Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Radical Call to Discipleship: The 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The Readings for this upcoming Sunday continue the strong call to discipleship issued in last Sunday's Readings.  Jesus stresses that following him must be an immediate and complete commitment of one's entire person.  As someone once said, "Jesus did not come to suffer, die and rise from the dead in order to create 'cultural Catholics.'"

1.  Our First Reading is from 1 Kgs 19:16b, 19-21:

The LORD said to Elijah:
“You shall anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah,
as prophet to succeed you.”

Elijah set out and came upon Elisha, son of Shaphat,
as he was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen;
he was following the twelfth.
Elijah went over to him and threw his cloak over him.
Elisha left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said,
“Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,
and I will follow you.”
Elijah answered, “Go back!
Have I done anything to you?”
Elisha left him, and taking the yoke of oxen, slaughtered them;
he used the plowing equipment for fuel to boil their flesh,
and gave it to his people to eat.
Then Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.

The narratives about Elijah and Elisha, the two greatest pre-literary (non-writing) prophets, form the center-piece of the Books of the Kings (1-2 Kings), which were originally one composition.  Ironically for books entitled "Kings," their heart is really the story of two prophets.  These men are fulfillments of the promise of Moses, that God would “raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brethren” (Deut 18:15).  The association between Moses and Elijah/Elisha is quite clear from various aspects of the narrative, e.g. Elijah flees to Mt. Horeb, the same place Moses encountered God, in order to hear the divine voice once again and renew his prophetic ministry (1 Kgs 19).  Elijah and Elisha’s power to part the waters of the Jordan (2 Kgs 2:8,14; cf. Ex 14:21-22), to purify water for drinking (2 Kgs 2:19-22; cf. Ex 15:22-25), and to provide food supernaturally (2 Kgs 4:42-44; cf. Ex 16) recall the powers bestowed on Moses.

While they resemble Moses, Elijah and Elisha also anticipate two greater prophets who are yet to come, John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.  The Gospels will apply an Elijah-Elisha mold to the ministries of John and Jesus, although without perfect consistency.  At times Jesus himself will be cast in the role of Elijah.  Nonetheless, the dominant perspective is that John the Baptist is the Elijah who is to come (Mt 11:14, 17:12; Lk 1:17) and he wears the same garb as this colorful prophet (2 Kgs 2:8; cf. Mk 1:6).  Although the contrast is by no means absolute, Elijah is a prophet of judgment and justice, while Elisha is a prophet of mercy.  Thus, Elijah performs relatively few miracles of compassion (1 Kgs 17:8-24), but is remembered for calling fire from heaven multiple times, killing the prophets of Ba’al, and delivering oracles of death and judgment against Ahab and Ahaziah.  Elisha, on the other hand, has an extensive ministry of mercy, in which he grants conception to the barren, healing to sick, resurrection to the dead, food to the hungry, purity to the poisoned or defiled, even forgiveness to enemies (2 Kgs 6:21-23).  The Gospel authors recognized this pattern and its applicability to the successive ministries of John the Baptist, prophet of judgment (Matt 3:7-12) and Jesus of Nazareth, prophet of mercy (Matt 11:28-30).  In particular, Our Lord’s ministry in the Gospels is replete with specifically “Elishianic” miracles (Luke 7:22), whereas he declines to call fire from heaven according to the custom of Elijah (see Luke 9:54, part of our Gospel Reading this Sunday).  The recapitulation of these miracles by Our Lord demonstrate the reality of divine commission (John 10:25,38) and identify him not only as the Son of David but also the “prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:18) in the great tradition of Israelite prophesy.

In the specific text read for this Sunday, we see the radical nature of the call Elijah to Elisha.  The throwing of the cloak over Elisha was a familial gesture, a sign that Elijah was taking Elisha essentially as son and heir.  Elisha runs after and asks to return to "kiss his father and mother goodbye."  Elijah's abrupt response: "Go back!  Have I done anything to you?" means essentially, "Hey, do whatever you want, your free to accept or reject the mission to which I have invited you."  Elisha returns to his home briefly, but only to sacrifice the oxen and cook their flesh with the plowing equipment.  We must remember that this represented the "wasting" of an enormous sum of money.  One yoke (a pair) of oxen was represented thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars in value in modern day equivalent, and the plowing equipment represented hundreds or thousands of dollars more.  Elisha was certainly "burning his bridge behind him."  Doubtless his family would not be enthusiastic about the killing of the pair of oxen, and the destruction of the plowing gear would have made it impossible for Elisha to return to the farming lifestyle.  This was a definitive public gesture that he was beginning a new life in irrevocable fashion.  The text does not clearly indicate whether Elisha did return to say farewell to his parents--the silence on this issue seems to imply he did not.  HIs decision to follow Elijah is immediate, permanent, radical.

The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11:

R. (cf. 5a) You are my inheritance, O Lord.
Keep me, O God, for in you I take refuge;
I say to the LORD, “My Lord are you.
O LORD, my allotted portion and my cup,
you it is who hold fast my lot.”
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord.
I bless the LORD who counsels me;
even in the night my heart exhorts me.
I set the LORD ever before me;
with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord.
Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices,
my body, too, abides in confidence
because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld,
nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord.
You will show me the path to life,
fullness of joys in your presence,
the delights at your right hand forever.
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord.

This is a psalm of comfort aimed at those who have abandoned all other sources of consolation and committed themselves completely to the God of Israel.  The psalmist identifies the LORD as his "allotted portion (Heb. menah-helqî) and cup."  This imagery comes from the practice of a sacrificial meal, when each worshiper would receive a portion of meat from the sacrificed animal as their food.  In other words, the psalmist identifies God as his "food and drink"--how appropriate for the Eucharistic celebration!  God is his food and drink, because the psalmist has abandoned other sources of sustenance and thrown himself completely on the providence of God.  This is also what Elisha does in our First Reading--he abandons his natural source of income, sustenance and food--farming—in order to wander off with a holy man who has nothing but the ragged cloak on his back and the staff in his hand.  God will have to provide Elisha food from now on. 

Yet the psalmist is not stressed or frightened to depend on the LORD: his is confident that God will not let him die ("you will not abandon my soul to hades"), but will grant him life, even life eternal ("you will show me the path to life …. delights at your right hand forever.")

The Apostles Peter and Paul understood Psalm 16:10 ("you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption") as a prophecy of the resurrection of the Son of David, Jesus of Nazareth.  In fact, exegesis of this Psalm forms the finale and conclusion of St. Peter's sermon on the first Pentecost (Acts 2:25-36), and Paul makes the same interpretation in his great inaugural sermon in Acts 13 (vv. 34-38).

This is a powerful psalm to proclaim in Mass.  Gathered together, we, the poor of God, who have given up natural consolations and put our faith in God for our sustenance, declare our faith that God himself will be our food and drink, and bring us to eternal life.  "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:54).

Reading 2 Gal 5:1, 13-18

Brothers and sisters:
For freedom Christ set us free;
so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.

For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters.
But do not use this freedom
as an opportunity for the flesh;
rather, serve one another through love.
For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement,
namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
But if you go on biting and devouring one another,
beware that you are not consumed by one another.

I say, then: live by the Spirit
and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh.
For the flesh has desires against the Spirit,
and the Spirit against the flesh;
these are opposed to each other,
so that you may not do what you want.
But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

St. Paul urges us to exercise the freedom of Christ, and not to return to "the yoke of slavery." One aspect of this "yoke of slavery" is an obsession with our material comforts, and making sure that we can see how they will be fulfilled.  This comfort of the natural assurance of our needs is precisely what Elisha gave up to follow Elijah, and what Jesus called his disciples to give up.  The Christian life is simply not successful when we are always torn between the desire to follow Christ and the "desire of the flesh."  You cannot serve God and Mammon.

Gospel Lk 9:51-62
When the days for Jesus’ 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.
When the disciples James and John saw this they asked,
“Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven
to consume them?”
Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village.

This first part of the Gospel Reading records the formal start of the "Travel Narrative", as we discussed last week.  Jesus "resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem."  The more literal translation is "he set his face to go to Jerusalem."  From this point on in the Gospel, the Passion is inevitable.

There is a contrast here between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of Elijah.  Elijah is famous for calling down fire from heaven to consume his enemies (see 2 Kgs 1).  Jesus, however, forbids James and John to perform this miracle.  Jesus is not the prophet of judgment that Elijah was.  Jesus' mission and ministry is one of healing, more similar to that of Elisha.

As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him,
“I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus answered him,
“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

And to another he said, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead.
But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
And 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 plow
and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

The Gospel writer Luke gathers together here several vignettes of Jesus' encounters with various would-be disciples.  In every case, Jesus stressed the totality of the commitment being made.  If discipleship to the prophet Elijah required immediate destruction of one's livelihood and total abandonment in following him, how much more does discipleship to the Son of God require! 

We truly have to ask ourselves whether contemporary modes of evangelism, which often "package" the Gospel or make it "appealing," or even "Americanize" it, are not in fact a betrayal of Jesus' own call.  We find that Jesus does not soft-pedal the seriousness of commitment to him, telling his would-be followers that "everything will work out" or that they can "think it over and get back to him."  Perhaps the time is over for this approach, and we should be more forthright in calling persons both inside and outside the Church to a radical change of their lives which will not be comfortable or reassuring, but will lead to eternal life.


Nick said...

Saint Joseph was a radical disciple. He put his life at risk by taking Infant Jesus away to Egypt.

Psalm Reflections said...

Is there any relationship between the avoidance-of-fire and the fact that what he is proclaiming is the “kingdom of God”? I’m almost wondering, I guess, whether the disciples were looking more for the ‘day of the Lord’ while Christ is proclaiming the ‘kingdom of God’ and whether that might re-orient their focus?

MarkV said...

“Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
This suggests an almost sorrowful reason for following our Lord. I have nothing left, therefore I might as well.... it is not total commitment, but suggests a decision made due to lack of options. It is also easier... no argument with the father to stop them.

"Lord, let me say farewell to my family at home.”
Either a public "look how pious i am" (ego) or a conversation of "I am sorry mom and dad, but...." which suggest a sorrowful or regretful decision.

"No one who sets a hand to the plow
and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God."
The plow destroys the earth and what was left behind from the plow is radically altered to prepare the land for the new seeds and new growth. If we think of the plants as people, it is an incredibly harsh passage. But if we think of the seeds and plants as analogous to faith, it is very important that the old be crushed in order for the new to grow strong and healthy.

Christ asks for total commitment. Follow while your father is alive and with all your heart. Be joyful and move towards Christ in love not away from other options with regret. And he wants us to see the hard work as necessary for a fruitful harvest.

In one short paragraph, I have been guilty of all three.