NO LOOKING BACK: NO EXCUSE!
HOMILY FOR THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR C. Readings: 1Kings 19:16.19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1.13-18 and Luke 9:51-62.
If something is truly important to us, we make effort to get it, no excuse. Today’s liturgy questions our priorities and calls for total commitment to Christ who calls each one of us in our respective vocations. In response to this call, the liturgy requires us to quell all forces, obstacles, and distractions that will prevent us from following Christ as well as to avoid excuses.
The first reading presents to us the dramatic events of the call and response of Elisha. “Elijah found Elisha ploughing with twelve yokes of oxen and he was with the twelfth. He passed by him and cast his mantle upon him” (1Kings 19:19). The mantle was a distinctive clothing of the prophet (cf. Zech. 13:4). Elisha clearly interpreted this symbolic gesture as a call to discipleship, which has given rise to people today talking about one person inheriting another person’s mantle, by which they mean a transition from one person to another. With this gesture of discipleship, Elisha left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you” (v.20). Elisha responds enthusiastically to Elijah, asking that he be allowed to say a proper goodbye to his parents before leaving to follow Elijah.
The slaughtering of his oxen, the kissing of his father, and the bidding of farewell to his men, were symbolic gestures that he had freely accepted his call. Some cultures adopt this form of bidding farewell during ordination when the candidate embraces and kisses his parents at the roll call. For Elisha, it was a sign of total submission to the will of God over his own will. It was also an indication that he loved God more than his business, and his own life.
The slaughtering of his oxen is very significant for us today. “He took the yoke of the oxen, and slew them, and boiled their flesh with yokes of the oxen…” He “killed and abandoned everything” that could have become an obstacle to his decision to serve God in the future. He overcame the temptation to keep them. Put differently, he surrendered all, which was the proof of his total commitment to God. For us today, we have the customary song: “All to Jesus I surrender …I surrender all.” Have we truly surrendered all? Do we claim to have surrendered to Jesus and yet go back to our past lives? What have we sacrificed for our vocation? What negative attitudes of ours, or vices have we slaughtered to follow Christ? Or we are just Christians without commitments nor responsibilities?
The first reading has a parallel with the gospel as indicated in the first verse. It says, “When the day drew near for Jesus to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). To “set his face” expresses the determination of Christ moving towards Jerusalem (synonymous with the cross, where He will die) and which offers no easy discipleship. Those who will follow him must first count the cost because they will share his suffering. Going up to Jerusalem indicates being lifted up on the cross and in parallel to Jesus and Elijah, Luke is referring to Jesus’ ascension. As at the ascension of Elijah into heaven, Elisha received his request to inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (2Kings 2:9-53), in like manner, after Jesus’ ascension, the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit as we did receive it at Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:1-21). So, Christ alludes to the vocation of Elisha when He responds to the request by a potential disciple to “First go and bury my father.” Christ responds, “Follow me and leave the dead to bury the dead” (Luke 9:59). This man wanted to remain in his father’s house and care for him until his father dies. This was obviously an indefinite period, which could drag on and on. He was not ready to follow Jesus and felt he had sufficient reasons not to follow him. It was not a bad idea to bury the parents, but Christ needed to teach us priority by pressing on the man to follow Him now, by stating clearly that family or any other obligation must not be put ahead of following Christ. God first in all we do. True greatness means we follow Christ wholeheartedly, without delay.
A closer parallel is the potential disciple who said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Christ responded, “No one having put his hand to the plow, and looking back is fit for the Kingdom of God” (v.62). One must have a similar determination as a farmer plowing a field, who must do it with all his strength and always looking forward like Christ who set His face to go to Jerusalem without looking back. ‘Looking back’ casts our minds to the story of Lot, who looked back and turned into a pillar of salt (Gen 19:26). Looking back communicates to us all unnecessary attachment to materialism, of which we do not want to let go and it stands as an obstacle to us in answering God’s call. In view of this, Christ speaks of His poverty when He said to the first man who eagerly wanted to follow Him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (v.58). Finally, looking back represents ‘our oxen’, which could mean our past or old negative habits that are still alive. Therefore, we are called to slaughter them as in the case of Elisha as a sign of total commitment to follow Christ.
Furthermore, St. Paul in the second reading calls it a vocation to freedom, which could liberate us from the sin that enslaves us. It is absurd for one to receive freedom and still prefer returning to prison. Since Christ came to set the captives free, our life is of freedom and this freedom should not be used to gratify the flesh but to love one another. The flesh and the Spirit are in constant battle. To walk in the Spirit is to slaughter all forces of the flesh as in the case of Elisha, all obstacles and vices such as materialism, selfishness, immorality, and all old bad habits in order to follow Christ wholeheartedly.
Fr. Ken Dogbo, OSJ