by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“It is absolutely clear, brothers and sisters, that God has called you to be free. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and end up destroying your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows.” Galatians 5: 1, 13-18
“No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9, 51-62
Today’s gospel-reading is a significant event in Luke’s Gospel in that it marks what, in retrospect, looks like a personal upheaval in the emotional life of Jesus, a very important change in his life. Luke notes that Jesus made a resolute, even if unpalatable, decision to head towards Jerusalem, the city which he clearly knew was the place of residence of the religious leaders he knew were intent on eliminating him. He knew that treachery awaited him, yet his personal integrity demanded that he not run from the confrontation he fully anticipated. Maybe, he just hoped that a direct, non-violent engagement would convince his enemies that he was an honourable man who had something worthwhile to offer the nation.
Writing with full knowledge of the events that unfolded. Luke was able to observe that, by going to Jerusalem, Jesus was approaching “the time when he was to be taken up”, namely the time of his ascension to God. Jesus’ decision to set out for Jerusalem was, therefore, a momentous one. It required fierce determination, especially if he had felt a pull to go in the other direction. As a fully human person, he surely had a desire for self-preservation. Consequently, it was his courage and determination as well as his trust in God that swayed him in the direction he took. From here onwards in Luke’s Gospel, we encounter a Jesus who is galvanised in his determination. His responses to those about him reflect the attitude he has adopted. Almost immediately, Luke gives us several examples of such encounters. The first is with two of his outspoken disciples, James and John, who are intent on calling down violence on a group of Samaritans who show no sympathy to Jesus and his group, simply because they are heading for Jerusalem. (The hostility between Samaritans and Jews was longstanding, and had historical roots. It emanated from their differences regarding the proper place for the worship of God. The Jews, of course, said it was the Temple in Jerusalem, while the Samaritans insisted on its being Mt Gerizim. Samaritans did their best to make life difficult for Jewish pilgrims heading for Jerusalem through their territory.) James and John were both for giving their inhospitable neighbours a punishment from which they would not recover. Jesus dampened the overenthusiastic response of his two friends by simply giving them an object lesson in loving one’s enemies, in line with his teaching as outlined in Luke 6, 27-36, during his lengthy “Discourse on the Plain”.
The other examples which Luke gives of Jesus’ unambiguous directness are his responses to three unnamed people who proclaim their willingness to follow in his footsteps. One says to Jesus: “I will be your follower wherever you go”, while another, in expressing willing readiness to take up Jesus’ invitation to come and follow, baulks by announcing that he has domestic responsibilities to which he must first attend. The third indicates that, before all else, he must take leave of everyone at home. The response from Jesus is that proclaiming the kingdom of God allows for no dilly-dallying but rather calls for one’s total and immediate commitment. These are answers that reflect the gravity and total self-investment in the decision he has just made to head along the path to which he had committed himself. All would-be followers will be required to commit themselves in similar fashion.
And that’s surely where we are invited to come in. Walking in the footsteps of Jesus is not something to dabble in, as we might dabble in yoga or pilates or line-dancing. We often say that we are committed to doing this, that or the other, and we are sincere in describing to others what it is to which we are committing ourselves. Sincere we are, but we’re not serious. Australia recently committed itself to a contract with France for the building and purchase of submarines. On the surface our politicians were sincere, but they were not sufficiently serious to stay firm to the contract. National governments and groups of nations like the U.N. make promises to eliminate poverty, to address the challenges of climate change, to give substantial economic aid to developing nations. Yet, there are still millions of unwanted refugees and countless millions of starving people, but the rhetoric of reaching out to them is made up of weasel words. And the promises the wealthy nations bandy about are paralysed by laws that are devoid of compassion. We and our nations are strong on selective memory and even stronger on selective forgetfulness.
To find our way through a world of confused double standards, we could do well to give serious attention to today’s second reading from Galatians. Paul points the way for deciding between legitimate excuses and flimsy rationalisations for our action and inaction. He reminds the Galatians that in Christ they have discovered their freedom: “Stand then as free people, and let’s not allow ourselves to become slaves again. Christ has set us free to lead a free life. So never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on us. The moment any one of us submits to circumcision or any other unjust rule-keeping system, at that very moment Christ’s hard-won gift of freedom is squandered” (Galatians 5, 1-3). Once we have found the strength and courage to identify rules and regulations that are built on injustice and are all about creating conformity for conformity’s sake, we cannot start pretending that nonsense makes sense. Once we have truly discovered and experienced the love of God made present in our lives by the people who surround us, we cannot possibly start creating rumours about the very opposite. Paul invites us all to give serious thought to freedom, law, love, flesh and Spirit and to see what place they play in our lives.
Back in the early 1990s, the Redemptorist priest and scripture scholar, Denis McBride published a commentary on Luke’s Gospel entitled The Gospel of Luke: A Reflective Commentary (Dominican Publications, Dublin 1991). In it he wrote: “Jesus’ whole life can be seen in terms of a quest story: Jesus receives a commission from his Father to set out on a journey in search of humanity; Jesus experiences the wilderness and the trials of the classical quest story; when his mission is completed, he makes the journey of return to his Father’s house” (op. cit. p. 129-130).
We are familiar with quest stories in books like Homer’s Odyssey, in the Quest for the Holy Grail from the Legends of King Arthur, and in the more modern Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. McBride’s description of Jesus fits the man we meet in today’s gospel-reading. If we dare to follow him, we have to be courageous enough not just to take a leaf out of his book, but his whole Gospel. But let’s not forget that the freedom with which we have been blessed makes that possible, if only we dare embrace it.