13th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
The invitation to delete the past
Gospel reflection – Luke 9: 51-62
The image most used in the Torah to express God’s intervention is the fire: “God is a devouring fire”—says Moses to the people (Dt 4:24); on Sinai “the Lord has come down in the fire” (Ex 19:18); “Fire goes before him” (Ps 97:3); His word “is like fire” (Jer 5:14). “And fire from the Lord came forth” (Nm 16:35). The term “fire” often occurs in the Bible. It denotes the purification brought about by his intervention. Where he arrives a radical transformation takes place, nothing stays the same.
It is what happens to every person when the Lord enters his or her life: the past is deleted. All that is incompatible with the presence and the holiness of God is obliterated: behaviors, lifestyles, beliefs, habits, bonds, difficult situations.
Elisha burns the tools for plowing, symbol of the profession he had done up to that moment, and decides to enter into the new life to which Elijah called him.
The apostles, invited by Jesus to follow him, abandon the nets and Levi leaves everything (Lk 5:27). To whoever wants to be his disciple, the Lord asks to “sell all that he has” and to start a new journey with him (Lk 18:22), and does not admit hesitation, indecision, afterthoughts.
Jesus came to bring fire to the earth (Lk 12:49): it takes a great faith to enable him to introduce himself in the enclosure of our lives. We fear that he may consume much of our securities, realities in which, perhaps for years, we have placed our trust and our hopes, that he may burn all that, until now, has given meaning to our lives.
If a friend asks us to follow him, we immediately ask him: “Where are you going?” Jesus very clearly told his disciples what the goal of the journey is: he goes to Jerusalem to give his life. Today’s passage presents first the departure (v. 51), then the wanting welcome from the Samaritans (vv. 52-56), finally, in quick succession, three episodes of vocation (vv. 57-62).
The facts probably have not taken place in the order they are told (a series of three vocations as those described is rather unlikely). It is Luke who draws these episodes near each other because they serve to introduce the second part of his Gospel: that of the long journey that will take Jesus to Jerusalem.
To understand this text we have to remember that adhesion to Christ is presented in the gospels with the image of the journey in following the Master. To believe means to travel with him the same road. In the Acts of the Apostles, this image will be resumed with the term “way”. Paul persecutes “those who belong to the Way” (Acts 9:2); at Ephesus, some refuse to believe “criticizing the way publicly” (Acts 19:9); about that time the city was “deeply troubled because of the way” (Acts 19:23); Felix, the procurator, “was well-informed about the way” (Acts 24:22).
These incidents serve Luke to respond to the questions raised by the Christians of his community: how should they react against those who are obstructing their “journey”, those who oppose the “way”? To those who ask to join them “along the way” must they immediately and clearly say what the conditions are or is it better to soften, to tone down the demands of Christian life?
Let’s start from the beginning (v. 51). Luke introduces the resolute decision of Jesus to go to Jerusalem, saying that he “sets his face hard.” It is a strong expression, taken from the Old Testament. The prophet Isaiah puts it on the lips of the Servant of the Lord who declares his determination to fulfill his mission: “Like a flint I set my face” (Is 50:7). As this Servant, Jesus is therefore decided to address the fate of suffering, humiliation and death that awaits him. He does not go looking for pain, but he knows that sacrifice is the necessary path to reach the goal: the manifestation, through the cross, of the Father’s love for people (Lk 24:26).
Such a choice is not done lightheartedly. It is necessary to assume a serious countenance. As long as one stops at whims, desires, good intentions, or reduces faith in Christ to fulfillment of some religious practices there is no need to make a serious face. But when one accepts his proposal of life then one must have the courage to make bold and radical choices. Who does not have the strength to do violence to oneself will remain an admirer of Jesus, but will not become a disciple.
The journey to Jerusalem starts and here the group meets someone who blocks the way. The opposition of the Samaritans represents the hostility that the Christian communities of every time must face. In the world there is always someone that stands along the way. There are many who prefer to follow principles other than those of the Gospel. What behavior to assume against them? The thoughtless reaction of James and John indicates what should not be done.
They remember that the prophet Elijah has made fire from heaven rain down upon the wicked of his time (2 K 1:10-14). They are convinced that the same must be done against those who oppose the Gospel. The Baptist too threatened with fire (Lk 3:9,17). For this reason they feel that the time has come to resort to hard ways and ask the Master: “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to reduce them to ashes?” Jesus turned and rebuked them severely. They made an insane proposal (vv. 52-56).
The disciple is not called to fight against anybody. He has not received the task of unleashing holy wars, to proclaim crusades against infidels or light fires, but is called to follow the Master. The time of fanaticism—which appears so often in the Old Testament—is over. The only fire that comes down from heaven is the Spirit who transforms the hearts of people. This is the fire that Jesus came to bring upon the earth (Lk 12:49).
Christians cannot respond with aggression, but only with love. If someone attacks them using lies, deception, violence, they can only answer by invoking upon him the blessings of God.
Due to their aggressive attitude, the brothers James and John received from Jesus the little sympathetic nickname of sons of thunder (Mk 3:17). A nickname that today’s fanatic, fundamentalist, intolerant Christians, disrespectful of those who think differently from them, must feel addressed to them.
After this first incident, the journey continues and the Gospel introduces a stranger who approaches Jesus and expresses his desire to follow him everywhere (vv. 57-58).
The Master’s reply seems destined to discourage rather than to convince the would-be disciple. Who wants to go with him—says Jesus—should not dream of a comfortable life: he will be like a traveler who has no fixed abode. He must be willing to spend the night under the stars or be content with the hospitality that is offered, even if it is an arrangement of luck, poor and provisional.
Given this less daunting prospect announced by the Master, it is hard to see how there can be people who embrace faith or agree to perform some community service in order to obtain benefits, privileges, honorary titles.
Along the way Jesus meets another guy and invites him to follow him (vv. 59-60). This one says he is willing, but asks first to bury his parents. Jesus replied: “Let the dead bury their dead; leave them, and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
To a Jew this is the most outrageous, most provocative, most ungodly answer that he can give. In Israel, the most sacred duty for a son is to bury his parents and, to fulfill it—said the rabbis—he was exempt from any precept of the law, even that of the Sabbath. The high priest—who was prohibited to enter a cemetery or even approach a corpse—was required to accompany his parents to the tomb.
It would be foolish to take literally the words of Jesus, but it would be equally so to diminish its provocative charge. What the Master means to say—using an undoubtedly paradoxical image—is that nothing, not even the most sacred sentiments, such as those that bind children to their parents, can be placed in between and obstruct the decision to follow him.
The father, for the Semites, indicates the link with tradition, with the past, with the customs of the ancients, with the cultural environment in which one lives. Luke wants the Christians of his community to realize that the choice to join the Master cannot be delayed, procrastinated while waiting for the moment (that will never come) when the family’s feelings will not be hurt, a friend not dissatisfied, a colleague not irritated, and the habits of a loved one not put into question.
The Spirit demands immediate availability to give up the old and to convert oneself to the new. It is not stagnant water, but living, crystal clear water, “welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:13-15). It is a rushing wind “that blows where it pleases” (Jn 3:8). Who is animated by this Spirit looks sympathetically to the new because he is the one who “renews the face of the earth” (Ps 104:30). Loyalty to his impulses creates tensions between the disciple and those who remain stubbornly clinging to the past. Among them there can be also family members and friends to whom one is very close. Jesus does not accept vacillation. Any tie that blocks and prevents to follow him is a chain that enslaves and will be broken without fear.
A third man comes to Jesus (vv. 61-62). It is easy to notice the contrast between the present imperative with which the previous invitiation is formulated: “Follow me” (v. 59) and the future used by this would-be disciple: “I will follow you, but….” This man is willing to follow Jesus, but wants to go first to say goodbye to his family, just as Elisha did. Apparently he is not asking too much. Yet Jesus does not allow this either. There cannot be delays, uncertainties, ifs and buts are not permitted, nothing can justify a delay.
Jesus is not surprised that there are those who reject it. Nay more, he demands the utmost respect for those who do not welcome him. However, he does not agree to be put in second place by those who choose to follow him.
Of course, these words of Jesus are not to be taken literally, it would otherwise be in contradiction with what he taught elsewhere. He recommended the observance of the commandment which requires to love and help the parents (Mt 15:3-9). He participated in the great farewell party with family and friends offered by Matthew (Mt 9:9-13). But there are priorities. All affections are secondary when it comes to following the will of the Father. Jesus gave that example when, as adolescent, he responded to his mother: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49).
The mission given to the disciples is more urgent and more important than that of Elisha.
The whole creation eagerly awaits that the kingdom of God appears and is realized. It is impatient. All moments are precious.
Luke uses also the third example of a vocation to send a message to his communities. They cannot waste time in gossips, useless discussions, debates on trivial matters, while the world is in urgent need of the Gospel’s announcement.
Italian missionary and biblical scholar