All three readings for this Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C Cycle) have the idea of a radical crossroad in the life of a disciple. In the first, taken from the Old Testament Book of Kings, we encounter two famous characters, Elijah, the prophet and his protégé, Elisha. Elijah is at the end of his career, and the Lord instructs him to anoint Elisha as his successor. As the fine old Lutheran Hymn says “God of the prophets, bless the prophet’s sons, Elijah’s mantle o’er Elisha cast…” Elisha is a farmer and his career probably meets the expectations of his agricultural family and friends. Assuming Elijah’s cloak or mantle symbolizes Elisha’s call to be a prophet. The sacrifice of his yoke of oxen and using the plowing equipment for fuel indicates his radical departure from his former way of life. “Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.”
Our second reading comes from St. Paul’s letter to the church he had founded in Galatia. Galatia was a Celtic area in what is now modern-day Turkey. He too emphasizes the radical nature of the call to be a disciple. This time the discipleship is an allegiance to Christ. “For freedom, Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” The freedom of which Paul speaks is not a freedom to do anything we please but rather a freedom to love – to be at service to the other; for as he writes: “… the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Finally, in the Gospel taken from St. Luke, we have a vivid illustration of what the radical nature of discipleship involves. Jesus has announced His intention to journey to the Holy City, Jerusalem. There were two routes south from Galilee to Jerusalem. One involved a journey down the Jordan River Valley and then a westward cross-country trek uphill to the Holy City. The other was much more direct but fraught with danger because it passed through the area of the Samaritans.
Though closely related in culture, language and even religion, the Jews and Samaritans despised one another. Briefly, the Judeans viewed the Samaritans, who inhabited what once had been the rebellious northern Kingdom of Israel, as racially impure and as religious heretics. Centuries earlier when the northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians, the latter had exiled the elite and brought in colonists from other parts of the large Assyrian Empire. In time the remaining Israelites and the newcomers mingled and became a new race. Even when the Judeans, who were the remnant of the southern Davidic kingdom of Judah, no longer had an independent kingdom, they saw themselves as the inheritors of the ancient traditions.
This brief historical background accounts for the bad reception Jesus’ messengers received in some Samaritan towns. Yet it is the harsh reaction of James and John that most concerned Jesus. Typically, in light of the ancient antagonisms, James and John wish to call down fire from heaven on the inhospitable Samaritan towns. Though His words are not recorded, Jesus rebukes them. Jesus’ disciples are not to harbor the commonly accepted prejudices but rather they are to pursue a new direction.
Jesus further challenges the disciples with the comments about the foxes having dens and the birds having nests but the Son of Man not having a place to lay His head. In response, some of the disciples allege that they are willing to follow Jesus but first they must pursue what to us seems very normal familial obligations – bury the deceased or say farewell to the family. Using Semitic hyperbole, Jesus implies that being His disciple requires complete allegiance with which nothing can interfere. This harkens back to the first reading and Elisha’s initial response to Elijah. Jesus implies that the disciple must be capable of leaving possessions, former responsibilities and cherished relationships in order to fully commit to the reign of God. Once a disciple there can be no looking back: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”
That kingdom is the reason for our creation, that kingdom is why we exist; that kingdom is the goal of our existence. To lose it would mean that we have lived in vain! While the relationships of friends and family are normal and valuable (after all Our Lord Himself obviously held the Twelve Apostles in a special friendship) nothing or no one can be permitted to divert us from the path that defines our very existence. To me, this seems to be the lesson of this Sunday’s readings. The Church calls this post- Pentecost season “ordinary”. It is only ordinary in the sense that some time will pass before we celebrate another major feast; however, it is not “ordinary” in the sense that every day gives us the time to grow closer to the Lord Jesus and the demands of discipleship. It is in these so-called “ordinary” moments of life, that in our dealings with our neighbors, families, friends and others, we live the radical demands of Christian
Monsignor John McGuirl