13th Ordinary Sunday (Year C)
First Reading: 1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21 Second Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-18 Gospel Reading: Luke 9:51-62
“IF YOU WANT TO BE MY DISCIPLE...”
Left on a sinking ship were the captain and three sailors. The captain spoke first. "Men, this business about a captain going down with his ship is nonsense. There's a three-man life raft on board and I'm going to be on it. To see who will come with me, I will ask you each one question. The one who can't answer will stay behind. Here's the first question: What unsinkable ship went down when it hit an iceberg?" The first sailor answered, "The Titanic, sir." On to the next question: “How many people perished?" The second sailor said, "One thousand five hundred and seventeen, sir." "Now for the third question," and the captain turned to sailor number three. "What were their names?" This is an illustration - of challenging someone! Jesus too challenges us if we want to follow him, if we want to come with him. Are we ready to take up his challenges and be on board with him?
Today is the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time and the Scriptures Readings of today underline some requirements of Christian discipleship. Following Jesus is not a walk in the park; it is a challenge. A person who is considering to follow a new direction in his life has first to make up his mind and make a decision. He must be willing to pay the price for his decision. He must be committed to his course of action.
Today’s Gospel Reading from St. Luke is on radical discipleship and is composed of two pericopes: Jesus’ departure for Jerusalem with his consequent experience of Samaritan in-hospitality and the hardships of the apostolic calling. The evangelist Luke presents the call to radical discipleship within the context of Jesus’ decisive journey to his paschal destiny. The Gospel passage begins with 9:51, which is a turning point in Luke’s narrative: “When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”
These opening words of today’s Gospel indicate that we are moving into the second phase of Jesus’ public life and the second half of this gospel. The previous section concentrated on Jesus’ deeds; this section focuses primarily on his teaching. The first major section climaxed with Jesus’ interpretation of his Messiah-ship in terms of the Suffering Servant. This next section that runs from the ninth to the nineteenth chapter, which we call ‘the journey section,' introduces Jesus’ resolute departure for Jerusalem and the cross. His decision to go to Jerusalem is not a casual one but represents a deliberate decision, ready to undergo whatever is necessary for his work to be completed. Right away, he sets an example and a challenge for our commitment to join in his work and to be ready to take whatever comes in our doing of it.
Jesus took his disciples with him on this journey so he could continue to instruct them. It is a formation program for the disciples, specifically to teach them how to interiorize and live with the coming death and resurrection of Jesus. It is an education into coping with failure, and into hoping for a life through and beyond failure.
REJECTION BY SAMARITANS:
There is an irony when some Samaritans would not receive Jesus and his companions because Jesus and his disciples were going to Jerusalem. Though the Jews generally avoided the route to Jerusalem through Samaria because they were at odds with the Samaritans for ethnic and religious reasons, Jesus included the territory in his itinerary. Their reason was, apparently, religious bigotry yet Jesus was going to Jerusalem precisely to put an end to such divisions, to knock down all the barriers dividing people and to bring peace and reconciliation.
So, when James and John spoke so emotionally about what should happen to Samaritans, it was a general feeling of the time amongst Judeans. But Jesus rebuked them, in effect disassociating himself from their attitude that those who rejected him were to be exterminated. Actually, Luke’s Gospel goes out of its way many times to change the image of a Samaritan and that begins here. Jesus rebukes the Apostles for their ‘eye for an eye’ type logic. Later, Luke will have Jesus tell the story of the Good Samaritan, and the one Samaritan leper who comes back to thank Jesus. Luke takes Jesus’ rebuke seriously in his Gospel and tries to change minds about Samaritans.
Rejected, Jesus and his disciples journeyed to another Samaritan village. And surprise of surprises, some villagers came up to Jesus offering to follow him! There were also others whom Jesus invited to be his followers. From these instances, we see Jesus spelling out some of the requirements of discipleship:
“I will follow you wherever you go.”
The first one courageously and generously says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” He has a lot of enthusiasm but may not be aware of the realities facing him. Jesus pulls him up short. Even the wild animals have a place to live, he tells the man, but the 'Son of Man' has nowhere to call his own. He has no house, no property, no money. Jesus makes it clear that to follow him is no bed of roses - He has nothing to offer but himself and his message on the Kingdom.
There is a cost to discipleship. It will cost one his convenience and comfort. One needs to be aware of what is expected of a disciple. One must be ready to let go of people and things, of all strings and attachments, of all external securities and props. Am I ready for this? Or do I set up my securities first and then, carrying them with me, decide to follow him?
“Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
The second man to whom Jesus says, “Follow me,” 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.” We should not conclude from this request that the man’s father was already dead. He may have been saying that he would follow Jesus only after he had fulfilled his filial duties to his father. For Jesus, the demand of discipleship overrode even that which the Jews and most, if not all, cultures regarded as a filial obligation of the highest importance. Even what is culturally sacred such as one’s family obligations take second place. To be a disciple is to make Jesus and his mission the first priority in our lives.
Jesus, of course, is not saying that we should not love and respect members of our family. 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.
“But first let me say farewell to my family at home.”
Now a third man is asked by Jesus to follow him and he wants to follow Jesus but wants to say goodbye to his family and friends first. To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Again, a hard, cold saying. But what it means is that the true follower of Christ is one who trusts in Jesus completely and relies on him. To be a disciple is to be committed to the task and to be single-minded in purpose. Also the call is now, today and the response must also be now, today. In effect, Jesus wants his followers to look to the future and not to the past. There is no turning back. One must burn his bridges behind.
There was a great general who set out to conquer a group of fierce tribes on an island. When his soldiers had crossed to the island he ordered the boats to be burned. There was no turning back. They had to move forward and win or die. Great sacrifices had to be made if one was to be a part of this conquering group. This is the same when we follow Jesus. It is a serious decision and entails commitment, sacrifices and perseverance.
In all these, we see a dramatic urgency in Jesus' challenge: the disciple has to decide which has priority, loyalty to family and culture or loyalty to mission. For his disciple to be freed for mission, he must first be freed from his past ties. It is not a road easily followed - and we are not privy to the heart and soul-searching that must have gone into it on Jesus’ part. We do know, however, that his own resolve was something he knew would have to be matched by his disciples.
EXAMPLE OF ELISHA:
In today's Gospel Jesus tells us the importance of an immediate response to a call from God. The First Reading from 1st Book of Kings illustrates this premise. At God's command, Prophet Elijah appoints Elisha to be his successor. He throws his cloak, the symbol of his prophet's vocation, over Elisha's shoulders. At first Elisha hesitated and wanted to make his goodbyes to his family. When Elijah reprimanded him, he made up his mind and slaughtered his oxen. He then severed any connection with his past life by using his plowing equipment as fuel, cooked the meat and gave it to his people to eat. Elisha thus dropped everything and empty-handed but totally free, he then followed Elijah.
It seems paradoxical that, in the Gospel, Jesus uses setting one’s hand to the plow as an example of what discipleship requires - yet in the First Reading, Elisha’s commitment to discipleship involves his using his own plow to create the fire which cooked the slaughtered oxen. It amounts to literally burning his bridges behind him - as a sign of having no way back.
When Elijah put his cloak over Elisha’s shoulders, he was, in effect, commissioning Elisha as disciple, handing on the mantle. Elisha, busy about his daily work, is understandably taken aback; there was no way he could have prepared for this when he left home that morning.
This is often the way with a call to discipleship. For some, it is a 'once-and-for-all' call to follow - giving up everything to follow Jesus. For most of us, it can be an occurrence within our daily lives when we are suddenly reminded just who we are and what we are about.
CALL TO FREEDOM:
In the Second Reading of today from the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul reminds the Galatians that they have been called to live in freedom and advises them to throw away the yoke of slavery. He tells them - 'The call of Jesus shatters the yoke of every servitude, sets us free from the rituals of the old Law, shows us the Law’s fulfillment in the following of Jesus, in serving one another through love. His call sets our hands to a new plow, a new task—to be his messengers, sent ahead to prepare all peoples to meet him and enter into his Kingdom.' They must therefore follow Christ in his example of love. The law that matters is the law of love, “Out of love, place yourselves at one another’s service.” Those who listen to the 'flesh' - whatever urges them to act against God's will - are still slaves. They act against their own best interests when they listen to the voice of selfishness.
To be free, St. Paul further warns 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 like money, property, status, success, achievements and the like. And, strangely enough, the free person does exactly what he wants because what he passionately wants is a world of truth, and caring, and sharing, and inner security and peace.
“IF YOU WANT TO BE MY DISCIPLE...” All of us who profess ourselves to be Christians have been called by Jesus to follow him. Have we fully responded to this call? Or do we, like those called by Jesus, also have all kinds of excuses or conditions? Since the offer of Jesus to follow him is absolute, is our response also absolute? Or is it rather conditional and even with a tinge of regret?
Being a disciple of Jesus in our own day brings its own challenges - and our resolve can be sorely tested. Our reservations and temptations will be different from those of the people mentioned in today’s Gospel, but they are nonetheless real.
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 plow or a family or a corpse, by way of a strong chain or a golden thread. Let’s choose God with the same responsible abandon of Elisha following Elijah, the same freedom mentioned by Paul, and the same resolve of Jesus going to Jerusalem. Let’s each of us discern the Jerusalem we must face in our lives; that kind of commitment and effort frees us. It makes us free to be different without being afraid. It’s exhilarating, and filled with joy. Jesus “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” Do we have the same determination in our discipleship and thus achieve our own exodus too? And this is the Good News of today.