The Bible offers to us believers a very accurate and rich list of the components that make up a human being. To the traditional dual components of body and soul, (the body being physical and the soul spiritual), the Bible adds mind and heart, spirit and flesh, the ethnic group to which we belong by birth, our environment, our culture and our being creatures in relation to our Creator God.
For the Bible the only truly physical component is not the body per se, but our flesh. The flesh is the one component that pulls us down towards earthly things and that, eventually, when we die, will return to the soil from which it came. In his Letter to the Galatians (5:1, 13-18), St. Paul describes the unfolding of our life on earth as a struggle to gain freedom from the down-pulls of the flesh and our cooperation with the Holy Spirit to soar free from selfishness and towards the offering of all our other components in self-sacrifice out of love for the members of the Body of Christ.
It is for freedom that Christ set us free.
In 1 Kings (19:16, 19-21) and the Gospel of Luke (9:51-62), we find significant turning points in the lives of several people. The common denominator is an indirect intervention from God, namely through the prophet Elijah and through Jesus, to pull these people free from the flesh in order to be liberated and become the loving and totally dedicated person that God wants every single one of His children to be. In those cases, the flesh was identified with family ties, attachment to one’s land, a claim to basic comforts, and affection to members of one’s family; but also with strong emotions such as those of revenge, a sense of superiority, unrealistic self-confidence, and indecisiveness.
Nowadays, our ties to the flesh could be similar or remarkably different. What is common to all of us, though, is the indirect way through which God calls us away from the flesh. And what is also common to all of us is the fact that, as believers, we should never deem that even the most insignificant, ordinary things in life are the result of chance or coincidence. Nothing, absolutely nothing, however small, however lowly, however modest, is outside of God’s design.
So, it is possible that we might have missed a lot of God’s re-directing, prodding, pushing or pulling that He applies around the clock. Consequently, it is time to revisit not only the pleasant turning points of our life such as First Communion, Confirmation, falling in love, getting married or ordained, the birth of a child, a promotion, but also harrowing events like a cruel bout with cancer or any other dreadful disease, the untimely loss of a loved one, the devastation caused by divorce, firing from our job, unemployment, blunt rejection and the like.
The opening statement of our Gospel passage (Luke 9:51) shows Jesus resolutely determined to set out towards Jerusalem precisely because he had deciphered the Father’s design that included almost the total rejection by his people, incredible pain, prolonged torture and the cross.
The turning points of our life that we revisit today should show us the flesh from which we had to be set free and the sacrifice for which we should prepare ourselves. By now, most likely, our life should have taken a clear direction. It is time, then, to capitalize on all the other little events, insignificant happenings, words, routine occurrences that are there precisely to widen our self-giving, hone our loving, perfect our dedication and purify our intentions.
The callings mentioned in our scriptures for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are about conventional discipleship, classic prophesying and missionary preaching. However, since we too are called to freedom from the down-pulls of the flesh, we are also all expected to soar above our self-centeredness and do our preaching mostly by a clear example of a lifestyle increasingly benefiting others.
Therefore, what goes on between a decisive moment in our life and the next should be considered crucial because it would determine how we would lean: towards the flesh or towards joyous self-giving in freedom. Let us take as an example John’s and James’ reaction to the refusal of the Samaritans to let Jesus and his little band of apostles go through their village on their way to Jerusalem.
The flesh was pulling John and James to teach those Samaritans a lesson through the power of God and in the name of justice and divine retribution. But Jesus taught them the way of freedom, the taking of the high road, the turning of the other cheek.
True, acceptance of this freedom, opting for magnanimity is the only way that makes us accept our restricted, tunnel vision of a situation while it relies on trust in God to find the best way to implement His plan of salvation. Let this be proof to you: right at the beginning of the Church, when the Jews persecuted her at home, it was the Samaritans who welcomed the message of the Gospel and its first preachers. (cf. Acts of the Apostles 8:14)
Nowadays we find ourselves in similar situations, for example with the whole issue of the pro-life movement confronting abortion on demand up to the moment of birth—and beyond. The down-pull of the flesh would suggest that we use any means to defend innocent human life in the womb. But the way taught by Christ, the way of freedom runs, as much as possible, through avoidance of coercion, force and strong measures, simply because any result attained by force or even by changing the law leaves most hearts unmoved.
The way of the Spirit is the way of conquering the opposition one heart at a time, at any personal cost,trusting that the Lord alone enjoys the view of the whole picture.
We are called to trust in His wisdom and accept the pace of His transforming action even though His plan seems to unfold way too slowly! What the Lord teaches us, therefore, is a three-prong resolution: 1) to heed all the gentle pulling, the tugging, the cajoling that God applies on us, day in and day out, as He tries to free us from the down-pulls of the flesh; 2) to be always ready to sacrifice our comforts, our ideas, our preferences to His divine plan; 3) and to yield humbly to His wisdom, to His patience, to His mercy for all His children.