Our readings today both pose and answer the question, What does it mean to follow Jesus? We are given a vivid foreshadowing of the answer to this question in our first reading, taken from 1 Kings. Obeying God’s command, the prophet Elijah seeks out the much younger Elisha. When he finds him, Elisha is plowing his field. In an unmistakable gesture, Elijah confers the prophetic mantle on Elisha. He does this by literally placing his cloak, or mantle, over the younger man’s shoulders, thus designating him as his successor.
Quickly discerning what this meant for his life, Elisha asks Elijah if he can go and kiss his Mom and Dad goodbye. This certainly seems like a reasonable request, does it not? Nevertheless, Elisha’s request provokes a strong rebuke from the old prophet, who, apart from Moses, figures as the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. It was Elijah who appeared along with Moses at Jesus’s Transfiguration. His appearance at the Transfiguration can be taken as the fulfillment of the prophecy given by Malachi that before the Messiah appeared, Elijah, who was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, would return.1
Once again, quickly discerning Elijah’s meaning, Elisha leaves the prophet, slaughters his twelve oxen, chops his plow to bits and uses the wood to roast the oxen meat and hosts an impromptu farewell barbecue, to which he invites his entire village. After the grand meal, which can be seen as having eucharistic overtones, the inspired author conveys that “Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.”2 This begins a period of discipleship, Elisha’s prophetic apprenticeship.
I am tempted to simply leave matters there because it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a better illustration of what Christ calls upon those who would follow him to do in today’s Gospel. However, I think it is useful to look at our second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. The insight gleaned from this with regard to following Jesus is that in following him there can be no compulsion. The decision to follow Jesus is the supreme act of human freedom.
The Christian conception of freedom sees it primarily as freedom for, not freedom from. We define it positively, not negatively. In short, because Christ freed us from death, we are free for what St. Augustine, in a letter to the Roman widow Proba, referred to as the life that is truly life.3 Among other things, this means that freedom is not an end in itself. Neither is freedom merely the multiplication of choices. Authentic freedom is oriented toward the truth. Freedom misconceived as the maximization of choice enslaves us and may ultimately damn us.
Paul confirms that by your baptism “you were called for freedom.”4 “But,” he continues, “do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.”5 Indeed, the “law” of Christ is the law of love: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”6 Living according to the Spirit does not mean doing whatever you want.7 For the most part, following your own inclinations and desires is what it means to live according to the flesh.
Understandably, we have a difficult time letting go of Easter. Proof of this is that the two Sundays following Pentecost, which celebration brings the season of Easter to a close, Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi, are solemnities that trump the respective Sundays in Ordinary Time. So, it isn’t until the Sunday following Corpus Christi that we really begin the long stretch of Ordinary Time that will take us to the end of the liturgical year.
Our Gospel for this Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time is a great way to begin this long stretch, during which we will read through St. Luke’s Gospel semi-continuously. In all the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke), Jesus and his disciples journey to Jerusalem only once. In Luke’s account, the beginning of the long section that chronicles this journey is marked by this dramatic phrase: “When the days for Jesus' being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”8 It is significant that his turn toward Jerusalem took Jesus and his companions through Samaria. Demonstrating that he came to save and not destroy, Jesus rebuked his followers when they wanted to “call down fire from heaven to consume” the unwelcoming Samaritan village.9
By journeying to Jerusalem, Jesus is journeying to the cross. Earlier in the same chapter from which our Gospel reading for today is taken, Jesus tells his would-be disciples: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”10
As he sets his face toward Jerusalem, Jesus encounters more would-be followers. He tells one that following him means hardship.11 To another who wants to bury his dead father, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”12 His answer to the would-be disciple who wants to go home and bid his family goodbye may well be a direct reference to our first reading: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”13
My friends in Christ, over the ensuing months let us journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. May this journey be for us, individually and as a parish, a school of discipleship, consisting of lessons on life in the Spirit. It is by apprenticing ourselves to the Lord that we learn to live lives of sacrificial service for God’s kingdom in imitation of him, the One we call “Master” and “Teacher.”
1 2 Kings 2:8-14; Malachi 3:23-24.↩
2 1 Kings 19:21.↩
3 St. Augustine, Letter 130, 2.5.↩
4 Galatians 5:13.↩
5 Galatians 5:13.↩
6 Luke 10:27.↩
7 Galatians 5:17.↩
8 Luke 9:51.↩
9 Luke 9:54-55.↩
10 Luke 9:23-24.↩
11 Luke 9:57-58.↩
12 Luke 9:59-60.↩
13 Luke 9:62.↩