by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Later Elisha asked his servant, Gehazi: ‘Can something be done for this Shunammite woman?’ ‘Yes!’ Gehazi answered. ‘She has no son, and her husband is getting on in years.’ ‘Call her,’ said Elisha…Elisha promised her: ‘This time next year you will be fondling a baby son.’ 2 Kings 4: 8-11, 14-16
“Whoever loves father and mother, son and daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up her/his cross and come after me is not worthy of me…And I promise you that those who give so much as a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones because he is a disciple will surely not lose their reward.” Matthew 10: 37-42.
In today’s gospel-reading, we see Jesus asking his chosen twelve to undertake a self-assessment, asking themselves if they are ready, willing and able to undertake and persevere in the mission in which he has invited them to participate. He has already explained to them that the task is not for the faint-hearted and now we see him illustrating what following in his footsteps will involve in practice. To approach this gospel as participants rather than as mere spectators, we have to do a similar self-assessment. In other words, we have to look into the mirror of our own lives in order to decide whether we have what it takes to walk in the footsteps of Jesus as his disciples.
While it might seem to be an unlikely starting point for our reflection, I propose that we begin with a brief excursion into Charles Dickens’ short novel, A Christmas Carol. At its basic level, it is a heart-warming story. At another level it is an allegory of redemption and conversion of heart. And it’s a story that is partly autobiographical in that it was born out of Dickens’ personal experience. When he was only twelve years old, he and his whole family were consigned to a debtors’ prison in which he himself was assigned to work in a shoe factory to contribute to paying off the debts his family had accumulated.
The central character in the novel is Ebenezer Scrooge whose response to hearing that Christmas is a time for love, kindness and celebration of the birth of Jesus, responds with: “Bah! Humbug!” He proceeds to describe Christmas as a time only for money-making. For Dickens, Ebenezer is a symbol of the greed and corruption of the Victorian era that kept the underclasses trapped in poverty. In contrast it was the poor who were the real source of kindness and care in a world where they lived side-by-side with people like Scrooge who preyed on them. Unexpectedly, Scrooge was visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former business partner. Marley had spent a lifetime gouging the poor and following his death was condemned to wander the world as punishment for being consumed with business and showing no concern for people. Marley informed Scrooge that he would be visited by three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas, the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The first showed him neglect in his life when he was a child, the second, poor people happy in the love and care they had for one another despite poverty and family bereavement and the third allowed him to see his own dead body, with people dancing in the streets over his demise. Together, the three visitations led him to vow to change his ways.
The four ghostly visitations which Scrooge received together amounted to an invitation to him to reflect on his life experience and to measure for himself just how satisfied or dissatisfied he was with the direction in which his life was moving. The visitations challenged him to determine what he needed to do in order to become the man he really wanted to be. He found the moral courage to alter the course his life was on. In today’s gospel-reading, we hear how Jesus challenged the Twelve to look into the mirror of their own lives and assess for themselves the measure of the moral integrity they would need to honour the commission he was putting to them.
Today’s first reading from the Second Book of Kings is one of four successive accounts of wonders worked by the Prophet Elisha. The first story recounts how the Prophet went to the aid of a widow whose husband had been a prophet and whose sons, on whom she depended for survival, were about to be sold into slavery as payment for her late husband’s debts. Elisha instructed the woman to take the only oil container she had and to borrow from her neighbours every container they could possibly spare. He then directed her to go indoors and set about pouring oil from her little jug. All the borrowed pots were filled, providing her with sufficient oil to sell in order to cover her debts. Today’s first reading is the story of a very generous woman of means who not only extended hospitality to Elisha whenever he visited her town but built extensions onto her house to give him private accommodation. Elisha wanted to give her a gift in appreciation for her kindness, but she would not hear of it. When his servant informed him that she had no children he promised that she and her aging husband would have a son: “This time next year, you will be fondling a baby son.” In today’s gospel-reading, Jesus identified as prophets the Twelve whom he was about to send on mission, noting that those who extended hospitality to them would receive a prophet’s reward. That is an oblique reference to 2 Kings chapter 4, implying that those who welcome prophets and disciples become identified with them. Similarly, the promise of a baby son to the Shunammite woman is a symbolic way of stating that all who open their hearts to the word of God and those who proclaim it will find themselves embracing new life.
When we get to the gospel-reading, we hear Jesus telling the Twelve that the demands of joining him are far from light. Discipleship is an all or nothing venture. Quite simply, there are no half-measures. He underlines that by stating that they will have to let go of the traditional sources of security intrinsic to their Jewish culture. In telling the Twelve that he was expecting them to transfer their allegiance from their family bloodlines to him he was shaking the fabric of Jewish society. In Jewish society, ancestral lines were synonymous with identity. Moreover, a man’s security for himself and his family was measured by the number of sons he fathered. They amounted to an insurance policy for old age. To set aside or dilute such a traditional practice was a total disgrace to one’s family name. Jesus was telling the Twelve that following in his footsteps would require them to put all their hope for the future in him.
While we don’t have the same rank and standing as the Twelve, as baptised Christians, we all have some share of the light and love of Jesus and his Gospel and a responsibility to spread that share around. We have the opportunity to do that each day of our lives as we live true to the vocation we have chosen for ourselves expressed through our personal gifts and talents which we have identified and developed. If there is one aspect of our lives on which we can do a personal assessment it is our hospitality to family, friends and strangers. Hospitality is first and foremost an attitude before it is expressed in action. If we want to see hospitality in action, we need look no further than the nurses, doctors and allied health professionals who have likely been more visible to us since the onset of Covid. They have selflessly gone beyond the extra mile, demonstrating care and kindness that have been truly inspirational. If nothing else, we can at the very least express to them our gratitude and hold them in prayer.
I conclude with a comment from Mary McGlone an American Josephite Sister and Scripture scholar. Her father was a medical doctor who spent himself tirelessly for others. Reflecting a few years ago on the demand that placed on their family, she wrote: “My dad was a doctor. That meant that there were a whole lot of people we kids didn’t know whose claim on his time could trump what we wanted to do…Mom supported him so much that, long before celibacy was a topic of serious debate in the church, she used to say: ‘If a devoted physician can be married, so could a priest.’ She, more than anybody, understood the price of his dedication – and she shared it.” (National Catholic Reporter, June 2020):