Readings: Luke 9: 51-62; Galatians 5:1;13-25
It has never been easy to be a disciple of Jesus. His words, as written down decades later, are often subject to many interpretations, all of which are available to us. Using our intellect and guided by our experience of God in our lives, we do our best to live the life God would have us live. following the overlying biblical themes of love, restorative justice, compassion. God’s spirit leads us; as we as transformed into co-creators with God to bring the Kingdom here on Earth. Fed by the fruit of the spirit, we are made free. As St. Paul wrote: For freedom Christ has set us free.
With today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ ministry in Galilee comes to an end and Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem begins. In this lectionary year, Year 3, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is placed near the beginning of Ordinary Time, or Pentecost Season, in which the focus is on the Christian life. From the last Sunday of June to the end of October, we are on our way to Jerusalem.
All of the Gospel readings for these four months belong within Luke’s journey narrative which begins with today’s reading as Jesus leaves Galilee and “set his face to go to Jerusalem”. It ends nearly ten chapters later with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. It’s not so much a geographical journey toward since the itinerary is impossible to reconstruct. It’s more a theological framework in which Luke shares something of what it means to follow Jesus. So it’s serendipitous that all three of today’s readings address discipleship in one way or another.
Elisha, a disciple pf Elijah, follows him to his death and becomes his successor …
Paul, writing to the recently formed church in Galatia reminds the Galatians of the real basis of their faith and how to follow Christ – more on this later.
Jews and Samaritans
The gospel reading includes two separate incidents. The first one occurs in Samaria. Galilee, in the north is separated from Jerusalem in Judea in the south by Samaria. The Samarians were a hybrid nation; Israelites who had intermarried with the local Canaanite population; they had their own version of Yahweh worship, centred not in Jerusalem but on Mount Gerizim near Shechem (now Nablus). There was no love lost between the Jews and Samaritans and most Jews detoured around Samaria, and Samaritans around Judea when travelling. Not Jesus. He travelled straight through. And James and John became defensive when the Samaritans were hostile to Jesus. Not so Jesus, who, instead of rebuking those whom the disciples thought were his enemies, turned around and rebuked his own disciples and just moved on.
Jesus meets three would-be disciples
As he journeys, he meets three would be disciples. Unlike the Samaritan villagers these would-be disciples seem genuinely interested in following Jesus. But Jesus discourages them, not accepting what seem like reasonable requests. Yes, they’ll follow Jesus, provided they get the perks or as soon as they’ve buried loved ones or made appropriate farewells. And who can blame them? These seem like reasonable requests. Yet Jesus seems to expect would-be disciples to drop all their plans and follow him.
Why did Jesus go to Jerusalem?
I needed to study further. But as I did, I couldn’t help being disturbed by the commentaries and interpretations I read. There seems to be two lines of interpretation. The first is that we are to follow Jesus to the cross, to death, signing away all rights to our lives. What didn’t I like about this? Firstly, I do not believe that Jesus went to Jerusalem in order to be crucified, but because this was the place to share his message. Yes, he knew he might be killed there. His message of love was subversive and he would clash with the political, religious and business leaders in Jerusalem.
Is following Jesus like signing a blank cheque?
And secondly, I do not believe that following Jesus means signing away all rights to our own lives. Does God expect us to sign on the bottom line and let him fill in the details? Quoting from some pieces I read “home and children and family and jobs: these are all good; they are absolutely wonderful; but they are not the best. The best is Jesus”. It means Jesus first. How black and white is that. All or nothing! No conditions. No delays. No buts. No excuses.
(I add here an aside that what I am saying is what I believe and if you believe differently, that’s fine.) I don’t find this at all helpful. Not because God, Jesus, the Divine – whatever our name for the Supreme one – isn’t important to me, but because that’s not how I experience God working in my life. God isn’t a micro manager who will come along and demand that my whole life is turned upside down, that your whole life is stirred up and put into disorder, that we die to any and everyone one or thing that is important to us. It’s not black and white. It’s not all or nothing.
Another way to read this passage
The second interpretation, which I found easier to take, suggests that Jesus understood these people and what was holding them back and addresses specific attitudes. It then becomes a question for us whether any of these situations apply to us and are holding us back from a full relationship with God.
Looking for perks?
The first one says to him, “Jesus, I’ll follow you wherever you go.” “Fine,” Jesus says. “I have no home. I have nowhere to lay my head. Any bed I have is because someone let me use theirs. You still interested?” Maybe he is only interested in the V.I.P. treatment he thinks he will receive as part of Jesus’s entourage. But Jesus explains that life as his disciple carries no guaranteed perks. What perks might we expect from the Christian Life?
What are you waiting for?
The second wants to bury his Father; this is a duty required by Jewish law. But it’s not “wait till Tuesday”, not just a simple matter of a few days to have a funeral. There were two burials. A first one is immediately after death; then, a year later, the grave is opened and the bones placed in a family ossuary or bone box. Or perhaps his father is isn’t even dead yet, and he wants to look after Dad until the old man dies – maybe wanting his inherence before he leaves home. What are we waiting for?
The third individual merely asks to say goodbye to his family before following Jesus. Even this seemingly reasonable request is denied by Jesus. Like the second excuse, this centres around family relationships and responsibilities. Was this man, perhaps, so preoccupied with his little family that he didn’t have the energy and compassion to care for God’s wider family including the marginalized? The most difficult choices in life are not primarily between good and evil, but between what is good and what is best. Or even more often, how to balance responsibilities between two needs. It’s never binary, either … or thinking. It’s always the non dual, both ,… and approach. Never black and white, but shades of grey. In this case, can we find that balance between different demands on our time: our family and God’s call?
God is not a micro manager
God’s call? I’ve already said that for me God isn’t a micro manager; God isn’t likely to say “Jan, sell your condo and go to live in the slums and start a shelter for the homeless” or something to that effect. I have free will and a mind. God says: “Jan, I have shown you what my kingdom looks like; I have given you time, talents, treasures. You have a mind and soul. You have hopes, dreams and desires. So choose where you want to use these gifts to help being in my Kingdom here on earth. You can’t do it all.” And God issues the same invitation to all of you.
Nowhere does Jesus present us with a path to after-death bliss. Jesus’ teachings are about the Kingdom of God here on earth, through people learning to take care of people. He gives us a vision of things on earth transformed to be “as in heaven”, a vision of a challenging way to heal the brokenness of this world. Each of us must ask ourselves: How do I fit into God’s dream of the Heavenly Kingdom here on earth? Chances are, if you focus on your relationship with God, there will be plenty of room for your dreams and desires in God’s world.
Which brings me to the reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He wrote; “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”. Freedom! Freedom is an idea that originates in the very heart of God. In the beginning, when God created humankind, God could have made us puppet-like, so that whenever God wanted us to do something, God would just pull a string and we would do it. What kind of relationship would that be? God created us, all of us, with the capacity and the responsibility to act as free moral agents.
The desire for freedom is not simply a function of the human spirit. Its source is nothing less than the free will of the Living God. We are free, not slaves. And that freedom, as I have suggested above, brings with it the responsibility not just to say Yes, God (or if we prefer, like the Samaritans, No, God) but to use our freedom to be co-creators with God in the Kingdom. Co-creators, not cogs in some machine or on an assembly line.
Fruit of the Spirit
This passage from Galatians is one of my favorite writings of Paul. The verse about the fruit of the spirit describes for me the life of a Christian: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. As our lives are transformed by the Spirit, we grow into this way of living. It’s not something we can force, or do for ourselves. Only God’s grace can transform us this way.
For freedom Christ has set us free
For freedom Christ has set us free. The freedom to be a thinking disciple, not a robotic slave, is sustained by the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience…these are the marks of individuals and communities who live in the freedom that only God can offer. Like any fruit, this fruit develops slowly in the right conditions, and only by the hand of God.
Paul points out that a lifestyle lived on the basis of God’s love declared in Christ will produce behaviours which flow from that relationship. We need to focus on our relationship with God. The more we do, the more our lives will reflect the goodness and generosity we celebrate. I have seen some of these aspect of the fruit (and it is one fruit not many fruits) develop in myself as I’ve got older, and many much more so in other people.
Because I saw it in my husband, I chose this passage from Galatians for his funeral. I see it in some of my children, though sadly not all, and friends. In you, my church family, too. The fruit of the spirit will continue to grow in us and transform us. Love generates love. We will not be loving because we know we ought to be loving, but because our being is undergoing change. This transformation which we call growing in faith continues all our lives. As we walk with Jesus this Pentecost Season in our lectionary readings, I pray that we will all grow in the way of the spirit and find our true identity as disciples.