Thirty-eighth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: 1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62
One of my favorite quotes about the ongoing process of conversion in authentic religious belief was written by the Catholic author Flannery O’Connor. In one of her letters she wrote that “[w]hat people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it’s the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.” Today’s readings are a stark illustration of just how hard leading a Christ-like life and being “merciful like the Father” really is. The episodes they relate from our salvation history keep Saint Paul’s remarks to the Galatians about living by the Spirit and not submitting to “the yoke of slavery” from being simply charming metaphors or blithe precepts. In fact, in this life they are the hardest things we may ever choose to do.
In the First Reading, Elijah meets Elisha for the first time, a young man promised by God to succeed him in his prophetic office, and he marks him as his disciple. Before leaving to follow Elijah, Elisha asks if he may first say goodbye to his parents – a reasonable and proper request, we might think. The prophet replies, “Go back! Have I done anything to you?” What seems reasonable and proper to us is, it seems, ignorant and offensive to God’s chosen spokesman on earth – at least back in the day, right? Before Jesus preached the Law of Love, right? And yet, in the Gospel reading, we see much the same reaction from Jesus when speaking to potential new followers. One asks that he may bury his father, to which the Savior replies, “Let the dead bury their dead.” Another asks, like Elisha, if he may say goodbye to his family before following Him, and the Lord responds, “No one who sets hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Imagine – the Son of God and of Mary going so far as to compare relationship with one’s parents to anxious rechecking of farmland newly plowed! What are we to make of these shocks to our sensibilities, this seemingly dispassionate abandonment of proper respect for our loved ones? It seems to run counter to everything we hold to be good and decent and natural…and yes, even Christian! So what is the lesson here?
Perhaps we can find some of it in Elisha’s reaction to Elijah’s rebuke. Elisha does not return to his parents, but instead slaughters the 12 oxen with which he was plowing the field and uses the plowing equipment to cook them. And then he gives the food to “his people” – which here most likely means the field workers, but also foreshadows the way in which he as prophet would be called upon to feed all God’s people, since as God’s spokesman they would all be his own as well. In this action, we see a hard truth about the impartial exercise of God’s mercy which we are all called to imitate: Elisha has actually enlarged his family by denying it, forsaking a goodbye to his parents in order to greet the field workers as his brothers. Nowhere does the story say it was easy, but only in this way could Elisha be ready to follow along Elijah’s own difficult path.
In much the same way, Jesus’ reply to another potential follower presents the same situation in a different way. One person says, “I will follow you wherever you go” – something I’m sure we’ve all heard ourselves saying to Him, whether absent-mindedly or overcome with emotion. And Jesus says to him (and to us), “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Remember: Jesus was an itinerant preacher, Who never stayed in one place for very long. And as many homes as He was welcomed into, and as many times He would revisit a particular place, He did not rest His head until the day He died – and even then, the grave could not hold Him. To be at the service of all, to make the world your brothers and sisters, to be an impartial minister of reconciliation, is to – in a very real sense – make yourself homeless. There is no place you can call your own, because you belong to everyone else and to God.
So why would we do that to ourselves? Why should we level the playing field so radically for ourselves? It seems so wrong. But yet – is that not what we actually seek? Is that not part of what we mean when we say “You shall love your neighbor as yourself?” If it isn’t, it should be! Saint Paul, summing up the Jewish tradition even as he launched the Christian one, wrote that “the whole Law is fulfilled in [that] one statement.” What it means for the Christian, he tells us, is this: “[D]o not use [your] freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.” Remember: this is the religion of the “both/and,” not the “either/or.” The Spirit and the flesh, however much they pull at or push against each other, are meant to be in balance. And this balance can only be achieved through loving as God loves: impartially. This is why that love seems so radical and extreme in its practice, especially in today’s readings. And it’s why the internal conflict it creates feels so vividly wrong: the Spirit and the flesh “are opposed to each other, so you cannot do what you want.” And this is why Jesus is Who He is – the God-Man, the perfect Man living in perfect balance, showing through ways common-sense and counter-intuitive what alignment with God’s will looks like. We cannot live completely as the Spirit – and we’re not meant to, being also flesh – but “if you are guided by the Spirit, then you are not under the law.”
A final point: when Jesus was about to pass through a Samaritan village, as recounted in today’s reading, and they would not welcome Him, His disciples asked if they should “call down fire from heaven to consume them.” The Gospel tells us that Jesus rebuked them and they moved on. That makes sense to us. We know Jesus never forced anyone to follow Him: He treated non-believers and hostiles just as He did disciples and friends, and He placed the faithful on the same level of priority as His own family. It would not occur to Him to do anything less, or if it did He would never act upon it because it was not His Father’s will. Why, then, should we children of the same Father expect any less of ourselves?
It may be time to unplug that blanket.