Monday, June 20, 2016

13th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Last week our readings showed us that the Disciples were not prepared for the trouble that was going to come.  As followers of Christ, we recognize that we will have our own “crosses to bear.”  As we continue our journey with Jesus this week, we learn some of the price of taking up that cross…

1 Kings 19-16b, 19-21
Psalm 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11
Galatians 5:1, 13-18
Luke 9:51-62

Our first reading from the 1st book of Kings has the great prophet Elijah choosing his successor, Elisha.  The scene from our reading seems fairly straightforward, but to better understand this moment, let me help put it into some greater context:  Elijah, once again, is a man on the run.  The great drought and famine is over and King Ahab and the people rejoiced in the Lord.  Unfortunately, that rejoicing included slaughtering all the prophets of Baal (one of the great Canaanite gods).  This infuriated Queen Jezebel, who ordered that Elijah should die.  Fearing for his life, Elijah flees to Mount Horab (in the Sinai… some 150 miles south of Jerusalem… that same mountain where Moses was given the 10 Commandments… and don’t for a moment think this is a coincidence…).  During his time on the mountain, which the narrative tells us was a 40 day journey (not a coincidence either), the Lord tells Elijah to, among other things, find Elisha and anoint him as a successor (it would seem the Lord is also concerned about Elijah’s life).  This takes us to the moment in our first reading, where Elijah finds and commissions Elisha. 

The commissioning itself is quite simple… he just places his cloak on him.  But the meaning of this is known to Elisha, and he knows his life is about to change, and asks to bid farewell to his family.  This moment is like a Baptism… dying to our old self so we can rise as our new self… a new creation.  To stress the point of this transformation, we have Elisha slaughtering the oxen and instruments he was using to plow the fields.  The fact that he was using 12 oxen indicates he had substantial wealth… for normally a field would be plowed with only one or two oxen.  The act of slaughtering the oxen, though seemingly wasteful to our modern eyes, signifies the extent to which he is giving up his former life to take up following the prophet.  And Elisha appears to do this with little hesitation, signifying his willingness to follow.  This is meant to show us what it means to follow a great prophet… that we must leave behind what we once were to venture on this new path.

Complementing this is our Gospel form Luke.  Jesus and his followers continuing their journey through Samaria, but when the local townspeople learn that he’s a Jew bound for Jerusalem, they are turned away.  As Jesus laments that they have no place to stay, still others are coming to him wishing to follow.  These new would be followers, however, ask Jesus if they can effectively get their affairs in order before they join the caravan, but Jesus won’t wait.  He explains that there’s no room for those who need to look back.

Now to our modern ears, this reaction from Jesus might sound harsh, but there are a few other things going on that can help explain his attitude.  First consider that this is the ancient world, a culture that moves much slower than it does for us today.  Tending to a father’s burial or bidding farewell to one’s family are not activities that would delay them for a day or two.  This could take weeks… and Jesus knows he doesn’t have that kind of time.  But there’s also a deeper meaning Jesus wants us to teach us… that in order to follow him we need to leave all our “baggage” behind.  No matter how burdensome or light that may be, we need to let it go.  But why?  I think St. Paul gives us the answer in our second reading… Freedom.

Our second reading continues with our study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Here Paul teaches us one of the core messages of this letter… “For freedom Christ set us free.”  Not only are we free to follow Christ (through the exercise of our free will), but the very act of following Christ (leaving our “baggage” behind to focus on the Gospel) brings us freedom.

Final thoughts:
It can be difficult for us 21st century Americans to fully appreciate the “baggage” that our ancient brothers and sisters could carry with them.  People in the ancient world were defined by their extended family, their country, their religion, their race, their class, and their sex.  But wait… how is that different from today?  The difference is that we no longer allow ourselves to be bound by these definitions.  We have the freedom to make choices, the freedom to break with the past and make a clean start.  This is the freedom that following Jesus can bring… the freedom of putting God first.  The freedom to serve one another with love.

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