Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21
Ps 16:1-2, 5, 6-8, 9-10, 11
Gal 5:1, 13-18
There is an odd juxtaposition of ideas in this Sunday’s readings. In Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, we hear “For freedom Christ set us free,” but then this Sunday’s gospel focuses on the difficulties and demands of discipleship. Jesus warns those who would follow him that a life of discipleship entails a sort of homelessness: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Jesus challenges those who would put off answering the call to discipleship to follow him immediately and not to look back. Christ has made us free, but at the same time we are being called to choose what often will be a demanding way of life. Clearly, “freedom” means something different here than what most 21st century Americans think that word means.
The primary notion of freedom that Paul has in mind here is a freedom from the slavery of the law. A central theme that can be gleaned Paul’s writings is the idea that the law condemns us. We consistently find ourselves falling short of its demands. It’s impossible to be perfect in God’s eyes via obedience to the law. Jesus saves us from having to become righteous in God’s eyes by our adherence to God’s law. Instead, we have already been made righteous by God’s grace through the life and death of Jesus Christ. But as Paul explains, freedom from slavery to the law does not mean that we can live however we want. “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.” God has acted lovingly to set us free. Our response should likewise be one of love – for God and each other. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves not out of fear or out of a desire to be saved by our good acts or out of slavish obedience to the law; we are called to love freely.
For Paul, to be free is to be able to choose to do what is right and what God is calling us to do. If we loved out of necessity we are not free. If we cannot bring ourselves to love because our lives are so disordered by sin, then we are not free. When Paul says that we are called for freedom, he is suggesting that we should strive to become people who desire to serve God and who concretely choose to do so in our daily lives. The contrast between “Spirit” and flesh here is not some kind of body-hating dualism but rather depicts the battle we sometimes might feel between what we want to do (we are the “flesh”) and what God is calling us to do or to become (God is “Spirit”).
For many of us, our daily experience of life often is marked by a sense of a lack of freedom. Our previous obligations limit our ability to do what we wish we could do or to respond to what God is calling us to do. Our past, our bad habits, our sense of what is (not) possible all can make us much like those in the Gospel who say “not yet” – let me first set my family’s affairs in order, let me have a bit more time to bring closure to this project or to that phase of my life. Christ calls us to radical freedom. Let us be grateful for the freedom from sin brought to us by God’s grace, and let us strive to find new ways to make ourselves free to hear and answer God’s call.