The Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (C)
Dear brothers and sisters,
Says Elisha to the prophet Elijah, “Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, and I will follow you” (I Kings 19:20). Says an anonymous disciple to the Lord Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home” (Luke 9:61). The requests are the same, but the responses are quite different.
The prophet Elijah answered his future and chosen successor Elisha, “Go back!” and Elisha kissed his parents goodbye (I Kings 19:20). Jesus answered his would-be follower, “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).
We see, then, that what Christ the Lord said elsewhere is true, “There is something greater than Jonah here” (Luke 11:32). Jesus is indeed greater than the prophets because he is more demanding than they.
When messengers from Ahaziah, King of Samaria, arrived where Elijah the Tishbite was staying, demanding he leave the hilltop upon which he sat, the prophet answered them, saying, “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you” (II Kings 1:10). And so it happened. Twice.
Today the Sons of Thunder, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, want to do the same to the Samaritan town that “would not welcome [Jesus] because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53). The two Apostles said to the Master, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them,” (Luke 9:54)? Jesus shows his mercy to be greater than that of Elijah when he rebuked the Apostles and “journeyed to another village” (Luke 9:56).
And whereas Elijah permitted Elisha to go back before following him, Jesus does not permit those whom he calls to return one last time; looking back from a life of discipleship to the life before is the same as rejecting Christ. Saint Basil the Great put it this way: “A person who wishes to become the Lord’s disciple must repudiate a human obligation, however honorable it may appear, if it slows us ever so slightly in giving the wholehearted obedience we owe to God” (Saint Basil the Great, Commentary on Luke, Homily 58. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. III: Luke, Arthur A. Just, Jr. et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2003, 169).
The follower to whom Jesus said, “Follow me,” asked, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father” (Luke 9:59). He wanted to postpone the Lord’s invitation. His request was to honor his father, as the Lord commanded when he caused these words carved on the tablet, “Honor your father and mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).
Though Jesus knows this command is sacred, he also knows that it is secondary to the greatest of the commandments; the duty of following Jesus in love is still more sacred.
The Lord Jesus demands great things of us; he demands that we look to him above all else and let nothing keep us from him. He demands that we focus so intently on following him that we do not even look back. Why?
To look back is a sign of a lack of trust and a lack of love. To look back implies that something important has been left behind. Can there really be anything better than the Incarnate love of God? Apart from the joy of loving Christ, what is there worth possessing?
It is only in following the Lord Jesus in this way, without counting the cost and without looking back, that we discover our freedom.
We could rightly say that the readings today invite us to reflect on the dynamic between freedom and following Christ. Saint Luke tells us, “When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled” – think here of his Ascension to the right hand of the Father – “he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). It is in this phrase, “resolutely determined,” that we see his freedom.
He knows that his crucifixion awaits him in Jerusalem; nevertheless, in obedience to the Father’s will, Jesus resolutely determined to offer his life out of love for us. “It is in his very obedience to the Father that Jesus achieves his own freedom as a conscious decision motivated by love” (Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 1 July 2007).
Reflecting on this very passage of Saint Luke’s Gospel a few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI asked,
Who is freer than the One who is the Almighty? He did not, however, live his freedom as an arbitrary power or as domination. He lived it as a service. In this way he “filled” freedom with content, which would otherwise have remained an “empty” possibility of doing or not doing something.We often acknowledge that it is in giving that we receive, yet we hesitate to put these words into action with the totality of our lives.
Like human life itself, freedom draws its meaning from love. Indeed, who is freest? Someone who selfishly keeps all possibilities open for fear of losing them, or someone who expends himself “firmly resolved” to serve and thereby finds himself full of life because of the love he has given and received (Ibid.)?
The Apostle Paul reminds us today: “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” (Galatians 5:13).
To live according to the flesh is to live according to my own selfish desires, to give in to my sinful tendencies. To live according to the Spirit “means allowing oneself to be guided in intentions and works by God’s love which Christ has given to us” (Ibid.).
It is quite clear then that Christian freedom – true and authentic freedom – is not the use of some arbitrary decision; Christian freedom “consists in following Christ in the gift of self even to the sacrifice of the Cross.”
Let us, then, beg the Lord to strengthen his grace within us, that we might follow him unreservedly wherever he should lead us, confident that he “will show [us] the path to life, fullness of joys in [his] presence, the delights at [his] right hand forever” (Psalm 16:11). Amen.