THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – 1 Kgs 19:16, 19-21 Gal 5:1, 13-18 Lk 9:51-62
Resoluteness. Becoming Free; We Don’t Walk Alone; Single-Mindedness; Courage; Renunciation; Sacrifice; Purification.
Soon after a Texas oil well caught fire, the company called in expert fire fighters. The heat was so great, however, that they could get only within 2,000 feet of the rig. In desperation, the manager asked the local volunteer fire department for assistance. Several minutes later, a little old fire truck rattled down the road and came to a stop 50 feet from the fire. The men jumped off the truck, quickly sprayed each other with water, and then proceeded to put out the flames. The elated company president was so grateful that he presented the fire chief with a $10,000 cheque. When asked what he planned to do with the money, the chief muttered, “Well, first we are going to fix the brakes on that lousy truck.”
The firemen’s resoluteness and courage are not, of course, the kind that Christianity recommends. Yet, we don’t see many artistic representations of resoluteness and courage in the life of Jesus. In the art museums of the world, there are many paintings of him. The paintings follow certain patterns which are appealing either because they are people themes like mother and child, or because they represent important aspects of his life – his birth, the compassion of some of his miracles, his teaching the people, his passion, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. One, El Greco’s painting of Jesus driving moneychangers from the Temple, shows a manly, angry Jesus.
Only one painting, to my knowledge, has been attempted on one of the greatest scenes in all scripture – the opening line of today’s Gospel – that, even though Jesus knew he was to die in Jerusalem, he resolutely determined to journey there (v. 51). That painting is a popular one by Hoffman. This Jesus, firm of jaw and resolved, takes us away from the sweetly sentimental Jesuses of much of art. Although Jesus had been in Jerusalem for many reasons before, this time it was to be a solemn visit. Hereafter in St Luke’s Gospel, we see the crowds grow, and we see Jesus providing more and more credentials. With each episode the opposition grows and the tension mounts.
On this occasion, for unknown reasons Jesus decided to travel south to Jerusalem by way of Samaria. This was the more direct rout, but not the customary one. The ordinary Jew would have gone roundabout through Perea, in order to avoid fights with their age-old enemies, the Samaritans, as you would avoid a bad neighbourhood after dark. This would have been especially true if a Jew’s destination was Jerusalem, because one of the sources of the fights was that the Samaritans thought that the true worship of God should take place on their Mount Gerizim instead of in the Jerusalem of the Jews.
When the Samaritans didn’t welcome Jesus, the “sons of thunder” – James and John – increased the mounting tension by wanting to imitate Elijah, who had called down fire from heaven to consume the king’s soldiers sent to capture him (2 Kgs 1:10-12). Jesus reminded them that his is not the way of destruction, but of mercy and salvation. In his view, peace comes through respecting the freedom and ways of the other. His way of facing the foul-ups and rejection we all experience is to understand the viewpoint of the other. His way suggests that we at times question to what extent we ourselves are responsible for others rejecting Christianity, and how the witness of our lives may give margin for misunderstanding. His way takes every bit as much strong courage as the display of weaponry that the “son of thunder” and their successors recommend.
Many of us may be tempted to follow James and John with fire and brimstone against the inhospitable, but unlike them Jesus was in meek in the face of rejection. The strong Abraham Lincoln was in this same tradition when, in response to his counselors after the Civil War who were recommending that he destroy his enemies, replied, “Don’t I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” it is the tradition also of the wise man who said that the shortest distance between two people is laughter. Life is often serious, but some serious matters may be taken care of by laughter.
Other episodes also showed the mounting tension. The ever-gentle Jesus’ teachings – peace, light, love, and life – were before crowds with a sprinkling of spies from the establishment. By this time, he had offended all establishments – religious, political, and business – and the die was cast for him in this city called “holy”. This entailed a profound sacrifice that in turn involved many other qualities, among them purification, service, and personal fulfillment. Jesus wants sacrifice also from his followers. We see that through the three men who came to him in today’s Gospel.
To the first man, who said he would follow Jesus wherever he went (v. 57), Jesus’ honest advice, in modern terms, was, “Before you follow me, count the cost.” His reply was in the context of poverty. He himself, he said, had nowhere to rest his head (v. 58), and that was true. He had been driven out of Nazareth, disregarded in Galilee, rejected in Samaria, and threatened with death at Jerusalem, and the house in Capernaum which he now used as a base in Galilee probably belonged to either Peter or Mathew. That didn’t mean, however, that Jesus walked alone. He had companions who actively participated in his mission, some who – like James and John – weren’t afraid even to make suggestions, and people who helped him.
In dealing with the first man, Jesus knew the tendency of people to be calculating and cautious. Before acting, they study popular tends and graphs, listen to polls, see which way the wind is blowing, and in their hearts treasure security. Jesus had sacrificed security, and we are called upon to do the same to follow him.
The second man illustrates the fact that to follow Jesus one must even sacrifice one’s own idea of duty. This man responded to Jesus’ invitation by saying that he wanted to go first and bury his father (v. 59). His father wasn’t yet dead, or the man wouldn’t have been here. It was their custom to bury their dead the same day they died. Jesus made the point that, in everything, there is a crucial moment when one is expected to act. This was this man’s crucial moment and he missed it.
We do the same when we don’t realize the benefits of self-discipline. A self-enlarging process, the pain of giving up is the pain of death, but death of the old is birth of the new. The pain of death is the pain of birth, and the pain of birth is the pain of death. The father one travels on the journey of life, the more births one will experience, and therefore the more deaths.
The third man wanted first to say good-bye to the folks at home. Jesus’ answer showed that we must be prepared to sacrifice, if necessary, even affection in our resolve to follow Christ – as he had sacrificed even the affection of a family. “No one who sets a hand to the plough and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (v. 62). Everyone in that rural audience knew that, if one wants to plough a straight furrow, he has to pay attention to what he is doing and not look elsewhere.
Everyone there also knew the story of Elijah and Elisha as recounted in today’s First Reading. In order to follow the prophet Elijah for God’s sake, Elisha dramatically used his wooden ploughing equipment as fuel to barbecue his oxen for his workmen. (And, having twelve yoke of oxen, he had been rich!) Thus he gave up all his assets, said good-bye to his parents, and broke all ties with his comfortable life; his deeds declared that there was no going back. As Elisha would be considered irresponsible in things that pertain to the world, the worldling is as irresponsible as a streak of lightning in the things that pertain to God.
People who want to sort out life have to remind themselves that Jesus is the way to do it. It is not all hardship, and it is at times a great sense of liberation – an emancipation from all other burdens, which St Paul mentions in today’s Second Reading. We, like Paul, have to make courageous choices for Christ’s values over other tensions from outside, and between the flesh and the spirit within.
Today we have many more distractions from resolve and single mindedness than the rural people of Jesus’ audience: easier ways to “go places”, television, beckoning amusements. There is a constant search for “where the action is,” and fewer opportunities for meditation and quiet. Although we aren’t necessarily called to sacrifice security, or our personal idea of duty, or the affection of a family, as Jesus was, today’s liturgy challenges us to re-examine the attachments that may be holding us back from a liberated and joyful following of Jesus. Attachment literally means “staked to”. That may be a plough or a family or a corpse, by way of a strong chain or a golden thread.
Let us choose God with the same responsible abandon of Elisha following Elijah, the same true freedom mentioned by Paul, and the same firm resolve of Jesus going to Jerusalem. Let us each of us discern the Jerusalem we must face in our lives – whether it be someone we dislike, or a relative with whom we are on the outs, or a duty we have been avoiding. That kind of commitment and effort free us from the game people play, from the rat race, from peer pressure. It makes us free to be different without being afraid. It is exhilarating, and filled with joy.