Readings:1 Kgs 19:16-21; Ps 19; Gal 5:1,13-18; Lke 9:51-62
Growing up in suburban New York back in the fifties, I loved the long days of summer vacation. And I especially liked those hours of daylight between supper and sunset. Right after dinner, all the kids in the neighborhood would run out into the street to play stick-ball or curb-ball, two perfect games created by God for the exclusive enjoyment of the children of New York. We’d play until right before sunset, for that’s when we’d begin to hear voices, the voices of mothers calling for their children.
The youngest would always be called first. Then came the twins, Robert and Dick Moll, whose strict Jewish mother was sure they’d be hit by a car if they stayed out a minute past dusk. Next came Larry Henriques, Kenny Flowers, Teddy Nichols, and me. And then the older kids, who’d get maybe another 15 minutes.
It was quite a ritual. I was particularly good at pleading and begging for more time. “It’s a tie game, Mom. We can’t end on a tie game.” Sometimes it actually worked and I’d win a few precious minutes. But more often the next thing I’d hear would be the booming voice of my father. This was no request. It was a command. The alternative? Well, that was something no ten-year-old mind wanted to dwell on. So when my father called, I obeyed...well, usually.
Remembering those days, I realized how little we change as we age. Oh, we change on the surface. We mature physically, emotionally, and intellectually. We may no longer look like children, but we are still childish in so many ways. We’ve learned to place a few controls on our emotions, so we won’t embarrass ourselves in polite company. And unlike children with their transparent excuses, we’ve learned to create and express nice-sounding, politically correct rationales for our less-than-perfect behavior. Quite simply, we’ve become devious. Hiding behind our age and the trappings of adulthood, we manage to fool ourselves into believing we’re no longer the naïve, dependent children we once were.
Indeed, most of us actually believe we’re self-sufficient, independent beings, in complete control of our lives. We have our homes, our jobs, our investments, our nice cars, our retirement home in The Villages… Everything is right with our little world.
But then reality intrudes in the form of the Gospel. In the Gospel we’re confronted by uncomfortable truths that conflict with our seemingly comfortable lives.
The first truth? We are all called. And Jesus’ call is at the very heart of Christian discipleship.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus, knowing what lies ahead of Him in Jerusalem, nevertheless begins His journey full of resolve because His mission is nothing less than the salvation of humanity. And as He and His disciples make their way across Samaria, Jesus continues to call us to Him. “Follow me,” He says, first to one, then another. Jesus calls them – the same invitation He offers to you and to me. And what’s their response? What’s our response?
Like the children playing in that New York street 50 years ago, all those called by Jesus expressed a willingness to comply…just not quite yet. Each made an excuse for putting it off. Each was bound to his current life by something he considered more important than God and His call. How utterly foolish of them…and of us! They fell prey to the misguided and soul-destroying belief that the things of this world take precedence over God.
Oh, their excuses sound legitimate enough. “Let me bury my father first,” one replied. Sounds reasonable, until we understand what he really meant. His father, you see, was still alive or the man wouldn’t have been there. It was Jewish custom to bury their dead on the same day they died.
What this young man was really saying is that he was not yet willing to leave the comforts of home and family. Maybe after his father died…But Jesus would have none of it. “Come away and proclaim the kingdom of God,” He responds. Jesus knows that, in everything, there’s a crucial moment when one is expected to act. This was this young man’s crucial moment, and he missed it.
When another expressed a desire to respond, Jesus looked into his heart and saw unwillingness to accept the poverty and insecurity he’ll be called to face. “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Are you ready for that?
Still another wanted to say goodbye to the folks at home, but Jesus told him a disciple must be prepared to sacrifice everything, even the affection of a family. “Whoever puts his hand to the plow but keeps looking back is unfit for the reign of God.” Everyone in that rural audience knew that if one wants to plow a straight furrow, he must pay attention to where he’s going, not where he’s been.
They also knew the story told in our first reading. When called by Elijah, Elisha, a wealthy man with 12 yoke of oxen, gave up everything. Using his wooden plows as fuel, he barbecued his oxen, distributed the food among his people. He gave up every asset, left his parents, and broke all ties with his comfortable life. There was no going back for Elisha.
The world sees Elisha’s actions as the height of irresponsibility, but God doesn’t call us to conform to the world. He calls us to conform to His Will.
Some of you may object that God’s call is reserved for prophets and saints, for specially chosen men and women. And you’d be wrong. God issues His call to each of us. As St. Paul told the people of Galatia, “Remember that you have been called to live in freedom – but not a freedom that gives reign to the flesh.”
For here lies one of the great truths and great paradoxes of Christianity: We are truly free only when we accept our complete dependence on the will of God. Anything else leads to slavery, the slavery of sin, the slavery of materialism, the slavery of setting ourselves up like gods in control of our own destiny.
Listen to the call of Christ. It is Christ who sets us free – who calls us to freedom. Stand firm, St. Paul instructs us, don’t slip back into slavery.
But sometimes it’s easier to remain enslaved. Like the faithless Israelites who cursed Moses for leading them into the suffering of the desert. Better to live in slavery than to die in the desert. It’s no different today. The entire world – the world of media, advertising, entertainment, politics – all the machinery of our secular society entices us into slavery. It’s a message designed to drown out the message of Jesus Christ: “Listen to us” the world shouts at us, “We will tell you what you want!”
But Jesus doesn’t shout. He doesn’t force us. No, He asks us; for He respects our freedom.
“What do you want?” he asks. Do you really want the life in the Spirit I have promised you?
Do you really want to follow me? Do you want the exhilarating joy of God’s freedom?
If you walk in my light, if you walk in the light of Christ, I will free you from the darkness that surrounds you.
What do you want?
And then, brothers and sisters, you and I are left to give our answer.