THIRTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Commentaries on the Readings: 1 Kings 19:16b,19-21; Galatians 5:1,13-18; Luke 9:51-62
FOR SOME PEOPLE commitment and freedom seem quite incompatible. Yet today’s readings call for total commitment lived in total freedom. One cannot, in fact, have one without the other. Today’s Mass speaks of what it means to be fully a disciple of Jesus. This is much, much more than just being what is often understood as a “good Catholic”.
Today’s passage opens with a very important moment in the life of Jesus. “As the time drew near for him to be taken up into heaven, Jesus resolutely took the road for Jerusalem.” These opening words of today’s Gospel indicate that we are moving into the second phase of Jesus’ public life and the second half of this gospel. For Luke, Jerusalem is the focal point of Jesus’ life. It is the centre from which Jesus’ great redemptive work unfolds. It is there that the disciples will form a new community to continue the work of Jesus and from Jerusalem it will spread to every corner of the world.
Jesus sets his face “resolutely” for Jerusalem because he goes there ready to undergo whatever is necessary for his work to be completed. Right away, he sets an example and a challenge for our commitment to join in his work and to be ready to take whatever comes in our doing of it.
There is an irony when some Samaritans would not receive Jesus and his companions because they were going to Jerusalem. Their reason was, apparently, religious bigotry yet Jesus was going to Jerusalem precisely to put an end to such divisions, to knock down all the barriers dividing people and to bring peace and reconciliation. (This is beautifully put in the Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2.) There is a further irony because it is to Samaria that the early Christians will flee when persecution begins in Jerusalem and it is there that the infant Church will begin its expansion to the four corners of the earth.
A question of response
We come now to what is really the core of today’s Mass theme – our response to Jesus calling us to join him. As Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem (and all that that will mean for him), a number of people express a desire to join him. Obviously – like many of us – they do not fully understand just precisely what “going to Jerusalem” really means for Jesus and those who go with him. We can look with profit at these three people because one or more of them represents me.
The first one courageously and generously says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” He has a lot of enthusiasm but may not be aware of the realities facing him. Jesus pulls him up short. Even the wild animals have a place to live, he tells the man, but the “Son of Man” has nowhere to call his own. He has no house, no property, no money. As Winston Churchill told the British people at the beginning of the Second World War, he had nothing to offer them but “blood, sweat and tears”.
One needs to be aware of what is expected of a disciple. One must be ready to let go of people and things, of all strings and attachments, of all external securities and props. Am I ready for this? Or do I set up my securities first and then, carrying them with me, decide to follow him?
The second man also wants to follow Jesus. He makes what seems a reasonable request: “Let me go and bury my father first.” The reply of Jesus sounds harsh: “Let the dead bury their own dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.” We should not conclude from this request that the man’s father was already dead. He may have been saying that he would follow Jesus only after he had fulfilled his filial duties to his father.
Jesus, of course, is not saying that we should not love and respect members of our family. But he is asking where our priorities in life really are. He is saying that, if we wish to be his disciple, we cannot make our own arrangements first and then, only when we are ready, go and follow him. The demands of the Kingdom, the world of truth, compassion, justice, freedom and peace, which we are called to build, comes first of all.
How many of us first plan our careers carefully and only then ask how we can be good Christians, when it obviously should be the other way round?
The third man says he wants to follow Jesus but wants to say goodbye to his family and friends first. It is not unlike the previous case. I want to make all my own arrangements first. I want to have some fun in life. But to be a disciple of Jesus, I cannot hesitate. The call is NOW, today and the response must also be now, today.
Example of Elisha
We see such a dramatic response in the call of Elisha who was to succeed Elijah as prophet. Elisha also wanted to bid farewell to his parents. “Go, go,” said Elijah. But then Elisha thought better of it. He took his two oxen and slaughtered them. He took his plough and used it to make a fire for cooking the ox meat which he gave to all his men. All these things were his means of livelihood. Empty-handed but totally free he then followed Elijah.
We are not meant to take all these images with absolute literalness but they are intended to help us reflect on the various things – material, emotional, intellectual – which prevent us from an unconditional following of Jesus. We have so many desires and attachments in life. We have so many fears and anxieties. We regret or feel nostalgic for so much of the past and worry so much about the future. All of these can have a crippling effect on our lives. Much of the time we are only living half a life or we are living other people’s lives and not our own.
And that is why Paul in today’s passage from Galatians emphasises freedom so much. “When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free.” Some of the Galatian Christians were converted Jews and it seems they were being urged to go back to some of their old Jewish religious customs. The irony is that they, like many people today, were really afraid of being fully free.
I am a fully free person not when I defy authorities and take drugs or when I blow clouds of toxic tobacco smoke into other people’s faces or turn up my hi-fi or radio to ear-shattering levels, when I drive my car aggressively with no respect for other road users… I am a free person when I can really care for my neighbour, when his needs become my needs, when I see him or her as truly a brother or sister.
To be free, as Paul warns us, is not an excuse for self-indulgence although there are those who seem to think that freedom is expressed by unlimited and unimpeded self-indulgence. To be free is not to escape from the realities of living but to face up to them. To be fully free is to take total responsibilities for one’s own life and not put the blame for personal difficulties on other people (scapegoating). It means not clinging to external securities like money, property, status, success, achievements and the like.
And, strangely enough, the free person does exactly what he wants because what he passionately wants is a world of truth, and caring, and sharing, and inner security and peace. Of course, he does not always get these things from others because they do not share his vision but he sees that as their problem rather than his.
And so we find this freedom in people such as Jesus, in Elisha, in Paul. More recently we found it in the lives of people like Bishop Oscar Romero, Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. They said an unconditional ‘Yes’ to Jesus. They joined him unconditionally in walking resolutely to Jerusalem. They put their hand to the plough and did not look back. Can I not do the same?