Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

June 30, 2013

1 Kgs 19:16b,19-21; Ps 16:1-2,5,7-8,9-10,11; 2 Gal 5:1,13-18; Lk 9:51-62

What is the nature of a Christian’s moral obligation to her family?  It’s a complex question to be sure, and the scriptural record offers mixed messages.  The Commandments tell us to honor father and mother.  Yet, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims, “If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26).  Some scholars offer interpretations make the biblical record on the family a bit more appealing.  In his New Testament Ethics, Frank Matera suggests that the harsh demands of discipleship that we find in Luke should be read in light of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles.  In the latter, there is an adjustment of the radical demands of Jesus as disciples meet one another’s needs in common. Matera asserts that there is a difference between the time of Jesus and the time of the Church, and he points to Martha, Mary, and Zacchaeus as examples of disciples who remained at home.  Apparently some disciples did have places to rest their heads.

Indeed, one way to deal with the tension between family and discipleship is to minimize the relevance of that tension for contemporary life.  Yet, it is an oversimplification if we conclude that Christian vocation is always lived out through care and commitment to families.  In truth, contemporary life presents countless instances in which the tension between family and discipleship is real and vexing.  Are there limits to living in solidarity with the poor and marginalized when one is raising young children?  Should one take on a new ministry far from an ailing parent?  How does a family obtain food and clothing that is both affordable and ethical?

This Sunday’s readings don’t answer any of these questions, of course.  But we are offered the opportunity to do some serious thinking.

In addition to the Gospel from Luke, the first reading also gestures toward the tension that can arise between maintaining family commitments and responding to God’s call.  The prophet Elijah approaches Elisha who is plowing in the field with his many oxen.  Elisha, receiving Elijah’s mantle, is called to be a prophet.  He responds, “Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, and I will follow you” (1 Kgs 19:20). It seems a reasonable request, but Elijah’s reply is rather enigmatic:  “Go back! Have I done anything to you?” (1 Kgs 19:20).  Interpretations vary.  One reading is that Elijah allows the farewell but reminds Elisha to return.  Others believe Elijah is castigating Elisha for the request.  The greater uncertainty is whether Elisha actually goes back to his father and mother to kiss them goodbye.  The passage is utterly silent on the matter.  The narrative simply continues by describing how Elisha slaughters his oxen, burns his farming equipment in order to cook the meat, gives the food to his neighbors, and then follows Elijah.

Is kissing one’s parents goodbye a sign of the relational sacrifice that may be demanded to follow God?  Or is this actually about our reluctance to leave our property and inheritance?  Elisha excels at giving up all his possession in order to be a disciple.  How he reconciles his roles as son and prophet remains a mystery.

At the end of this week’s Gospel passage from Luke, Jesus offers three pithy insights into the demands of discipleship.  The first two are paralleled in Matthew 8:19-22.  First, disciples must sacrifice stability of place:  “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Lk 9:58).  Second, disciples cannot delay to bury their dead.  In response to the plea to “go first and bury my father,” Jesus replies “Let the dead bury their dead” (Lk 9:59-60). The third insight is unique to Luke; disciples cannot delay to bid farewell to their family.  “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).  Here, Jesus makes reference to the story of Elisha out plowing in the field that we encountered in the first reading.  And so it seems that Elijah’s was indeed scolding Elisha – or at least, Jesus is suggesting Elisha should have been scolded for his request to kiss his parents goodbye.

What are we to make of this third insight about discipleship?  What does it mean to look “to what was left behind”? Perhaps Jesus is cautioning us against indecisiveness, regrets, and hesitance when it comes to discerning the way to God.  Our response must be unfaltering and resist distraction. Perhaps Jesus is equating the ‘looking back’ to a concern with earthly, material inheritance and implores us to keep our hearts and minds focused on our spiritual inheritance as children of God. Or perhaps Jesus is cautioning against the disordered loves that would put other relations ahead of God.  This would echo some of Jesus’s words on discipleship in Matthew:  “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37). 

All three possibilities yield relevant reminders.  Disciples must be thoroughly devoted with a love of a transcendent goodness that is beyond all other loves. 

And yet, where does that leave us with the inevitable tensions of family and discipleship identified at the beginning?  Much is still left to an uncertain discernment, but one thing is clear.

The relations of father and mother, daughter and son, are not made irrelevant by our faith.  The very fact that we speak of God as Father or as a Mother Hen shows that family relations often give the very basis for understanding the relationships of a disciple.  We seek to regard all men and women as brothers and sisters, as children of God, not because family is usurped by discipleship but because it is often disclosed through it.  There will still be real and vexing tensions but it seems the path of true discipleship will always be asking us to love family in a way that continues to expand and deepen the meaning of the very concept.