Cycle C | Ordinary Time | Week 13
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
In the 16th century, the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez sailed into the harbour of Mexico and in the following two years he was able to conquer all Mexico with only about 600 men. How did he succeed with his vastly outnumbered forces where two previous expeditions had failed woefully?
Cortez knew that he and his men faced incredible odds and that his men would be tempted to abandon their mission and return to Spain. So, as soon as they came ashore and unloaded their provisions, he ordered their entire fleet of eleven ships to be destroyed. His men watched as their only possibility of retreat were annihilated. From then on, they knew that it was forward ever backward never; they could only go forward to conquer or die.
Such was replicated in our First Reading this Sunday where the prophet Elisha dramatically demonstrated commitment to the call of discipleship. He initially wanted to bid farewell to his parents before answering God’s call but as he thought better of it, he took his two oxen (his means of livelihood) and slaughtered them. He then used his plough to make a fire for cooking their meat, which he shared out to his men.
Empty-handed but totally free, he followed Elijah whom he was called to succeed. Thus, he publicly and irrevocably declares his intention to leave his former way of life to follow his calling.
In the Gospel, Jesus ‘resolutely’ makes his way to Jerusalem where he will undergo all that is necessary for his work to be completed: his suffering, death and resurrection. In making this journey, he lets go all the power, signs and wonders that marked his ministry in Galilee to become vulnerable.
Three people expressed their desire to follow him and in some way we can see ourselves among them.
The first generously offers: “I will follow you wherever you go”. But the naivety of this offer was also not lost on Jesus who immediately enlightens him on the reality of his situation: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”.
In other words, a disciple should be ready to let go of all strings and attachments, all external securities and supports: house, property, money.
The second man makes what seems a reasonable request: “Let me go and bury my father first.” He must have spoken figuratively, in the sense of going to fulfill his duties of care to his father. Jesus replies: “Let the dead bury their dead”. Elsewhere he had said that whoever loves father and mother more than him is not worthy of him.
Those sound harsh and insensitive. Yet, it is by putting Jesus first that we are enabled to identify more meaningfully with all including our families. This is therefore a call to get our priorities right. Like the second man, the third wants to say goodbye to his family and friends first. Jesus tells him: “Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
The demands of this Kingdom which we are called to build is primary: the world of truth, compassion, justice, freedom and peace. But many of us, like this man, make our own arrangements first, plan our careers carefully and only then ask how we can be good Christians (if we ever ask).
We have so many desires and attachments in life, fears and anxieties that cripple us; holding us back from living up to our full potentials. Paul exhorts the Galatians in the Second Reading: “When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free.”
Some of the Galatian Christians were converted Jews. It appears that they were being urged to go back to some of their old Jewish religious customs. The irony is that they, like many people today, were really afraid of letting go, of being fully free.
I am a fully free person not when I can defy authorities or when I blow clouds of toxic tobacco smoke into other people’s faces or when I blast my music too high without minding my neighbours. I am actually a free person when I can concentrate less on myself and think more of others; when I can really care for my neighbour, when his/her needs become my needs, when I see him or her as truly a brother or sister.
To be free means not to be clinging to and fretting over such external securities like money, property, status, success, achievements and the like. It is only when a soul is so liberated that it can objectively (selflessly) pursue and advance the eternal values of the kingdom: the values of truth, justice, compassion and peace.
Commitment and freedom seem quite incompatible yet one cannot have one without the other. To be committed means pursuing something wholeheartedly without keeping one’s options open. It feels risky yet God is not calling us to be reckless. God doesn’t want us to just rush into things without counting the cost. That’s why Jesus had to enlighten the young man who said he would leave everything and follow him straightaway. But once we have discerned to the best of our ability and taken a decision, God wants followers who won’t look back when the going gets tough.
God hates wishy-washiness. He is nauseated by sitting on the fence and forever weighing options. That’s why He says to the church that is neither hot nor cold: “I wish you were either one or the other! Because you are lukewarm, I am about to spit you out…” (Rev.3:15-17). God wants disciples who are so committed that they burn their bridges, their boats or their oxen; disciples who will let go whatever is holding them back to follow him wherever he leads.
Are you that kind of disciple? Do you want to be? Are you willing, truly and completely to walk with him? Are you determined to seek after God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Or are you trying to have it both ways?
A sure way of living miserably is to try to serve God, and to also serve the world, and oneself. To underscore the significance of being single-minded Jesus had declared: “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Luke 16:13).
On the surface this doesn’t seem impossible. Why should wealth be incompatible with godliness? Today, some preachers even teach that wealth is not only consistent with godliness, but is actually a sign of godliness. But the Gospel insists that you cannot serve God and also serve safety and security neither can you serve God and serve career advancement.
This is simply because we can only run full speed in one direction. There’s room in our heart only for one consuming passion. And nobody and nothing is more deserving of that room than Jesus. When many of his disciples left him following some hard-to-swallow teachings (John 6:66-68), he asked the twelve: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Simon Peter answered him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”