Scripture Readings: First Book of Kings 19:16-21; Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Gospel According to Saint Luke 9:51-62
Whether young or old, poor or rich, people normally wish to be treated with respect and fairness. Jesus encountered a lack of respect and fairness when he entered a Samaritan village and was told to go elsewhere, presumably because he was not a Samaritan.
We know the Jews and Samaritans had been divided for centuries and in the time of Jesus the rift was deep, yet obviously there were contacts between Jews and Samaritans. Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, where Jesus makes a Samaritan a model of right acting. Or the very fact that Jesus dared to enter a Samaritan village. As in the case of other opponents of Jesus’, especially the Scribes and Pharisees, there seems to have been regular contact between Jews and Samaritans.
Nonetheless, Jesus’ disciples felt the best way to respond to the unwelcome of the Samaritans described in the Gospel passage today, was by revenge. The disciples asked, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume the Samaritans?” Jesus dismissed the suggestion and rebuked his disciples for their lack of tolerance. The response of Jesus was to leave the place and go to another village. This is an indication of Jesus’ non-violent approach.
The Lord’s way of acting clearly recalls a principle still applicable in our times: just because we are who we are does not automatically make everyone accept us. That may seem to be totally unfair from our point of view, but it is the reality of the world we live in. This was the experience of Jesus as well, being rejected, yet not defeated.
We are told in the Gospel passage for this Sunday that Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem. This is another way of saying that Jesus was completely resolved with all his heart to carry out the heavenly Father’s will, whatever the consequences might be. In the case of Jesus, this meant going to his Passion and Cross for the salvation of the world. Jesus was willing to die so that Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles might all be reconciled with God and made one family in Christ the unconquered Son.
It is God’s grace that sets people free. Whatever keeps us from following God, be it anger, intolerance, prejudice, laziness or anything else, can only be removed by the power of the One who has risen from the dead. The big question is: do we allow God to go to work in our hearts to remove whatever blocks our hearing God’s word and putting that word into action by our deeds of love?
Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman once put it in very earthy terms this way: “Our hearts must be broken up like ground, and dug and watered, and tended and cultivated, till they become as gardens, gardens of Eden, acceptable to our God, gardens in which the Lord God may walk and dwell.”
The rest of the Gospel passage today concerns following in the footsteps of the Master, with questions from the Lord such as these: Are you ready and willing to follow me? Can you put aside everything that might keep us from doing God’s will? Will you “let go and let God,” as it is popularly expressed today?
Our natural tendency is to put God’s call off until later, to first go and bury departed loved ones, as a potential disciple of the Lord put it in the Gospel passage for this Sunday. Jesus says to that suggestion, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead,” which would seem to imply not caring for others, but that is not Jesus’ point.
Jesus’ point is that God must occupy first place in our life, so that all we do will flow from belonging to God, through thick and think, sickness and health, until death calls us home. In other words, our choices in life must be completely influenced by the fundamental choice of being a follower of Jesus Christ. If we love God above all else, our other loves, of neighbor, family, friends and enemies, will ultimately fall into their proper place and time.
Jesus speaks clearly to his disciples that they must not look back once they have put their hands to the plow. With very few people plowing fields these days, maybe there’s another way to say it, such as, “Once you’ve gotten behind the wheel, don’t sit in an unstarted car in your driveway, but get the car started, get moving, and don’t stop until the journey is completed.” (Of course we must usually first back out of the driveway, but after that, “go forward”!).
If a farmer looks back while plowing, he’ll end up with crooked furrows, and if we keep looking back while trying to drive, we’ll cause an accident. To “not look back” means to keep one’s focus on the goal for our lives, which is intended to be full happiness and union with God. Focusing only on what we have left behind, we will likely go off course in the path toward God, and miss out on the good things God has in store for us.
When the road gets rough, which it inevitably does in this short earthly journey, we are inclined to look back to when things were better or to grass that seems greener on the other side of the fence. The call is always to keep our eyes on the Lord in all trials, to stay on the course even when tempted to do otherwise, to keep in mind the ways of the Lord who has trodden the path before us and set the example of love without counting the cost.
It was for liberty that Christ freed us, says Saint Paul. We are to understand the freedom as “in Christ,” that is, according to God’s plan, a freedom that promotes love and demands that we love our neighbor as our self, “in accord with the Spirit,” as Saint Paul expressed it.
We are inspired by the sacred texts this Sunday to adhere to our God who lovingly calls us from ignorance and confusion to deeper knowledge of God and harmony of body and soul.
The Lord’s call is meant for a lifetime, not a week, a month or five years. Our God desires to show us the path of life, the fullness of joy in his presence. That is a life-long process, extending even beyond the grave. What is being asked of us is nothing less than everything!
May we be strengthened to respond without fear that we do not have what we need to complete the task set before us. The Lord bestows help to the fainthearted, so we should be encouraged that help is near for each of us, in whatever circumstance we may find ourselves in the journey toward our God, in process now and perfected in heaven.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB