Jun 30, 2019: 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – 1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21

The LORD said to Elijah:
“You shall anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah,
as prophet to succeed you.”

Elijah set out and came upon Elisha, son of Shaphat,
as he was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen;
he was following the twelfth.
Elijah went over to him and threw his cloak over him.
Elisha left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said,
“Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,
and I will follow you.”
Elijah answered, “Go back!
Have I done anything to you?”
Elisha left him, and taking the yoke of oxen, slaughtered them;
he used the plowing equipment for fuel to boil their flesh,
and gave it to his people to eat.
Then Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.

Elijah was a prophet in the northern kingdom during the reign of King Ahab (869-850 BC).  In today’s gospel, Elijah is obeying God’s command to chose his successor, Elisha.

The LORD said to Elijah: “You shall anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah, as prophet to succeed you.” Elijah set out and came upon Elisha, son of Shaphat, as he was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen; he was following the twelfth.

Such a large number of oxen indicates Elisha was from a well-to-do family.

Elijah went over to him and threw his cloak over him.

The spoken word was not the only way prophecy was handed on; certain symbolic action also carried prophetic meaning, as seen here with Elijah throwing his cloak over Elisha.

This particular act can be interpreted in more than one way.  Since the hair shirt cloak of the prophet was part of their official dress (2 Kings 1:8; Zechariah 13:4), casting it upon
another would indicate an investiture and initiation.  It also suggests that the kind of activity in which Elijah was engaged has come to an end and a new generation of prophets is on the horizon.

Elisha left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Please, let me kiss my father and mother good-bye, and I will follow you.”

Note that Elisha has no second thoughts about following his call, asking only to say farewell to his parents.  Kinship ties are very important in traditional societies like ancient Israel — saying goodbye has less to do with emotional attachment than to kinship obligations.

“Go back!” Elijah answered. “Have I done anything to you?”

Elijah neither grants permission to leave nor prohibits him from going.

Perhaps he is pointing out that the invitation to become a prophet is an invitation from God, not an invitation from Elijah.  It’s up to him to decide whether or not he can make the radical break from the past that this commission requires.

Elisha left him and, taking the yoke of oxen, slaughtered them; he used the plowing equipment for fuel to boil their flesh, and gave it to his people to eat. Then Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.

Elisha’s response is wholehearted.  His slaughter of the oxen and destruction of the plowing equipment were symbolic acts of severing his ties with the past.  He has permanently renounced his previous life for his new vocation as Elijah’s disciple.

2nd Reading – Galatians 5:1, 3-18

Brothers and sisters:
For freedom Christ set us free;
so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.

For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters.
But do not use this freedom
as an opportunity for the flesh;
rather, serve one another through love.
For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement,
namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
But if you go on biting and devouring one another,
beware that you are not consumed by one another.

I say, then: live by the Spirit
and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. 
For the flesh has desires against the Spirit,
and the Spirit against the flesh;
these are opposed to each other,
so that you may not do what you want.
But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

In today’s second reading, we hear Paul’s discourse on the nature of Christian freedom.

Brothers and sisters: For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.

The passage begins with a statement that contains both an assertion and a command.

The assertion does not merely proclaim Christian freedom, it also states that Christians have been freed for the sake of freedom.  In other words, Christ did not free them from one form of bondage only to have them submit themselves to another.  This is clearly stated in the command: they are to stand fast in their freedom and not allow themselves to be bound again.

Paul does not explicitly identify the slavery to which he refers, but his later mention of the law and the description of styles of living indicate he is talking about ethical behavior.

“He adds ‘again,’ not because the Galatians had previously kept the law … but in their readiness to observe the lunar seasons, to be circumcised in the flesh and to offer sacrifices, they were in a sense returning to the cults that they had previously served in a state of idolatry.” [Saint Jerome (A.D. 386), Commentaries on the Epistle to the Galatians 2,5,1]

For you were called for freedom, brothers.

Christians had already been set free by Christ, but they are not yet totally free because they are not yet completely free within themselves.  Habits of mind and heart, addictions of all kinds, retain their hold even after they are renounced.  Freedom itself is a frightening thing because it requires the willing renunciation of whatever compensations people have cultivated in order to cope with the habits that enslave them.

Paul realized this, so he exhorts the Galatians to stand fast in their freedom.

But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.

Having warned against the tendency to re-enslave themselves, Paul next addresses the opposite inclination.  The freedom to which they have been called is not an invitation to license.  It is not an opportunity for throwing off all moral restraint and indulging in some form of libertinism.

Though no longer under the bondage of the law, they are not free to live lawless lives; their freedom must rather be one of service of love, a freedom for others.

For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

See Leviticus 19:18.

Though not slaves of the law, they should be willing servants of one another in love.  In this way, though they may not accomplish all that the law requires, they will have fulfilled all that the law intends.

That last sentence bears repeating: Though they may not accomplish all that the law requires, they will have fulfilled all that the law intends.

“What need is there for the holy apostle to make use of the new law, if the new covenant is foreign to the old legislation? He wants to show both covenants are from the one Lord. They are best perceived as sharing the same intent. The fulfillment of the Law is through the love of one’s neighbor, because love is that which effects the perfect good. He therefore says that love is the fulfilling of the Law.” [Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (A.D. 374-377), Panacea Against All Heresies 42,12,3]

But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.

Paul is warning the Galatians that if through a false sense of freedom, they give in to the inclinations of the flesh, they will eventually destroy one another.

I say, then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh.

Paul contrasts life lived in the Spirit with life lived in the flesh.  Elsewhere he uses “flesh” in several different ways, but here he is referring to that aspect of human nature considered susceptible to evil.  While not in itself sinful, because of its vulnerability, it is inclined toward sin.

In contrast, the spirit is the aspect of human behavior associated with the spiritual realm, the realm of God.  This spiritual dimension of human nature is joined with the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit.

For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.

The Christian in union with Christ and endowed with the Spirit still struggles with the “flesh,” the symbol of all human opposition to God.  As Christ told the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”  (Matthew 26:41).

But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

If Christians are guided by the Holy Spirit, they will not be enslaved by the law.  The power of the Spirit gives the Christian an interior principle to counteract the “flesh” and no longer has a need to be confronted with the extrinsic norm of the Law.

“He did not say ‘Walk in the Spirit so that you will not have desires of the flesh’ but ‘so you will not gratify them.’ Not to have them at all, indeed, is not the struggle but the prize of the struggle, if we shall have obtained the victory by perseverance under grace. For it is only the transformation of the body into an immortal state that will no longer have desires of the flesh.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (ca. A.D. 394), Explanation of the Epistle to the Galatians 47]

Gospel – Luke 9:51-62

When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled,
he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem,
and he sent messengers ahead of him. 
On the way they entered a Samaritan village 
to prepare for his reception there,
but they would not welcome him
because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem. 
When the disciples James and John saw this they asked,
“Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven
to consume them?” 
Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village.

As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him,
“I will follow you wherever you go.” 
Jesus answered him,
“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

And to another he said, “Follow me.” 
But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” 
But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. 
But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 
And another said, “I will follow you, Lord,
but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” 
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.”

Today’s gospel reading reminds us of the radical nature of our call to serve God.  We will see several subtle allusions to the prophet Elijah, connecting this passage to our first reading.

When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled,

Recall that Elijah was “taken up” in 2 Kings 2:11. The phrase doesn’t carry precisely the same meaning, but was likely intended to evoke similarities.

Here, “Jesus’ being taken up” refers to all that Jesus has ahead of him: the trek to Jerusalem, his passion, death, resurrection and ascension.  To say that these days “were fulfilled” is to say that God’s plan is coming to fulfillment through these events.

he resolutely determined

The literal translation is “he set his face.”  Jesus knows suffering awaits him, but he is resolute to do his Father’s will, regardless of any opposition.

These three words reveal the reality of the Incarnation.  Jesus, a divine Person, has a real human will.  His humanity was not an apparition, but truly God-with-us.

to journey to Jerusalem, 

Jerusalem provides continuity between the old and the new covenants in God’s
plan. There Jesus will complete his exodus to God, and from Jerusalem the Christian mission will travel to the ends of the earth.

and he sent messengers ahead of him.

He sends others in advance to make his arrival known.  He still does this today, via the preaching and teaching of the Church and the sacraments throughout the ages.

On the way they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his reception there, but they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem.

Traveling through Samaria was the most direct route to Jerusalem, but not the customary one.  Ordinary Jews would have gone around through Perea, in order to avoid the Samaritans, their age-old enemies.

The mutual prejudice between the Samaritans and the Jews can be traced all the way back to the return of the Jews from their exile in Babylon, circa 536 BC.  Some of the Jews in the district of Samaria remained in the land during the exile and had intermarried with the Assyrians who conquered them.  The returning Jews considered them social and religious half-breeds and, consequently, cultically unclean.  For this reason they were not allowed to help with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.  In reaction, the Samaritans built their own temple, an action which was considered heretical and schismatic.  Although the Jews later destroyed it, the Samaritans continued to worship God on Mount Gerizim, an action the Jews considered illegitimate, and leading the Jews to detest Samaritans even more than pagans.  This explains why the Samaritans refused to show hospitality to the Jews who traveled through Samaria on their way to worship in Jerusalem.

When the disciples James and John saw this they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”

Another connection to Elijah.  The “Sons of Thunder,” James and John (see Mark 3:17) increase the mounting tension by wanting to imitate the great prophet, who twice called down fire to destroy his enemies in 2 Kings 1:10-12.  They are experiencing the all-too-human desire to be right, to prove a point, to have vengeance.

Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village.

By this time in Luke’s gospel, James and John have witnessed the transfiguration, heard Jesus’ warnings about his coming suffering, and received his teaching about loving our enemies. They are clearly among those who are not yet able to understand the gospel message, so Jesus has to rebuke them.

Jesus himself never lets laws about uncleanliness prevent him from ministering to someone, and he lives out his own teaching about non-retaliation against enemies (see Luke 6:27-29,35).  His way is not one of destruction, but of mercy and salvation.  Christ does not ask us to forcefully fix every wrong in the world, but to conquer evil with good (Romans 12:20).

As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 

Luke now pivots to give us three short interchanges about the challenges of discipleship. Three individuals either volunteer or are called to follow Jesus; their attitudes and Jesus’ response to them are revealing.

The first enthusiastically offers commitment.  The man seems to have expressed a good and holy desire, but Jesus always sees deeper than the surface.  Here, the would-be disciple sees Jesus merely as a means to some other end: to be recognized, to be famous, to go places (literally).

Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

In each of these cases, Jesus will emphasize the demands that discipleship will exact.  He doesn’t trick anyone into following him; he is fully transparent about the requirements and demands total dedication. In modern terms, he is saying, “Before you follow me, count the cost.”

In this case, Jesus teaches that it is not to some other “place” that he will lead him, for there is no other place for a Christian than Christ himself.  In fact, Jesus has no “place” at all, nowhere to even rest his head.

To be a follower of Jesus, one must be willing to relinquish all — here, he is speaking within the context of poverty.  The statement that he has nowhere to rest his head was true: he’d been driven out of Nazareth, disregarded in Galilee, rejected in Samaria, threatened with death in Jerusalem, and the house in Capernaum which he used as a base in Galilee probably belonged to either Peter or Matthew.

Jesus had sacrificed both security and the sense of belonging somewhere, and we are called upon to do the same to follow him.

And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”

The second would-be disciple is called by Jesus (versus the first, where the disciple took the initiative); however, he wishes to postpone joining Jesus until he has put his immediate affairs in order.

Filial piety, especially in burying one’s parents, runs deep within Judaism.  The father wasn’t dead yet, or the man wouldn’t have been here: it was Jewish custom to bury the dead the same day they died.  In other words, the man is saying, “Yes, but not now.”  Maybe he will come in five or ten years, after his father has died.

But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

An undoubtedly harsh response:  Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead; Jesus offers everlasting life. He is making the point that, in everything, there’s a crucial moment when one is expected to act.  This was the man’s crucial moment, and he is choosing to miss it.

These words would be cruel if the man’s father had actually died. We know from the story of the raising of the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17) that Jesus wants children to take care of their parents when they are in need.  In this case, Jesus has recognized the man’s empty excuse and is calling him on it.

That being said, in order to follow Jesus, one must be willing to sacrifice one’s own idea of duty. Even religious ceremonial customs must be set aside if necessary, when commitment to Jesus is at stake.  Despite their critical importance, family ties cannot take precedence over discipleship.

And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.”  

Like the second disciple, this one also wishes to respond to God’s call and journey to salvation on his own terms.  Another “yes, but not now.”

Note the direct connection to our first reading, where Elisha makes a near-identical request of Elijah.  The numerous allusions to Elijah may have been intended to show that Jesus transcends the expectations associated with the great prophet of ancient Israel.

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.”

Everyone in the rural audience knew that, if one wants to plow a straight furrow, he has to pay attention to what he’s doing and not look elsewhere.

This answer shows that Jesus demands more than Elijah: one cannot even look back, lest the work suffer.  We must be prepared to sacrifice even the affection of family in our resolve to follow Christ.

Connections and Themes

Wholehearted commitment.  There is no part-time discipleship: our commitment must be wholehearted and complete.  We must have a willing attitude that frees us interiorly from all other concerns so we might be able to follow Christ regardless of our state in life or our occupation. This attitude of commitment comes not merely from our own generosity of heart, but also from our having been transformed into Christ through faith and baptism. Such wholehearted commitment is an interior reality, not an exterior demonstration.  It is not for the few; it is required of all.

The cost of discipleship.  The readings this week invite us to meditate on the conflicts that face us when our various allegiances seem to clash.  We may have family responsibilities.  There are children to raise, elderly parents or infirm relatives to care for.  What does discipleship require of us?  We must earn a living.  Are we expected to leave our employment to follow Jesus?  And if so, what then will we do?  All disciples must face the interior struggle caused by the conflict of legitimate responsibilities.  The gospel draws the lines of such conflict with bold, even harsh, strokes.  The commitment must be radical.  But what does this imply?

Love your neighbor.  The interior dilemma described above is resolved in the exhortation to love.  The freedom of which Paul speaks is neither license nor halfhearted commitment.  It is the freedom that comes with genuine love.  If out of love we can negotiate successfully these conflicts caused by competing responsibilities without compromising our total commitment to Christ, we will find a new kind of freedom.  This is the freedom that enables us to be faithful to both sets of responsibilities according to proper priority.  We will see that the commitment to Christ is primary and the circumstances of our lives with the accompanying responsibilities set the parameters within which we live out our commitment.  It is not in opposition with these responsibilities or despite them, but by means of or through them that we live out our discipleship.

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