1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62
The theme of today’s reading is discipleship and how when a person accepts the challenge to be a disciple, change occurs in that person’s life. Whether we consider Elisha in the first reading or the three persons in the Gospel who were invited to follow Jesus, one thing is common between them all. Their lives changed remarkably when they agreed to take up the role of a disciple. Elisha left the life of a farmer to live a life dedicated to God and carry on the role carried on so far by Prophet Elijah. He left his plough and his family to wander from place to place to proclaim the word of God. In the gospel we have the three would be disciples of Jesus. They are aware that they are called by the master to follow him. Jesus encourages some and discourages others. But in every case he points to the essence of being a disciple, namely to keep their eyes focused on the proclamation of the kingdom of God. This call continues today and the readings of today stress on this invitation to bring the kingdom to all. As St Paul says in the second reading, this proclamation has to be done in true freedom.
In the First Reading, we heard the Lord commissioning Elijah to anoint Elisha, the son of Shaphat, as the prophet to succeed him. In obedience to the Lord, Elijah set out to find Elisha. When Elijah found Elisha, he was ploughing the twelfth yoke of oxen. From this large number of oxen, we can conclude that Elisha came from a fairly rich family. Elijah symbolically throws his mantle over Elisha. While this appears to be a strange thing to do, in those days, it meant two things: the mantle represents the personality and rights of its owner, meaning Elisha now belonged to Elijah. Secondly, because the hair-shirt mantle was part of the official dress of the prophets, this becomes the investiture ceremony. Elisha is being initiated in the membership of prophets. Elisha now perceives that God was calling him to become a prophet. Leaving the oxen, Elisha ran after Elijah, asked permission to say goodbye to his parents. Elijah says he has nothing to do with him. Then Elisha is clear that the call is from God and not from the prophet. So he decides for himself and as a public sign of renouncing his previous life, Elisha offers a sacrificial meal on the spot with his slaughtered the yoke of oxen. Once this is complete, he leaves everything and follows Elijah. He already knows he will no longer be nourishing the people in any ordinary way. Empty-handed but totally free he followed Elijah.
St Paul in today’s passage from Galatians emphasizes the need for freedom. “When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free.” 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. It means not clinging to external securities. Christ came to free us from slavery to the law. We are to practice the freedom that comes from the spirit. This freedom makes us slaves of one another in love. Paul tells us that to the extent that the spirit takes hold of us we will not give in to the flesh. But he warns us that in spite of the spirit’s presence within us, we still experience opposition from the flesh. He urges us that if we live in the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit. As true disciples of Jesus who have been freed from the slavery of sin, we have been called to become slaves to one another in Christ. As slaves of Christ, to return to the desires of worldly flesh, pleasures, fame and wealth is to renounce the call of our “yes” to the Lord God.
Today’s Gospel 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.” 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 means that he is determined to go ahead and nothing can deter him from doing this task. Thus he moves there ready to undergo whatever is necessary for his work to be completed. Besides he sends his messengers ahead of him to announce his arrival so that he can complete his mission. No sooner does the journey begin than a serious opposition he encounters. The Samaritans would not receive Jesus and his companions and would not allow him to enter their village because they were going to Jerusalem and the animosity between the Samaritans and the Jews was harsh and explosive. The Jews and the Samaritans did not see eye-to-eye together and as such, they were not the type to associate with one another. The Samaritans were originally Gentile people who had descended from foreigners who had settled in Israel after the deportation of the Israelites. The solution of James and John to this rejection is to call down destruction on the Samaritans. Jesus rejects this achieving of the mission through violence. For the approach of Jesus has never been one of using force. He indicates to them that violence is not a solution. He came not to enforce violence but to break its destructive cycle and proclaim mercy and salvation. In his view peace comes by respecting the freedom and ways of the other. The teaching of Jesus the Gentle master contained peace, love, respect and life. Violence for him does not lead to success and victory but leads to hardship and ill will.
The next part of the Gospel tells us about the would be disciples of Jesus. As Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem a number of people express a desire to join him. Obviously they do not understand what “going to Jerusalem” really means for Jesus and his companions. Here Jesus teaches a new lesson to all that the discipleship is not for the weak or the ambivalent. Those who want to be followers of Jesus must realize that discipleship demands priority over everything else. Discipleship is ultimately about being willing to lay down one’s life for another. This requires radical commitment and faithfulness. Things that in and of themselves are not bad, such as having a stable and steady place to stay, burying one’s own relatives, and saying farewell to the family members, do not have a priority in the life of a disciple. This might sound harsh and even cruel especially to modern hearers. But Jesus is very clear about what the discipleship would mean. The call is demanding and serious and those who accept it must always be willing to move ahead without looking back.
Today’s Gospel message from God tells us of the true discipleship, and once we accept it there is no turning back. This involves a profound sacrifice, leading to purification, service, and personal fulfillment. We realize that this is what was required of the three persons who wanted to follow Jesus. The first one courageously and generously says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” He has a lot of enthusiasm and desire to be with Jesus. But Jesus pulls him up short and tells him before you follow me count the cost. His reply was in the context of poverty. He tells the man, that he has nowhere a place to be called his own. He has no house, no property, and no money. He saw the tendency to be calculating and cautious. He tells him that a disciple must be ready to let go of people and things, of all strings and attachments, of all external securities and means. He has to be trusting only in the divine providence. Jesus had sacrificed security and he calls him to do the same. 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.” The man was asking Jesus permission to fulfill his duty towards his parents and only after that he would follow Jesus. His father was not dead; but Jesus tells him that in order to follow him one must sacrifice one’s own idea of duty. 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. He wants to make all his own arrangements, have some fun in life and only then become the disciple. But to be a disciple of Jesus, I cannot hesitate. The call is now, immediate, today and the response must also be now, today. The answer of Jesus shows that a disciple must be prepared to sacrifice, if necessary the affection of a family. Jesus’ reference to the plough indicates single hearted devotion towards Jesus.
In his calling to discipleship, Jesus is not saying that we should not love and respect members of our family or has material possessions. 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, come first of all. As persons committed to Christ, we are expected to continuously move forward by growing in our spiritual lives through the grace of God the Father and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit in the Most Holy Name of Jesus. Let us then consider this truth according to our callings, be it the religious life, the matrimonial life or the single life and see whether we are spiritually growing in our callings.
We ask the grace from the Almighty to search and discover what is desired in their lives, may they take this opportunity to change their hearts while the grace of God who is at work in us. Let us choose God with the same responsible abandon of Elisha and Elijah, the same true freedom mentioned by Paul and the firm resolve of Jesus going to Jerusalem. Following of Jesus is a serious matter. We cannot remain indecisive and uncommitted but accept him fully and totally. Today Jesus tells us that to be his disciple requires a total commitment to the cause and to the mission. It is a whole hearted response to Jesus who expects a single hearted devotion towards him. That is why he remains for us the Way, Truth and Life.
Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome.