-Fr. Henry O’Shea OSB
At a first reading of today’s gospel, with its four brief altercations, Jesus can seem to be cavalier, even bad-tempered, in his dismissal of what he appears to regard as petty human reactions and concerns.
In his determination to make his way to Jerusalem – as the time draws near for him to be taken up to heaven, St Luke tells us – he seems to have no time for what his disciples consider a fitting retribution on unwelcoming Samaritans. Just a quick flash of fire from heaven and a little incineration to teach them a lesson. Jesus rebukes the disciples and keeps on walking.
Possibly intuiting that one person who addresses him is really looking for a certain kind of security, Jesus tells him that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. He probably shocked another interlocutor by telling him that his duty is not to bury his father – a sacred duty for an observant Jew – but, rather to spread the news of the kingdom of God. In another exchange, Jesus is equally shocking when he tells a person that if he wants to follow him, he has to forget his family – again, unthinkable for an observant Jew – and not turn back.
It is not difficult to do an ‘Ah, yes, but..’ rationalisation of these rather abrupt and certainly sobering exchanges. Can it really be the case that Jesus sees no place for taking revenge on one’s enemies? Can it be that he regards the most basic of human reactions and behaviour as of little importance? Can it be that he allows no scope for change of mind, for doubts about oneself and one’s purpose and one’s way in and way of life? It is only to the first of these questions, the question concerning revenge, that one can give a resounding yes. Revenge is not on. But the other questions need to be teased out.
Given the apparently uncompromising tone of Jesus’s last statement about the plough and turning back, it may come as a surprise that today’s reading are really about freedom or liberty. This freedom is proclaimed succinctly in the first line of today’s second reading from the letter to the Galatians: ‘When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.’
What does this freedom, this liberty, mean? How does it compare to or with what we commonly believe to be freedom – if we have ever really thought about it?
Everyone needs to ask her- or himself: Do I understand freedom as a wearingly terrible-twos or adolescent laissez-faire that denies any boundaries – except those imposed by criminal and civil law, the infringement of which could lead to trouble? Beyond these tiresome constraints, am I free to think, do, say, want, strive for, enjoy, destroy, accumulate, whatever I like? Does freedom, does liberty, as I understand – and even try to exercise – it, include accountability, responsibility? Does choice, do my very own choices, reign supreme.
Is personal choice my king, as a certain kind of marketing would have me believe?
And so we end back with the ‘Ah yes…but..’ and a potentially endless circle of assertion and counter-assertion.
It is part of the classical discourse on freedom, in disciplines ranging from political science to moral theology and beyond, to distinguish between freedom/liberty from and freedom/liberty to. In effect, this is a distinction St Paul makes in our second reading. He tells us that Christ has saved us from the yoke, from the choking burden, of slavery. This slavery is the kind that comes from giving free rein to self-indulgence. I can choose to be tyrannised by my own desires for power, possessions, pleasure. And in some cases, the kinkier the better. I need to be freed from that kind of enslaving liberty.
The alternative St Paul presents is that of a serving love. A freedom that allows itself to be open to and led by the Spirit becomes part of my way of thinking, my way of being, my way of acting. It is expressed in love of others, which is at one and the same time, a loving doing that, when practised, increases my capacity to love others and to love myself as I ought. St Paul gives us a very practical, if obvious, negative example when he says, ‘If you go snapping at each other and tearing each other to pieces, you had better watch or you will destroy the whole community.’
One might ask if there is a difference between the attitude and behaviour of the prophets Elijah and Elisha in today’s first reading from the book of Kings and Jesus’ dictum about turning back from the plough.
Both stories deal with freely-taken decisions to commit. Elijah, having already invited Elisha by draping him in his cloak, is almost churlish in his apparent rejection of Elisha, ‘Go, go back; for have I done anything to you?’ We are not told that Elisha did in fact go back to kiss his mother and father before chasing after Elijah. But we are told that he slaughtered his twelve yoke of oxen and used his plough as firewood to cook the oxen with which he fed his workers. Such a dramatic, such a drastic, action by a rich man in an agricultural society, indicates a radical decision to leave all, to break with the past and follow a new way of being. ‘Elisha then rose, and followed Elijah and became his servant’.
He brought me forth into freedom,
he saved me because he loved me…
my God who lightens my darkness.
Ps 18 (17): 20.29a
And this is what Jesus is demanding:
a radical burn-my-bridges decision to follow him, to allow myself to be transformed by the Spirit;
a radical burn-my-bridges decision to recognise and love my past, with all its shortcomings;
a radical burn-my-bridges decision to acknowledge and love my present with its concrete opportunities to stick in there and in loving service let my heart expand;
a radical burn-my-bridges decision to look with love-filled hope to future glory – however grim the immediate outlook might seem.
It is just the progress-driven plough of God,
Tearing up the well-worn custom-bounded sod;
Shaping out each old tradition-trodden track
Into furrows, fertile furrows, rich and black.
Oh, what harvests they will yield
When they widen to a field.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919)