Just how free do you really want to be? The political world is talking plenty about our freedoms these days, but what is it that we so desire or fear losing?
In a sentence that no writing teacher should accept, Paul said, "For freedom, Christ set us free." We must forgive his lack of eloquence -- it results from his vehemence. Paul was adamant about freedom.
|Thirteenth Sunday in
|1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21
Galatians 5:1, 13-18
That meant freedom from the law and freedom from anything and everything that might limit someone's following of Christ. This was but one indication that Paul was a character thoroughly unacquainted with moderation.
Today's readings do nothing at all to promote moderation. First, we watch as young Elisha demonstrates his readiness to accept his prophetic vocation by slaughtering his family's oxen and cooking them over a fire of farm implements and then serving the feast to everybody who could come. (It was quite a picnic: Twelve oxen would have supplied at least 18,000 pounds of stew.)
Whatever Elisha's parents and siblings might have said, Paul would probably have approved of the extravagance of his gesture.
Today's reading from Luke begins with the pivotal point of the Gospel: "The time was fulfilled for Jesus to be taken up." As Jesus began his ascent to Jerusalem, a key question became who would go with him and what it would cost.
Luke first says that a village refused hospitality to the group because they were headed to Jerusalem. Luke then describes how the angry disciples wanted to call down fire on the people -- hoping that the readers will remember that those same haughty disciples were recently unable to achieve the simple healing of a boy suffering from convulsions.
Following this, Luke uses three anecdotes as a basis for a theological reflection on discipleship.
Luke's first short story presents someone who seemed to envision discipleship as a great adventure or opportunity. The minute he invited himself to become a disciple, Jesus warned him that getting on his road was like signing a blank check and traveling without credit cards. There was no guarantee of security or comfort, only the mysterious "overabundant return" promised to those who leave all else behind (18:28).
In the second incident, Jesus called someone to share his itinerant vocation. This one chose to focus on what he considered his real responsibilities. He promised to come along as soon as he took care of his most important obligations. Jesus retorted that proclaiming the kingdom of God demands letting old ways die.
Not even Elisha would have measured up in the third of Luke's examples, the one in which the would-be disciple simply wanted to say goodbye to his family. Jesus' call allowed for no vacillation: Looking back cultivates a divided heart, a wobbly commitment that will grow ever less capable of enduring the rigors of this road.
Underneath the stories of Elisha and those who had to choose whether to follow Jesus, we hear the strains of Paul's freedom song. Vocation is always an invitation to freedom, to be open to become all that God has created us to be -- even though it is beyond our imagination.
Luke is driving home the idea that the vocation of discipleship will draw us beyond our reasonable expectations and even our wildest dreams. Because of that, it is impossible to fulfill in a self-concerned, partially committed or indecisive way. Acceptance may come with the exuberant enthusiasm of an Elisha or the circumspect resolution of the fully pre-cautioned volunteer Jesus readied for a road that had no dens or restful nests for the weary.
If we continue along the road with the disciples, we will learn the difficult truth that following Jesus does not imply we will know or do what is right, only that we will be invited to seek and act on God's will, to receive and give forgiveness. Wherever we fall on the spectrum from blind risk to informed consent, we are called to freedom, invited into an unknown that is full of promise.
These readings invite us to consider or reconsider our vocation. If we are on the brink of making a life decision, they call us to grasp the Gospel freedom that will lead far beyond "reasonable expectations." If we have traveled farther down the road, we are prodded to ask if we've settled for moderation over the freedom and commitment of the Gospel.
Today, Jesus, Paul and Elisha are asking us what we would do with tomorrow, the coming week and the coming years if we really believed that "For freedom, Christ set us free."
[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and a historical theologian currently writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States.]