We return this week to Sunday Mass in “Ordinary Time”. The decoration of the church and the priest’s vestments will be in green, and the first reading of the Mass will be connected to the Gospel. This week we might think however that the reading from Kings on Elijah and Elisha contradict the Gospel but that is far from the case, indeed the possible contrast reminds us of a great truth.
We take up our readings from St Luke today from where we left off before Lent. The disciples have acknowledged that he is, at very least, the Messiah and Jesus has told them that he must suffer and die in Jerusalem. They have reluctantly given at least intellectual assent to this and now Jesus is going to Jerusalem for his death and resurrection. Luke calls this “his time for being taken up”.
As we will see for the next few weeks, this is an opportunity for Jesus explore the disciples’ mission with them. What we translate as resolutely determined is better read as “set his face” Luke’s audience would have remembered a line from Ezekiel “Son of man, turn your face toward Jerusalem: preach against its sanctuary, prophesy against the land of Israel” (Ezek 21:7). What and how are we to preach and prophesy?
We don’t have to wait long to know the answer. Jesus is in Galilee and the easiest way to get to Jerusalem is through Samaria, what was once the northern kingdom of the Jews. Although we might have some difficulty distinguishing between the Jews and Samaritans they could, and they had hated each other for centuries. It as no surprise that they did not welcome Jesus, nor was the reaction of James and John, the sons of thunder. They had seen Jesus’s power and now wished to use it to “call down fire from heaven”. Jesus rebuked them as he always did when the disciples misunderstood his teaching and mission. He told them previously “love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27) Jesus will give them more power than anyone in history but it must be used non-violently. They will be apostles not generals.
They need more instruction and so Luke brings on 3 potential disciples to illustrate what they and we can all expect from following Jesus.
The first claims that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes, Jesus does not thank him nor even expresses recognition of his sacrifice but tells him that the closer he follows him the closer he will approach homelessness. Another says that he will follow him but will first need to bury his father. This was a great obligation for Jews as I hope for all of us. Jesus replies that however great an obligation proclaiming the Gospel is more important and pressing. The third wants to go home and take leave of his family, Jesus tells him that he and the other disciples are his family. A disciple cannot look backwards only to Jesus.
Now the connection to the first reading today. There are two interpretations, neither one particularly encouraging. The first is simply that however important it was for Elisha to follow Elijah, following Jesus is a greater obligation with an absolute demand. The other is that Elisha literally burned his bridges behind him: killing his oxen and using his farming equipment to boil their flesh. He was a man of means who now had nowhere to go for physical and financial protection and safety. In any event, following Jesus is a demand which outweighs all others.
To know him we must follow him, and we must do that as his family. There are too many quotations from scripture to count but let us take 3 examples.
Jesus tells Peter, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18) Jesus calls us to be a church and he gives it power to continue even to the point of assuring Peter and the church that he has the keys to the kingdom.
In the “Acts of the Apostles” Paul while on a mission to persecute the church is struck to the ground and Jesus asks him “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me” (Ac 9:4) He does not say “my people” or “my friends” but me. Jesus’ identification with the Church is total. Given this experience there should be little wonder why Paul calls the church a body and Jesus as its head.
The author of the letter to the Ephesians proclaimed: “just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph 1:4–5) The church is not an afterthought or something humans devised but part to the divine plan from the foundation of the world.
Jesus is telling us today that there is no plan B. We are saved by being members of the Church. To be a Christian is to find the Church that most fully embodies Jesus and join it. The differences are so great in Christian denominations that choosing one will of necessarily demand expressing significant differences from other believers and everyone should be proud of and be able to defend his or her choice. We have chosen Catholic, and we should know why. Indeed, as we are not bound to join the nearest Parish, we should know why we come here. What are you finding here that inspires you to follow Jesus as he demands in today’s gospel? As we return to the synodal process in the Fall we will have an opportunity to share this with each other and to seek each other’s help, advice and support.
We are raised up or brought down by each other and we can go to hell by ourselves but getting to heaven requires a family. Choose your family well.