Sunday, June 26, 2016

Free to Choose

                                    13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

No One Who Sets a Hand to the Plow

Elijah was one of the great prophets in the Old Testament. In his time--about 700 years before the birth of Christ-- the Jewish people, their leaders, and their priests had departed from their ancient faith to follow strange gods. Elijah stood virtually alone against this apostasy.  Jewish tradition held that Elijah would one day return to usher in a new age.

In today's first reading Elijah, at the request of the Lord, chooses Elisha to be his successor. The young man is working, he is plowing a field, when Elijah calls him by throwing his cloak over him. Elisha understands that he has been called but only asks that he be allowed to kiss his father and mother good-bye. Elijah's response indicates that Elisha is under no compulsion. He is free to do what he wants. He has to choose. In his own way, by slaughtering the oxen, he sells all he has and gives it to the poor. Then "Elisha left and followed Elijah."

Who could not see the similarity between this episode and today's gospel? Chapter 9 of St. Luke's gospel is full of the signs and wonders that Jesus worked. The most incredible sign was the multiplication of the loaves and fishes when Jesus fed the multitude. Many in the crowd thought that Elijah had returned. Afterwards, Jesus asked the disciples, "who do you say that I am?" Right after Peter replied that Jesus is the "Christ of God," St. Luke tells us that our Lord took Peter, James, and John up the mountain where He was transfigured or glorified. At the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah appeared talking with Jesus. We don't have that reading today because the Church always has reserved the Transfiguration for the second Sunday of Lent.

Unfortunately, when they come down from the mountain, Jesus finds that people, even his followers, do not understand. A man has to beg Him to free his son from an evil spirit because the disciples had not been able. Jesus "healed the boy and restored him to his father." Next the disciples can't believe Him when he again says that He "is to be betrayed into the hands of men." Finally, they even start arguing among themselves about "which of them was the greatest." Again Jesus has to rebuke them: "he who is the least among you, he is the greatest." 

This is the background to our gospel today where Jesus sets out on the "journey to Jerusalem." His first stop is a Samaritan village. Samaritans were Jews who long before had intermarried with non-Jews and accepted strange gods. Here we see our Lord's standard operating procedure. When they refuse to welcome Him, when they turn their backs on Him, and fail to offer Him even common hospitality, He just moves on to the next village. It's their choice.

Then St. Luke tells us of three individuals who express a desire to follow Jesus. The stories are brief and puzzling and have been subject to much interpretation. I don't think that Jesus wants us to disregard our basic human obligations. My guess is that Jesus knew that his would-be followers were offering excuses or  having second thoughts. "Let me go first and bury my father," or "first let me say farewell to my family at home."

Jesus says to the fearful, to the undecided, to the waverers among us, "don't look back,"
"seize the moment," "strike while the iron is hot." He actually uses a proverb that was old even in His day, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God." In a famous parable He spoke of a merchant who was willing to give up everything he had in order to gain the  "pearl of great price."

For St. Paul the "pearl of great price" is our freedom. Our journey to Jerusalem is a journey to find our freedom. It's strange that although we live in a world that values freedom above everything else, we actually possess so little of it. It's not just that so many people in the world live under tyrants and despots, or that so many are victims of poverty and hunger. Even here in the greatest and wealthiest country in the world's history, so many of us are enslaved to one addiction or another.

Could it be that our emphasis on "self-esteem" has led us down the wrong path?
 A children's doctor suggested as much in a newspaper column the other day. We have to recognize that the basic principles of religion are at odds with the world today, just as in the time of Elijah or St. Paul. Self-sacrifice, not self-esteem, is at the heart of Christianity. Last week our Lord said that we must lose our life in order to find it.

This week St. Paul reminds us that our flesh (our individual desires) is at war with the Spirit. He says that Spirit and flesh "are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want." Anyone on a diet looking at the dessert menu will understand the "war" that goes on within us. Anyone mindlessly flicking through the TV channels for hours will be hard pressed to explain to themselves how they could waste so much of the valuable time that has been allotted to them.

Today, St. Paul's advice to the Galatians and to us is, "serve one another through love." True freedom is found in the "Golden Rule." "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Wouldn't our children be happier today if they were taught to esteem their parents, relatives, teachers, and neighbors rather than themselves? Wouldn't we be happier?


Reading 1. 1 Kings 19: 16b, 19-21
Reading II. Galatians 5: 1, 13-18
Gospel. Luke 9: 51-62 (Let the dead bury their dead).

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