Thursday, June 23, 2016

Never taken lightly

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Parishioners often feel frustrated by my hesitation to initiate new programmes in the parish. I can often sense the non-verbalised exasperation painted on their faces, “Why are you taking so long?” “What’s there to wait?” The answer, or some may say “my excuse,” for this hesitation lies in this little wisdom that I’ve acquired over the years – it’s easier to begin something than to sustain it over a long period of time. The initial enthusiasm launches people with a great deal of excitement, but it requires determination to maintain or finish a project. Disciples of Jesus need to know that it takes commitment.  I’m constantly reminded of the warning that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This is a warning I cautiously repeat to myself and others especially when enthusiasm overcomes the reality of the hard work that is to follow. Our Lord Jesus clearly understood this and thus warns all potential well-intentioned disciples against making wild promises which they have little resolve to keep.

Today's Gospel reading begins a long section unique to Luke's Gospel. Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem, which will end with his ministry in Jerusalem. Traditionally, it has been called the “travelogue”, a conflation of two words, “travel” and “dialogue.” It is a catechetical journey that would not only take them from the north to the south, but also move them from being tentative followers of Jesus to committed disciples willing to lay down their lives for the gospel. All along the way, he instructs his followers in the meaning of true discipleship. We see in this reading that the disciple must be willing to encounter rejection (“the Samaritans would not welcome him”), poverty (“nowhere to lay his head”), sacrifice of one’s previous priorities (“come away and proclaim the Kingdom of God”), and a decisive break with one’s entire past.

For those who can see portents and omens in tiny details, the poor start to this journey already forewarns us how it would all end badly with Jesus. As we had just heard in today’s gospel, immediately Jesus is met with rejection, as a Samaritan village will not receive him because he is going to Jerusalem. Jesus is undaunted. James and John want to call down fire from heaven to destroy the people in the village, but Jesus rebukes them and moves on. He’s not going to let this tiny set back derail his plans to reach Jerusalem.

The rest of today's reading is about the radical demands of discipleship. Walking resolutely along the road to Jerusalem, knowing what awaits him at the end of journey, he encounters three potential disciples who demonstrate the examples of poor discipleship, persons who possess loads of good intentions and little else. These three persons show that they do not understand the demands Jesus will make of them. Neither care of self, care for the dead, nor care of one's family (as required by the Fourth Commandment) can come before the demands of discipleship.

To the first man who makes this spontaneous promises which sounds like blank cheque, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus provides a more nuanced perspective. The man did not know where Jesus was headed and what would be involved. Jesus applied some reality and informed this first volunteer that following him involved hardships; that even the animals in the wild have more security than do Jesus and his followers. We are not sure whether such a reality check would have dampened the enthusiastic spirit of this man but it is clear that Christians are not meant to naively commit themselves to this way of life unless they knowingly and freely are able to commit themselves to the cross. Freedom is premised on such knowledge. Discipleship must always be deliberate and intentional. There are no accidental disciples.

But Jesus did throw a challenge to another man to follow him. This man, however, like so many of us scrambled for excuses. This man, who wants to bury a parent, is reminded that the demands of proclaiming the Kingdom of God take precedence. The phrase, “to bury my father,” meant more than just burying a dead father. It is quite likely that the father wasn’t dead yet and was still hale and hearty and had many years ahead of him. Thus the excuse is basically this – I have to fulfill obligations and would only be “free” to follow Christ, once I am freed of these obligations, upon the death of my family members. It is a tentative answer that would or would never be fulfilled in an undetermined time. “Yes, but not yet. Let me see.”

And the third, who wants to say farewell to his family, is reminded that once you put your hand to the plough you cannot look back or the furrow will be crooked. This man stands in contrast to the response of Elisha in the first reading. As opposed to the third man in the gospel, we have in the first reading an example of resoluteness in decision making. The act of slaughtering the oxen and burning the plough expresses Elisha’s decision to pursue wholeheartedly his new vocation as a prophet. He is burning his bridges. There is no turning back.

Most people who misunderstand this text would believe that the demands of Jesus are unreasonable. This is when Christianity is perceived as a religion which lays unnecessary and even unnatural burdens on a human person. Today’s world has canonised sin and mediocrity as the perennial human condition; thus the demands of Christ and of His Church are regarded as inhumane and a form of enslavement. The Church is constantly being pushed to lower the standards, to make it easier, lighter and certainly more convenient. Just because something is easier or lighter, does not necessarily make it any freer. On contrary, freedom can only be offered together with the gift of Truth – the truth will set us free. What the world fails to recognise is that our Lord, through his cross and resurrection, had come to free us from the tyranny of sin and the power of death. Christian freedom therefore is far from an abstract philosophical ideal. It is the result of a historical event: the victorious death of Jesus.  The freedom ultimately becomes ours when we deliberately and freely choose this way of life.

Yes, the demands of Jesus seems harsh here, but he is only asking of his disciples what he asks of himself. Jesus' unconditional commitment to God's saving work will demand of him his life. Our Lord used himself as the benchmark. Without hesitation, without flinching, without any excuse or delay, Jesus resolutely took the road for Jerusalem and made the ultimate sacrifice.

What the Lord wants of us today as he has been asking from the very beginning is total commitment. Therefore we cannot make this challenge easier by saying that it was just for a particular situation and is no longer practical or relevant for today. From the very beginning of Christianity - as we read in scriptures, in the history of the Church, we have seen in the living and dying testimonies of so many Christians who have heard Christ's call to renounce normal ties of family and country, and to keep before their eyes the goal of total discipleship. They understood that there are no half measures, no turning back, not just an ideal to be contemplated, but a call that can never be taken lightly.

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