Sunday, June 30, 2013

Year C Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kgs 19:16b.19-21; Ps. 16:1-2.5.7-11-10; Gal 5:1.13-18; Luke 9:51-62

Our readings today both pose and proceed to answer the question, What does it mean to follow Jesus, to be His disciple? We see this illustrated vividly in the our first reading, taken from 1 Kings, in which, obeying the command of God, Elijah comes to Elisha, who is at work plowing his field, and confers upon him the prophetic mantle. He does this literally by placing his cloak over the younger man’s shoulders. Quickly discerning what this meant for his life (i.e., that he had to leave everything and everyone in order to place himself completely at God’s disposal by becoming Elijah’s disciple), Elisha asks if can go and kiss his Mom and Dad goodbye. Elisha’s request is reasonable. We might even say it is a good request. Nevertheless, Elisha’s request provokes a strong rebuke from the old prophet, who, apart from Moses, figures perhaps most prominently among people from the Old Testament, appearing along with Moses at Jesus’ Transfiguration, in fulfillment of the prophecy given by Malachi that before the Messiah appeared, Elijah, who was taken up to heaven in the chariot of fire (2 Kgs 2:8-14), would return (Mal 3:23-24).

Once again, quickly discerning Elijah’s meaning (there is a reason God commanded Elijah to anoint Elisha… as prophet to succeed” him [1 Kgs 19:16b]), Elisha leaves the prophet, slaughters his twelve oxen, chops his plow to bits and uses the wood and the oxen meat to host an impromptu farewell barbecue of sorts, to which he invited his entire village. After the grand meal, “Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant” (1 Kgs 19:21).

I am tempted to simply leave matters there because it would be difficult to find a better illustration of what Christ calls us to do in today’s Gospel. It is always tempting to tell stories about stories in an effort to reduce Christ’s radical call to our own measure. But I think it is useful to look at our second reading, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which helps us to see that following Jesus is the supreme act of freedom. It is important to note that our Christian conception of freedom is freedom for, not freedom from. Among other things, this means that freedom is not an end in itself, the mere multiplication of choices, but must be oriented toward the truth, otherwise our freedom enslaves and may ultimately damn us. This is what the apostle meant when he wrote, “For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love” (Gal. 5:13).

It is important to note that when St. Paul wrote about “the flesh” he was not referring euphemistically to “the body.” When he wrote about the body we read the word “body.” When the apostle wrote about “the flesh,” he was referring to those sinful tendencies and habits, those dead-end alley ways we tend to keep walking down, or desiring to walk down, which often involve our bodies.

St. Paul went on to write, “if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18), which is a variation on something he wrote in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6b). It is important to point out that Spirit and law are not mutually exclusive, as is commonly supposed, but mutually reinforcing.

To act according to the spirit of the law is not to disregard the law, to ignore it, to dispense myself from it, or even to dispense others. When it comes to living our Christian faith, it certainly does not mean imposing it on others, or even imagining that it is imposed on us from the outside. No! Living the Spirit of the law requires discerning why it was promulgated in the first place and then it has to do with my intention, with why I obey it. The answer to both questions is love. Obeying out of love is the only way for my righteousness to exceed “that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt 5:20). What oppose one another, the apostle states explicitly, are Spirit and flesh, which is why even when I endeavor to live according to the Spirit “[I] may not do what[ever] [I] want” (Gal 5:17), but only what is good for me according to the teaching of Christ through His Church.

Lest there remains any doubt in your mind that it is impossible to be an accidental disciple of Jesus Christ, let’s turn to today’s Gospel, which is chock full of relevance for the circumstances we currently face.

In the synoptic Gospels, that is, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, from the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus only goes to Jerusalem once, which is why in our Gospel today the sacred author tells us that Jesus “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). It seems that initially instead of taking the well-trodden path from Galilee in the north, east across the river Jordan, then re-crossing it prior to reaching Jericho, which sits east of Jerusalem, at the foot of the mountain, thus avoiding contact with the unclean Samaritans, He desired to pass through Samaria. So, He sent messengers ahead to facilitate His journey. But because He was a Jew headed to Jerusalem the people of the first Samaritan village would not welcome Him.

Somewhat understandably, this caused Jesus’ disciples to take great offense. James and John, who in St. Mark’s Gospel the Lord calls bonanerges (Mark 3:17), which means “sons of thunder,” ask Jesus if He wants them to “call down fire from heaven” and destroy the unwelcoming village (Luke 9:54). Jesus not only demurs, but rebukes them for suggesting such a thing (Luke 9:55). This is followed by series of would-be disciples approaching Jesus only to be told by Him the unrelenting demands of belonging to Him, which reaches its culmination, thus bringing us back full circle to Elijah and Elisha, when someone approaches the Lord and says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home” (Luke 9:61) It is very likely that Jesus had the episode of Elijah calling Elisha at the behest of God in mind when He responded by saying, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I presume you are here today because you have heard the Lord’s call in your own life. I urge you today to take stock and see what is calling you back, causing you to look behind the plow, and to commit to doing whatever you need to do to follow Jesus without reservation, to be His disciple, especially in a world, in a society that so badly needs prophetic witnesses to “the bright light of truth” (Collect for Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time). Being a prophetic witness means living according to the Spirit and not the flesh, not using freedom as an excuse to do evil, as well as being willing to suffer for the truth.

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