Prioritizing For the Journey
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
July 1, 2019

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) on June 30, 2019 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: 1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; and Luke 9:51-62. 

Today, Jesus begins his 10-chapter journey from Galilee to Jerusalem in the Gospel of the Luke. This journey is of utmost importance to Luke, but Scripture scholars can’t agree on a common theme about the events and teachings that Luke says happened along the journey. Also confusing is the fact that for whole chapters, there’s no sense that Jesus and his companions are getting any closer to Jerusalem, the city of Jesus’ destiny. What are we to make of this long journey, which would have taken Jesus and his companions only four days to complete if they had wanted to do so?

Our first reading is also about beginning a journey, as the great prophet Elijah invites Elisha to be his successor. The dialogues in the first reading and the gospel seem to lead us to harsh conclusions about what it means to be a disciple… and yet, because the dialogues are so terse, it’s tempting to fill in the gaps in these conversations with alternative interpretations that aren’t as disturbing.  

Let us listen again to these dialogues with new ears, trying to hear the words of Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, James, John, and three other would-be disciples, with clarity, trying to grasp the deepest meanings of what has been handed down to us over the millennia. But before we do that, let us acknowledge that no matter how challenging our own spiritual journeys may be, God is always with us, showering us with mercy.

So many troubling conversations. Elisha, the prophet-elect, wants to say goodbye to his parents before setting off to follow the great prophet Elijah. However, it’s not clear if Elijah approves of such sentiment, nor is it not clear if Elisha actually talks to his parents before he leaves home to become the prophet of the Lord. When Jesus is slighted by the Samaritans, the apostles James and John – nicknamed “the Sons of Thunder” – want to destroy the village. Jesus makes the seemingly out-of-context remark that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Jesus tells another would-be disciple to let those who are spiritually dead bury those who are physically dead. Jesus seems clearer than Elijah in stating that obligations to family can distract us from discipleship.

Yuck. I sure don’t like where this is going. I, for one, believe that it is very important to say goodbye to the people we care about when we prepare to begin a new stage of our life journey. Most of us know that we shouldn’t wish to call down fire on our enemies, but we’d sure like God to provide a sign to them to prove that we were right and they were wrong. And cultures around the world – including both the modern world of psychological research and the ancient Jewish practices in the time of Jesus – promote the importance of saying goodbye to our deceased loved ones.  

So, what are the Scriptures trying to tell us? Is it really God’s will for us to abandon those we love without saying goodbye or mourning their loss? Well, the main point is clear: we can’t consider ourselves to be Christian disciples if we don’t make it a top priority to follow Jesus. I’m uncomfortable speaking to the secondary points – saying goodbye to one’s parents and burying the dead – outside of the context of the main point regarding priorities. Of course, the rhetoric of this passage is designed to make us uncomfortable, so any pat answers that make us feel comfortable are probably getting away from Jesus’ and Luke’s intentions.  

But would Jesus really force someone to choose between burying their father and following Jesus? I don’t think so. And when you think about it, it’s not Jesus who forces an “either-or” choice; it’s the nine words of the young man recorded by Luke that frame this as an “either-or” decision: “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” I bet the young man actually said more than these nine words to Jesus. Let’s imagine three different, expanded scenarios that would flesh out the young man’s sense of priorities.  

My favorite possible scenario comes from Paulist James DiLuzio: what if the young man instead of saying “let me go,” had asked “come with me?” That is, “Lord, please come with me and let us together bury my father.” Somehow, I don’t think Jesus would have refused.  

A second alternative scenario incorporates what we now know about first-century Jewish burial practices. Jews buried their dead within hours of death, not days. So, can we imagine a second scenario, in which the young man says to Jesus, “Lord, my father has just died. I must go bury him but then I will run as fast as I can so that I can catch up and follow you.” Again, I’m imagining that Jesus would not reject such a proposal.  

There’s a third scenario that has been imagined by various Christians over the centuries, one that would probably merit a harsh response from Jesus: “Lord, my father is frail and will probably die in the next few years. Let me stay with the rest of my family until he dies. Then I will follow you.” It’s certainly not clear if the man in Luke’s account meant something this extreme, but I can imagine Jesus not approving of a person who claims a choice of “either-or.” Jesus would reject the idea that one can either fulfill one’s family obligations or be a disciple. 

Jesus said that there were two great commandments on our spiritual journey: to love God with all our hearts, minds, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. While we should continually devote ourselves to loving God, Paul makes it clear in our second reading that we do this by loving others, too. Elijah seems to approve of Elisha taking the time to slaughter twelve oxen, make a fire with his plowing equipment, cook the oxen, and feed them to his people. While these tasks take time, they become a way for Elisha to strengthen his resolve to follow Elijah, not a way to avoid the task at hand.

I think that the failing of these would-be disciples is that they prioritize loving others over loving God. It has often been said that the Catholic Church is at its best when it embraces a “both-and” approach – “I will both follow you and bury my father,” instead of “I will either follow you or bury my father.” How often do each of us make unnecessary distinctions between the ordinary tasks of life and the life of discipleship? How often do we make the “all or nothing” claim that we cannot devote time to God because we must devote time to ourselves and others? Making such claims is nothing new. 

Here’s how Paulist founder Isaac Hecker responded in 1865 to people with the same faulty mindset: “It is absurd to say you do not have the time to pray, as it would be to say that you have no time to breathe. Pray when you rise and dress, pray when you are on the way to work, or to your place of business, or on your return home or before you go to bed.” If Isaac Hecker were with us today, I think he’d add a few other specific examples: pray each time you pick up your smart phone, pray when you log into social media, pray before turning on the news. Hecker thought such disciplines were practical and achievable. As he preached in 1865, “Believe me if you practice… to the degree you are able, in a short time, no exercise will be as easy as prayer.”

We are each on a journey to our destiny, but most of us are not called to continually pick up and move from location to location. But whether we’re in motion or at rest, we need to discern what is essential and what is extraneous. And for most of us, there’s more than one essential relationship. May we never forget that our destiny is eternal life with both God and the saints.