At the time of Jesus officials wrote on very fragile materials like papyrus and vellum. Poor people among whom Jesus moved and who were His disciples didn’t have access to those materials. This caused Jesus to teach using very hard and cutting-edge images, images that His listeners would never forget. And so we hear Jesus saying: “If your eye is a source of sin, pluck it out” and “if your hand is a source of sin, cut if off!” People would never forget those words, words used in His teachings, teachings that everyone would remember.
With that in mind let me repeat a key part of today’s Gospel account:
And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God. “And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Now let’s go back to today’s first reading (1 Kings 19:16, 19-21). There we find the prophet Elijah commissioning Elisha to take on the God given role of being Elijah’s successor, a prophet of God. In that context we hear Elisha saying: “Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, and I will follow you” whereupon in the most radical act of faith he cut all ties with his past and rid himself of all his possessions and then followed Elijah.
It’s all about decisions, isn’t it? Decisions… how decisive am I in following Jesus? That’s the big question not only today but in each and every day of our lives. The readings today present us with the reality of decisions; we are called by God to be decisive. But while we want to be decisive and have the freedom to make our own decisions, decisions bring with them consequences.
In the first reading we find the need for security being challenged by the decision to move into an unknown future. In the second reading (Galatians 5:1, 13-18) we’re presented with a false freedom, the freedom of license and anything goes vs. the true freedom of loving for the sake of others, particularly the Other that is God. Finally, in the Gospel (Luke 9:51-62) we find the challenge to move beyond the ties of family loyalty and affection into commitments beyond the pale of one’s immediate family, movement into the decisions and responses that go with belonging to God.
These are all hard, tough decisions. It’s not easy to definitively leave one’s childhood family in order to cling to a spouse in marriage and start a new family. We all know of husbands or wives who have never emotionally left father or mother and cannot totally surrender in love to their spouses in their new family. Being unable to leave their childhood they become emotionally arrested and fixated, without any further development. Not only that, but when we marry we quickly learn that there are things we cannot do, our freedom to do whatever we want is gone. So, too, when we have children. We quickly learn then that our freedom to do a lot of things is severely restricted.
Many folks never come to the full realization that sacrifice is not merely a nice ideal; it’s a fact of life. We don’t have a choice in the matter. The question is not whether we are willing to sacrifice. Life is filled with sacrifices. It’s always a question of how much are we willing to sacrifice… and for what are we sacrificing? We cannot have things of value and at the same time live foot-loose and carefree lives. All commitments involve sacrifice.
Oh, to be sure, there are those who try to live free and unfettered lives, but what becomes of them? To say “yes” to anything requires saying “no” to a whole lot of other things. For instance, one cannot be “a little bit religious” for very long. You either commit or you end up saying: “I don’t go to Mass very often any more because of this, that or the other thing. To say “yes” to everything means we can’t say “yes” to anything in particular. One cannot both commit and keep all of one’s options open at the same time. “No man can serve two masters…,” Jesus said.
Keeping all of one’s options open is just another way of avoiding full commitment. It’s another form of denial. That’s true in our close and intimate relationships with others. And that’s true in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Commitment, love, marriage and friendships all impose things upon us. They require an uncluttered “yes.”
But while love demands sacrifice, it also at the same time paradoxically lets us find freedom. True lovers give each to the other the gift of freedom, the freedom to be the very best selves found living deep down inside of them. True lovers give each other the freedom to become the best they can be.
And, paradoxically, don’t you find it to be true that freedom is found in decisiveness? You and I all know of indecisive people; we find them among our friends and acquaintances. They can’t make up their minds. They’re paralyzed and immobilized in their lack of ability to make a decision. They get hung up on the hook, the paralysis of analysis.
Next Sunday we celebrate the Fourth of July. Ideas of freedom will be on our minds. For many, the talk will be of our national freedom, American freedom, and so forth. All of that is of great importance, of course. But we ought to also talk about and think about our own personal freedoms and commitments?
Ask yourself, can a person live in a free country such as ours and still be a slave? I’m not talking here about the institution of slavery that once existed here in America. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War settled that issue. But there are other forms of slavery. One can be held in bondage by alcohol or drugs. The lust for money imprisons many. The sex trade, pornography, and living a totally sensual life holds many in bondage. Terrorists presently seek to hold us hostage in fear of their actions. The goal of a terrorist is to immobilize us.
In our popular culture some of the most vocal advocates of freedom are the biggest promoters of enslaving people in their own self-centered gratifications. A form to hyper-individualism is presented by many as a God-given right when, in fact, it is nothing more than self-ism, egoism, and consuming individualism that hurts others and demeans our commonly shared values. Self-ism costs others dearly.
Questions of freedom are continually put before our U.S. Supreme Court. Such questions should likewise be put before our own minds, and in the topics of conversations we have within our own families. Freedom is a wonderful gift. But it brings with it certain questions: Freedom from what? Freedom for what? Freedom to do what?
Finally, we need give ourselves the freedom to focus on where we’re going and not be held captive by constantly looking back at our past. Do you drive a car looking through the front windshield or do you drive looking through the rear window? If you drive your car by looking through the rear window, you will certainly crash! We should not let ourselves be enslaved by our pasts.
Jesus said to His disciples: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” He was talking about fitness and abilities, as well as vision. We can be crippled and disabled if we’re constantly dwelling on our past mistakes, if we’re constantly feeling sorry for ourselves about what’s happened in our past, or what we’ve given up. To be truly free our eyes must be fixed on what’s ahead, not what was in the past. .
God created you with an inner nature that is centered on your free will. You were created to decide, to be decisive, to freely choose to love Him and respond to His callings, callings to bring His way, His truth, and His life into your inner world and into the world around you. Therefore you and I are constantly called to decide and to decide to act not on emotions and feelings but rather on our convictions. What influences my decisions the most, feelings or convictions? Urges or decisions to choose what God wants me to choose?
As we celebrate our freedoms this coming Thursday, July 4th, you might want to ponder on these things. For God has given us freedom, the freedom to do good, the freedom to accomplish His purposes. What could possibly make us happier?