absence less painful for Elisha?
In some ways, goodbye is an apology without blame. No one’s at fault; but still, the person leaving feels responsible for those left behind, to make things better for them. I wonder if that is why we often feel a pang of guilt when saying goodbye?
Peter Levenstrong is Associate Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Having grown up non-religious, he enjoys bringing “a fresh pair of eyes” to explore the Christian tradition, and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and justice. You can find more of his sermons at https://peterlevenstrong.wordpress.com/