THIRTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR, C
"NO ONE WHO LOOKS BACK IS FIT FOR THE KINGDOM OG GOD"
The themes of freedom and discipleship feature prominently in the readings of today. Saint Paul says, "When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free". Such is called freedom of the children of God. It means freedom that goes with responsibilities. It is the freedom that recognizes the rights of other individuals as members of the society. It is the freedom that upholds God as the Supreme Being who should be worshipped by his creatures. Saint Paul warns against freedom which gives in to self-indulgence, pride and selfishness. The consequence of such absolute freedom is chaos and conflict. This is predominant in today's world. Hence he warns, "If you go snapping at each other and tearing each other to pieces, you had better watch or you will destroy the whole community".
In the gospel, we notice how James and John wanted to exercise their freedom against the Samaritans. "Lord", they said, "do you want us to call down fire from heaven to burn them up?" James and John thought they had absolute right to demolish the "stop" sign mounted by the Samaritans. The Samaritans themselves felt they had absolute right to mount their "stop" sign against anyone crossing their territory and going into Jerusalem. They hated Jerusalem and wouldn't want anything to associate them with the city. Jesus settled the ensuing dispute. He used the occasion to teach the disciples the true meaning of freedom, "and they went off to another village". Every individual's freedom begins where the other's stops.
Today, freedom and rights are two most contested features of the society. Who is free and to what extent? A group of young adults were demonstrating for their freedom in one of the cities in the US. Some journalists came around and began to ask them to define freedom and rights. They rather began to manufacture excuses. One said, "I'm sorry, my friend asked me to join in the demonstration". Another said, "Sorry, I just woke up and would need to think", etc. That showed that many of us have wrong ideas of freedom and rights. Countries are in conflict today. Cities are clashing. Families are divided. Human life is threatened and annihilated because the idea of freedom is exaggerated, abused, mutilated and destroyed. Like James and John, those in authority feel they can make laws that take life at will. They feel they are absolutely free to interfere with God's creatures. That is completely wrong.
There is however a different dimension in the first reading. Elisha responds to God's call. He exhibits freedom, commits to God whole heartedly. At the completion of his prophetic ministry, Elijah is told to anoint Elisha to succeed him. Elijah throws his cloak over Elisha, what symbolized Elisha's ordination. Elisha slaughters his twelve oxen and follows Elijah. He detaches himself from material possessions in order to serve God. He declares his total surrender (twelve oxen) to God. Elisha not only accepts the call but also severs whatever bonds he has with his original profession. He declares himself free for God.
The gospel presents us with the call to discipleship. Three different persons encounter Jesus. Each expresses willingness to follow him in different ways. The first delivers himself to follow him. But Jesus declines his offer, tells him that the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. In the first case, Jesus is looking at the man's intention. For the young man, discipleship is more of a social movement. He feels that those who follow Jesus receive honor and recognition. Jesus invites the second person to follow him. His reply to Jesus was to let him go and bury his father first. Jesus' reply is, "Leave the dead to bury their dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God". The dead in this case are those who have not heard the word of God. They are dead because they are choked by material possessions. They only deal with their likes. For those called to discipleship, they should place priority on spreading the good news. Burying the dead seems to be a great duty, but the word of God remains ultimate for the followers of God. It gives life, has nothing to do with the dead. Finally, the third guy volunteers himself to follow him with a "but". I will follow you, sir, but first let me go and say good-bye to my people at home. Jesus says to him, "Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God". He reminds him that there can be no half measures in following God. You are either in or you are out. No half and half discipleship.
While I read this gospel, the idea of priestly celibacy keeps resonating with me. Celibacy, as we know has been one of the most highly criticized practices of the catholic priesthood. A lot of arguments have been postulated against why priests shouldn't marry. For me, the encounter between Christ and these young men bring out an interesting argument to support celibacy. Celibacy is at the heart of the priestly ministry. When the young man says, "First, let me go and bury my father", it shows attachment to his family. When the other says, "First, let me go and say good-bye to my people", it shows distraction by earthly things. And when Christ says, "No one who lays his hands on the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom", he commands detachment and total commitment to the course of the gospel. Sometimes, I imagine what would happen if priests were married and had competing interests. Our pastoral services would have been with so many "buts". Assuming I have mass and my wife is sick. Assuming I have a call to anoint a parishioner and my little baby is ill. Assuming I have to go for confessions and my daughter has soccer competition and says, "dad, I want you to watch my game". These are all family ties that could divide someone's attention. Elisha throws in everything to serve God. The priest throws in everything and commits totally to discipleship.
Saint Paul says, "The love of Christ urges us on" (2Cor.5:14). Again, he writes, "Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel" (1Cor.9:16). Pope Francis describes it as the "Joy of the Gospel" which according to him, "fills the hearts of all who encounter Jesus". The pope says, "no one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord" (Evangelii Gaudium, no.3). The call to discipleship is thus a call for everyone to evangelize. It is a call to follow Christ. It is a call to detach ourselves from worldly attention. We are called to follow Christ and to not let anything come in between. Think about your work. Think about your family. Think about your friendships. Think about your interests. All these are good in themselves. Does any of them place a BUT in your relationship with God? Whatever makes us not commit fully to God has become a BUT in our desire to follow him.
Today, Jesus is "resolutely" heading to Jerusalem. He is committed to dying for our sake. He is there for us, and he wants us to be there for him. He expects a personal relationship with his followers. He expects commitment from us. He wants us to break from cultural, social, political, material distractions that make us place him as secondary need. God wants to be first in our lives. Let us do away with flimsy excuses that take us away from commitment to our faith. Let us stop looking for reasons why we shouldn't be involved in extra time for Jesus.
Remember today, that once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. It is the plough of faith. Let's stop looking back while we follow God. In him we live and move and have our being. God alone is our true freedom.