Homily: Toward Jerusalem and Freedom
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is on the march and will not be turned back. He is portrayed as fierce, and He sometimes startles us with what he says. He ‘rebukes’ the disciples. He shouts “let the dead bury the dead.” Jesus is moving fast, and his mood is intense.
It was not always this way. Do you remember when Jesus began his public ministry? We heard about it, in our liturgical cycle, before Lent and Easter. He came back from the desert filled with the Holy Spirit and headed straight to his home town, Nazareth. He greatly desired to preach his mission but his own townspeople rejected him. And it was a blunt rejection. They tried to throw him off a cliff.
Scholars call this first portion of Luke’s Gospel the ‘Galilean Ministry’, and it has been the subject of our scripture readings until this Sunday.
Now a new section of Luke begins, called the “Journey to Jerusalem”. Now it is the people in Samaritan towns who turn him away. He had sent messengers ahead let them know he was coming, but the villages he went by would not let him come in. Why? Jews and Samaritans were hostile to each other, and surely that is a main part of the reason. But Luke says the real reason is that they knew he was ‘going up to Jerusalem’.
Think about that phrase. The “going up” part is literal. Jerusalem is built upon a hill or rise, and you have to climb to get up to it. But Luke wanted to portray the metaphorical sense too. Jesus had set his face to go up to the height of the cross.
The Greek word Luke uses for “go up” is the same one used in the Old Testament about the prophet Elijah’s ascent into heaven. “A flaming chariot and flaming horses came . . . and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind”. Jesus’ “going up” will not be in a fiery chariot. His ascent will finish in a plunge downwards into humiliation and death. For the next ten chapters the Gospel of Luke will trace Jesus’ deeds skillfully as parts of this urgent trip to Jerusalem.
Now we see why Jesus was so severe with people in the Gospel for today: he was going up ruggedly to Jerusalem but they wanted to delay.
Do you or I want to go along with this man on his journey? What if we hear him say, “The Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head [‘and neither will you’]”? Or, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”?
Very harsh. Wouldn’t you or I turn on our heels and walk away?
Yes, but think about it. Luke is saying that Christianity is a challenge, not just a warm security blanket to protect us from all we fear. Jesus values his relationship with the Father more than safe sleep, more than family funerals, even more than courtesy to relatives and friends. These receive their worth at the very core of themselves from love. Love of God above all, love of our neighbor as ourselves, no matter what.
It is up to us to decide whether to join Jesus in his urgency. Do you fight against such an idea? Or do you thirst for it? Or do we find ourselves doing both? (John Foley S. J.)
As we celebrate our nation’s most precious holiday, Independence Day, quite appropriately, St. Paul, in our second reading today speaks of this freedom. When we listen to it in the translation from the Message Bible, it says:
“Brothers and sisters: Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.
It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love your- self. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?”
In a similar way, in our first reading, everything else took a back seat when Elisha was anointed by Elijah. He left everything for the call. The commitment became his life. The promise was all he would keep of himself.
We do not easily make commitments. Still less easily do we keep them. This is true of any time and nation. And yet it is particularly true of us. These days, it is difficult for a person to keep a promise fifty hours, much less fifty years.
And so we avoid commitments or postpone promises. “I will be your follower wherever you may go.” But it will have to wait. I have other things to do, jobs to accomplish, plans to realize. “Let me bury my father first. Let me return to what I cherish.” I am not ready to give it all away.”
It is often presumed that freedom is a state of being loose and unattached. Some people go so far as to think they lose their freedom when they commit themselves. Freedom is construed as giving in to any immediate desire and impulse. And yet such a notion of freedom—“giving free rein to the flesh,” Paul calls it—is slavery.
We only begin to be free when we start the process of self-definition called commitment. And our freedom is only realized when we give ourselves away in love. Our commitments, ultimately, are our homeland, our nests, our lairs. They are where we reside, where we center our being.
Such a prospect is awesome: that our fundamental task and responsibility is to commit in love. This is why, like the Galatians, we might be frightened by such liberty. Comfort and escape, as well as other cravings of the flesh, entice us when we confront freedom’s awesome implications.
Viktor Frankl, in ‘The Doctor and the Soul’, wrote of the stakes involved when we face our true freedom:
“As soon as we lend our minds to the essence of human responsibility, we cannot forbear to shudder: there is something fearful about human responsibility. But at the same time something glorious. . . . It is glorious to know that the future of the things and the people around us is dependent—even if only to a tiny extent—upon our decision at any given moment. Perhaps the only lasting things we humans make in this world are our promises, our commitments. Perhaps, too, our promises are the only parts of us that we ultimately keep.
Without such making and keeping of commitments, it could be possible that we die having never fully lived. Or, as a friend of mine used to say: “I knew a man who died at forty, and wasn’t buried until he was 80.”
But when we boldly to respond with courage to the true call of our humanity, that call to loving commitment given us by God and nurtured by Christ’s Spirit, we partake in the very life of our Creator.
“For Freedom Christ set us free. So stand firm, and do not take upon yourselves the yoke of slavery a second time”. (John Kavanaugh, S. J).