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RADICAL Discipleship: Transcending the Self

It is not normal to include a Sunday Homily in the Discipleship Corner. Yet, the reading for the 13th Sunday on Ordinary time were no ordinary readings. The gospel reading in particular, contained radical sayings about following Jesus. In fact, it is possible to reading all the readings for this Sunday as an invitation to RADICAL DISCIPLESHIP. This is a reflection on RADICAL discipleship. 

(Please be sure the read 1 Kings 19:16-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; and Luke 9:51-62 in preparation for this reflection)

It is truly amazing, that in the Bible, scenes from two distant millennia, written by authors from completely different era. for completely different audiences, can be so similar. In the first reading, the young Elisha, who was ploughing his field, is called by the prophet Elijah to follow him as his attendant. Before Elisha follows him, he seeks Elijah’s permission to bid his family goodbye. Elijah concedes to the request. Elisha then offers a sacrifice of the animals he used for farming and used the ploughs to make the fire for the sacrifice. He bids his family adieu and then follows Elijah. This passage has a striking parallels in today’s gospel reading. There were people both looking to follow Jesus, and those that Jesus called to follow him. When one of them asked Jesus to allow him to bury his father, Jesus refused to make the concession, and said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” To another man who wished to follow Jesus, but first say good bye to his family, Jesus, said, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Jesus refuses to make the concession that Elijah made. 

These sayings of Jesus are very demanding, radical and uncompromising. How can we understand them? I am offering three responses and practical implications.

1. The Hand on the Plough. Jesus’ refusal to allow the man to “bury his father,” or “looking back after putting the hand on the plough,” must be understood as a two-pronged conversation. On the one hand, I am arguing, he was talking to himself. In Luke’s gospel, just before the passage we have today, Jesus had transfigured on the mountain and had just predicted his passion and death. Perhaps he was convincing himself that, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus himself has set his hand on the plough (read ‘the cross’); he has set his face toward Jerusalem (read ‘calvary’). Many times he would be tempted to avoid his passion and death. Perhaps he will be tempted to turn and look back. But he must “leave the dead to bury the dead,” and move on toward the path of life that his Father had set for him. On the other hand, he is also talking to his disciples. If they have to find their identity in his, they will have to prepare to come after him even though he has “no where to lay his head.” They will have to leave themselves and their egos behind. After Jesus’ resurrection, if the kingdom of God must spread they will have to imitate him. Once they set their hands on the plough there is no turning back.

Today’s readings emphasize the radicalness of Christian discipleship. Following Christ is not for those who like to sit on the fence. There is nothing called “fair weather Christianity.” Either you are all in with Jesus and what he stands for or you are out. The question for us this week in simply this: “In what area of my life do I hear Christ demanding an unconditional, radical, and unquestioned response?”

2. “Let the dead bury the dead.” What does this mean? There are as many interpretations of this saying as there are commentaries. And the interpretations range from simple one’s like “those who follow Jesus have new life and those who don’t are spiritually dead,” or “let the (spiritually) dead bury the (physically) dead,” or to more complex ones which have to do with the Jewish practice of “second-burial.” “Second burial refers to the practice where, after the first burial, the family waited for the body to decompose. This would probably take up to a year. When the body was decomposed, the oldest son would collect the bones, put them in an ossuary. On that day (the son) mourned, but the following day he was glad, because his forebears rested from judgment.  In whatever way we chose to understand this saying, it has implications for us. 

Jesus refused the man the concession he asked for. On the one hand. this saying captures the radicalness of Jesus’ call. But on the other hand, this is also a commentary on human nature. We are always inclined to postpone the inevitable. Just think how many times we postpone paying bills, cleaning up the house, straightening up a broken relationship, going to the hospital, finishing homework or a paper, recovering from an addiction, going to the sacrament of reconciliation or even picking up our prayer life. This can also happen when it comes to preparing for eternity. This can certainly happen when it comes to following Jesus as radical disciples. There is always another day. I have a bumper sticker in my bible that says, “Those who wait for the eleventh hour die at ten-thirty.” So many people die before they have accomplished what they wanted to do. What if we were to die before we put their hands on the plough? Imagine dying before throwing our weight completely behind Jesus; imagine that you always wanted to be a radical disciple and died without ever accomplishing that. I think that Jesus is saying that the time to follow Jesus radically is NOW! Those who postpone may not make it. These are the dead people. Let these dead people bury those other dead who postpone hearing God’s call. But you, yes, you who want to follow Jesus, do it NOW.  

3. For Freedom, Christ has set us Free. In this third point, I will try to bring my first point and second point together. Paul says to us in today’s second reading, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” The context of Paul’s statement is the Law. Paul was saying that it was not necessary to be circumcised, to submit oneself to that Law, in order to experience the grace of God. God’s grace and spirit are not dependent on anything. All one needs is faith in Jesus Christ. But it is the verses right after this statement that is truly enlightening. Paul continues. “For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus earlier had said that the whole law in fulfilled in two statements: “Love God with all your heart,” and Love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, freedom comes from transcending your ‘self.’ Freedom comes when we have transcended the ‘self’ to love God and our neighbor beyond our self. Unless we transcend the ‘self’, we will keep putting our hands on the plough and look back. Unless we transcend the ‘self’ we will never be radical disciples. Unless we transcend the ‘self,’ we will be the dead burying the dead. Unless we transcend our self, we will be satisfied with ‘religion’ but never take up radical discipleship.

- Fr. Satish Joseph