A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
B. Reflection & Dialogue: Christians are called to liberty, freedom.
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
Introduction to the readings. Today’s readings are about a call by God to his service, to be prophetic witnesses to him, and the consequence of this call for one’s personal life.
First Reading (1 Kings 19:16, 19-21). Elisha rose and followed Elijah. Prophecy in the strict sense can be said to have begun with those we know from the Bible as writing prophets, Hosea, Amos, Isaiah and a long line of others. These individual prophets had a prehistory, going back to Elijah and his successor Elisha. The Bible presents those, particularly Elijah, as having followed the Lord’s command, the Lord’s word. Their activity could be regarded as the beginning of the prophetic movement in Israel and was held in high regard. Both Elijah and Elisha had certain unsavoury elements to their lives, with regard to respect for the lives of some regarded as dangers to God’s plan (Elijah’s slaughter of the prophets of Baal; similar activity by kings brought to power by Elisha). However, in the religious tradition of Israel such elements could be set aside or forgotten, and that early prophetic age held as a model of God’s call to prophets and their response to this call. Jesus seems to have held this earlier prophetic age in this light, at least as presented by the evangelist Luke who presents some of Jesus’ teaching on call to discipleship against the background of the Elijah and Elisha stories. (See also the first reading and Gospel for the tenth Sunday.) Today’s reading is one of a number of stories in the Bible about Elisha (known as “the Elisha cycle”, as distinct from those of the “Elijah cycle”). The prophet Elijah, after a troublesome career of the religion of the God of Israel against pagan gods, came as a broken person and encountered the Lord at Horeb, the Mount of revelation. There he is told to anoint Elisha as his successor. Elisha in today’s reading is presented as a prosperous farmer. The cloak symbolizes the person and the rights of its owner. By placing it on Elisha Elijah seems to indicate his power over him; Elisha will become Elijah’s servant and will follow him. He need not follow Elijah his master immediately. There is no hurry. He may say goodbye to his father and mother. By destroying his plough and oxen Elisha formally renounced his old way of life, to follow his new master in the prophetic line. In the New Testament others, in line with Elisha, will follow Christ promptly (Matthew 9:9; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:27-28). Others, like the persons in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 9:57-62), will be less prompt, and will get replies from Jesus that should have reminded them of the Elisha story.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 15). O Lord, it is you who are my portion.
Second Reading (Galatians 5:1, 13-18). You were called to liberty. Liberty is a word to move minds and hearts in any age and in any civilization. The Greeks prided themselves in the possession of it in their democratic system – for the free, not the slave population, that is. It was the same for the Romans. Likewise for the Jews. Their Mosaic Law guaranteed their freedom. In a discussion Jesus is represented in the Gospel of John (John 8:31-34) as saying to the Jews who believed in him: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”. Although unwilling subjects to Roman rule, they answered him: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say: ‘You will be made free?’”. Jesus’ reply is: “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave of sin”. Paul was dealing with the same question in his letter to the Galatians. He could tell his readers that before their conversion, when they did not know God, they were in bondage (Galatians 4:8). Christians are children of the free woman (Sarah), not of the slave (Hagar) (Galatians 4:31). The Jewish law for Paul means bondage rather than freedom. The Galatians (and all believers) were free from the Jewish law. Paul had to ensure that any such freedom did not lead to moral licence, self-indulgence (literally in Paul’s words, and other translations: “opportunity for the flesh”). There was a danger of being ensnared, enslaved, in a false concept of freedom. Paul sets out his understanding of what living Christian freedom means. It means living the law of love, of serving one’s neighbour. Paul is quite aware of the weakness of human nature (“the flesh”), which will constantly be a danger to Christian living, at war with divine guidance through the Holy Spirit. The Christian code of conduct is not just an abstract written text. It implies a relationship with God and the Holy Spirit, and constant prayer to be guided by the Holy Spirit to love our Christian freedom.
The Gospel (Luke 9:51-62). Jesus resolutely took the road for Jerusalem. I will follow you wherever you go. The opening words squarely put this entire reading in its proper context. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, a journey that began in one sense after Peter’s profession of faith. Jesus, in reply to Peter’s profession, made the first prediction of his passion and death, reminding all his followers that they, too, must daily take up their cross and follow him (last Sunday’s Gospel reading). Jesus goes to Jerusalem to “be taken up”, to be exalted on the cross at death and at his resurrection and ascension. This is the ultimate aim of his life and ministry and he resolutely took the road for Jerusalem, from where his work through the Church will be continued. He sent messengers ahead, presumably to prepare lodgings for his group. The anti-Jewish Samaritans would not welcome pilgrims to the rival shrine in Jerusalem. James and John, probably thinking of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-12), call for heavenly revenge. Elijah as a servant of God’s word was held in respect by Jesus, but not for his vindictive actions. Jesus and his chosen band did not find whereon to lay their head in this Samaritan village. The three sayings of Jesus that follow are intended to illustrate the nature and urgency of discipleship. The refusal of the Samaritan village to accept messengers arranging accommodation illustrate Jesus’ situation during the three years of his ministry in Galilee: where did he and his chosen followers spend their nights? There is no answer. Possibly out of doors. The second saying, on following Jesus over first burying one’s father, has been considered offensive over the centuries, by both Jew and non-Jew. Jesus, as his Jewish tradition, respected family tradition and respect for the dead and due mourning. Jesus’ point here seems to be that the demands of the Gospel ministry take precedence over family ties. One common interpretation of the saying is that the spiritually dead should bury the physically dead. For those conversant with the Elisha story the third saying might contrast the urgency of the Christian calling to active following of Christ with that leisurely one of Elisha. With regard to the image of the plough and ploughing, we should not envisage a modern plough drawn by horses, or a tractor, but rather a primitive Galilee plough drawn by an ox or oxen with a driver behind. Should he look back, the straight furrow might be lost. The point of the saying might be that anyone wishing to be at the service of Jesus and the Gospel must have a precise aim, from which he or she should not deviate.
B. Reflection & Dialogue: Christians are called to freedom.
Today’s readings call for reflection on a question that is as old as human freedom and revealed religion, namely the place of freedom of thought and action in the society in which we live. It is consoling that the question has been treated by Jesus (John’s Gospel) and Paul before our day. The question has become more acute since the philosophical and cultural movement and thought of the eighteenth century, commonly known as the Enlightenment. With this came a desire and movement to have human thought and activity determined by what the human mind and senses can perceive without acceptance of involvement from divine revelation. The situation has become more acute in our own day when this movement has become connected with an active atheism. Contemporary atheism holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts man’s emancipation through economic and social liberation by raising man’s hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth. The movement would have religious education removed from primary schools: pupils should be taught how to think, not what to think. This is something with which we will have to live, and it is good that believers are aware of the issues involved. The Church is well aware of this situation and deals with it at some length in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (paragraphs 19-21) of Vatican II (1965), and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (par. 2123-2126), documents usefully consulted.