13th. Sunday, Year (C)
(1 Kings 19:16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62)
It would be difficult to find a subject more suited to Christians living in our Western democratic societies today than that which is put before us by Mother Church in the readings we have just heard:
For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.
Whilst society around us relates freedom exclusively to politics, we Catholics consider freedom even more importantly with regard to Jesus; and so, for Christians, authentic political freedom must allow us to relate to Jesus and worship God in His Name without hindrance or let. However, authentic, political, and religious freedom is but the background, the setting, for the supremely important personal freedom of mind and heart that enables us to recognize and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as He seeks to guide us ever further along the ways of Jesus.
History teaches us that, even over many centuries, people change little in their fundamental attitudes, and in the second reading we heard St. Paul warning his people about a mistaken attitude to freedom which is just as common today as it was then:
You were called for freedom, brothers and sisters; do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.
How many mistaken young people, and how many foolish older people, think that they are asserting their freedom when they indulge their animal impulses of all sorts against religious law, against propriety, and against the many civilities which have been found, by long experience of life in society, to be necessary if human beings are to be able to live peaceably and profitably together? This cult of false freedom starts early in life and grows rapidly: little boys swearing, smoking etc., bigger boys getting drunk and being rowdy; girls trying to draw attention to themselves by either exaggerating their physical femininity or by showing a contempt for their own sex as they try to imitate men in their swearing, drinking, sexual licence and general vulgarity. It goes on much further however, and then we get into the horrors of infidelity and adultery, drugs and prostitution, violence and murder, abortion and child abuse. These are some of the stages in a gradual and growing madness: the abuse of freedom wherein the freedom that God meant to be the glorious badge of human kind becomes a scourge to torment and destroy true humanity.
However, such a false idea of freedom is, on the whole, not likely to deceive true disciples of Jesus, so let us turn our attention to the Gospel and learn to recognize more hidden enemies of true freedom.
When the days for His 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.
There we see some Samaritans who were prevented by racial, political, religious, and perhaps personal, prejudices from allowing themselves to be approached by Jesus. They were not free: they were bound captive by prejudice. What is prejudice? Any attitude of mind and heart that makes us unprepared to listen to, unable to appreciate and acknowledge, and unwilling to accept and respond to, truth.
People of God, prejudices can be very deep and also very subtle. There are gross prejudices, such as the racial hatred we have in Palestine, or religious hatred as shown by the Muslim fundamentalists, and social taboos such as those which abound in India. The subtle prejudices, however, can be almost imperceivable in our lives because they are connected with what we love, admire, or aspire to. None of us can afford to think ourselves free from such prejudices, and there is only one way we can try to combat what we cannot see: we should always try to acknowledge truth wherever we glimpse it or whenever it is shown to us, and we should never reject off-hand what we suspect might be true, otherwise we, like the Samaritans, could prevent the Spirit of Jesus even approaching us.
Our Gospel reading offers us another example of fettered human freedom, featuring another, much indulged, human attitude which is, most deceptively, destructive of authentic freedom, namely emotionalism:
As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to Him “I will follow You wherever You go."
Now notice that I am not here speaking against emotions, for they are an essential component of human character: for without emotions we could neither love nor commit ourselves. Emotions only become emotionalism when they are allowed to run riot, when they try to take over rather than follow our mind, our intelligence. Emotions are given us so that we might be able to love what the mind recognizes as beautiful and knows to be good; emotionalism, on the other hand, does not allow itself to be guided by the mind at all: blind and gushing, it is quite ungovernable and unstable.
The man mentioned in our Gospel reading, seeing Jesus as He was walking with His disciples along the road and perhaps having heard Jesus speak some words, called out most dramatically:
I will follow You wherever You go.
Jesus tried to help the man appreciate the meaning of his unthinking words, He answered:
Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest His head.
Emotion is no guide to truth, that is the work of the mind; emotion is meant, as I said, to help us respond positively to truth, goodness, and beauty, which the mind has recognized. Emotions, following the judgement of the mind, can then bring about what the mind could only conceive. With emotionalism, however, the great sin is that it tries to pass itself of as a form of inspiration: it is of human origin, a ‘personal production’ pretending to be the work of the Spirit of Jesus within us, a shoddy imitation of what is truly a holy calling and calm conviction.
The man here put before us in the Gospel reading was allowing his feelings to pressurize his mind in such a way that he was neither able to recognise the truth about himself nor appreciate the working of the Spirit, and consequently was in no sense free to commit himself to Jesus. That is why Jesus brought him back to his senses, as we would say, by helping him to realize what discipleship involved.
Perhaps, later on, the man might have been able to follow Jesus more closely, for emotionalism is but an abuse of what can be good. However, to be able to do that, he would need to grow both in human maturity and personal discipline, while also developing in spiritual humility so that he could use his God-given emotions aright, seeking to promote God’s glory rather than his own exaltation/gratification. If he could do that it would rescue him from self-deceit and self-display and might earn him, instead, the divine gift of true personal enlightenment and fulfilment.
The Gospel then paints another picture for us:
To another (Jesus) said, "Follow Me." But he replied, "Lord, let me go first and bury my father." Jesus answered him, "Let the dead bury their dead. But you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
On this occasion Jesus takes the initiative: He calls the man to follow Him. What was it that would have prevented him from following Jesus? What was it that was holding him captive even though with bonds of softest silk? It was human love competing with divine love in this man’s heart: and, how many there are of those who, loving in this excessive and merely human way, effectively restrain God’s authority in their lives! Jesus, recognizing the trial this man was experiencing, made it absolutely clear for him by saying:
Let the dead bury their dead. But you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.
Love of God takes precedence over all else; and it can, and at times does, demand exclusive commitment. We do not know how the (young?) man responded to Jesus’ words, but, in our first reading, we did see Elisha’s response to a similar ultimatum. Elijah, the great prophet of the Lord, having initially called Elisha in the name of the Lord, was on the point of leaving him behind – ‘Who is stopping you?’ -- would appear to be the meaning of his enigmatic reply to Elisha’s plea to be allowed to go home first. Elisha, however, was not going to lose his calling … he cut off all possibility of that by immediately slaughtering his yoke of oxen, then burning his ploughing equipment in order to cook the oxen’s flesh, before giving it to those around and then definitively following Elijah. Elisha would indeed follow worthily in the footsteps of Elijah! I think ‘our man’ would likewise have followed Jesus’ guidance.
Finally, today, People of God, we are told of another passing encounter; and notice that here Jesus does not the initiative:
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 plough and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”
This is not a case of real love, here we have someone held captive by his own superficiality. As distinct from the others mentioned before, here we are shown one subject to a general superficiality that would lead him to begin but never complete, to have some initial appreciation but never know true love, as when we heard Jesus telling his disciples of a sower sowing in his field:
Some (seed) fell on rocky ground where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. (Matthew 13:5-6)
Shallowness of character, superficiality, these again are recognizable human traits which are, more or less, true for every human being, since we are all weak and inclined to leisure and ease. And yet, despite this, we are also endowed with a God-given ability to recognize and respond to what is of God. Here, this man himself takes the initiative, offers what was not requested, and then, in the same breath, shows how little he is attached to what he promises. He wants to give all to Jesus, "I will follow you, Lord, but ..". His will included an essential ‘but’. He wants to enjoy, he would say for the last time, all the old associations to which he had become attached over the years, ‘first let me say farewell to my family at home’, nothing so demanding as in the case before where the man asked if he might go to bury his father; notice, there was no ‘but’ in his reply to Jesus, (the ‘but’ there is due to the evangelist’s writing), just a humble, and quite possibly, hesitant, request.
Such a two-minded attitude -- wanting to be with Jesus and yet wanting to keep alive all the old attachments of life apart from Jesus -- could lead nowhere:
Jesus said to him, "No one who sets a hand to the plough and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God."
People of God, entrance into the kingdom of God is an immense privilege that quite literally has to be earned in accordance with God’s goodness, it is not something we have a personal right or claim to.
Let me recall Paul’s words again to mind for your final consideration:
For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.
How free are you? Can you, will you, "stand firm" in the freedom Christ has won for us, despite all the allurements and threats of a dominant and hostile secular society, for there is yet another essential ‘freedom’ to be won and exercised: freedom from popular ideas of Christianity and of Christian behaviour and character.
Notice James and John ‘Sons of Thunder’ specially chosen – along with that most ‘forceful’ character Peter – as disciples particularly intimate with and important to Jesus. After His death and Resurrection Jesus specially chose one other Apostle, Paul to proclaim His Gospel to the Gentiles … another such strong character!! Milk and Water Christianity, ‘do-gooders’ Christianity, is evidently not Jesus’ desired medium for evangelization but a deep-seated hankering for public, or ‘others’, approval, and it does oppress many Catholics in the development and expression of their personal love for Jesus and their own – Spirit-trusting -- initiative and zeal in His service.
Ultimately, such endurance and patience is only to be attained by following, as best you can, that other piece of advice given us by St. Paul:
Walk by the Spirit, and you will not fulfil the lust of the flesh. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.
Dear People of God, pray humbly and confidently for the Holy Spirit offered you in Holy Communion to guide, indeed, rule your life in Jesus for love of the Father.