Today’s readings are about making a decisive choice about discipleship.
The prophet Elijah - thought by Jews to be the greatest prophet - was clearly impatient with Elisha when he wanted to say goodbye to his parents before setting out on his career as a prophet. Elijah took this delay to indicate a lack of resolve on Elisha’s part.
Elisha proved his resolve by sacrificing his oxen to god on a fire of wood from his plow. His entire livelihood, the tools of his trade, literally, went up in smoke in his response to the Lord’s call. There was nothing to return to; he had burnt the bridge to his livelihood behind him. His God-choice was clear as crystal.
Luke captures Jesus at a climactic moment in his Gospel. Luke pictures Jesus as in an old western where the hero is standing, slightly spread-legged in the middle of the town street, thoughtfully looking off in the distance. Alone. Resolute. Brave. All eyes are focused on him. Then, one by one some come forward to join him as a posse.
An older - and I think better - translation reads: “He set his face for Jerusalem.” The remainder of Luke’s Gospel is about the journey with his disciples to Jerusalem after this famous, pivotal verse in Luke, 9:51.
Jerusalem is not so much a geographical destination as the culmination of Jesus’ life and mission.
James and john, disciples-in-training, provide an almost comic relief from the drama. The Samaritans have rejected Jesus because he is heading for Jerusalem; Samaritans worshiped on Mt. Gerizim and would not follow one heading for Jerusalem and the temple. Young Johnny and Jimmy want to vengefully kill the Samaritans with lightning from heaven. They were given the nickname “Boanerges,” the “sons of thunder.” They did not yet “get it.” Jesus’ way was non-violent, surely not vengeful. He invites, not demands. He extends an invitation to the kingdom, not a command.
Some listeners approach to join Jesus. One would-be disciple claims that he will follow wherever he goes. Jesus is up-front with him; he speaks that classic response: “The foxes have dens; the birds of the air have nests; the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, don’t choose too quickly; consider the consequences! This is not a walk in the park. As we said last weekend, a follower must prioritize God’s will over one’s own – and may lose popularity with one’s “old crowd.”
Another man wants to “bury his father.” This doesn’t mean that his father has just died and the funeral is tomorrow, but that he wants to delay until after his father’s death before he will follow Jesus. Jesus replies that the choice of discipleship precludes family duties being top priority.
Another wants to say his goodbyes. It reminds us of Elijah in the first reading. Jesus, in this different situation, calls him to single-mindedness.
Jesus tells us that when we choose him, we are like an Amish farmer in Lancaster County - who sets his hand to his plow and does not look back. No one plows a straight furrow while looking back over his shoulder. No one can be a disciple of Jesus while looking back at what is behind him and still move forward undistracted.
For years parents and educators have been concerned about the high rate of students deciding to drop out of high school and college. Studies tell us that the chief reason why students drop out is simple: they did not really want to go to school/college in the first place. The real reason they started was: peer pressure . . . parents . . . Or, they just didn’t know what else to do with their lives at that point.
I wonder about the many who have decided to leave the church at this time. Your and my faith cannot be based on an institution composed of good and bad leaders, but it needs to be based on faith in Jesus. I propose for your thoughtful consideration a question: are many of the departures from the church about inept/bad bishops and cardinals and priests, or are they really like the college dropouts? They did not want to be followers of Jesus in the first place? The fire was not in their guts.
We are Christians because we follow Jesus. If Jesus did anything for sure on earth, he certainly gathered a group of people around him to support one another and neighbors and spread the good news to the entire world. We, the people of god, comprise the church as a community. A title for the pope is, ironically, “servant of the servants of god.”
Personally, the reason I stay a Catholic-Christian is that I am hooked on Jesus, his life and teaching, the fisher of men. I am also hooked on you, my brothers and sisters. We are the people of God. Let our great celebration continue!