“When Christ set us free, he meant us to remain free.” Galatians 5, 1, 13-18
“No one who sets a hand to the plough and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9, 51-62
This Sunday, some local churches put the focus on Saints Peter & Paul. In other parts of the world, the focus is on the readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time. I will try to link the two as there is some similarity between the themes of both sets of readings.
While both Peter and Paul made their way separately to Rome, they both ended up being martyred because of their allegiance to Jesus and his Gospel. While earlier in their lives they had their differences of opinion and lived differently their response to Jesus’ invitation to follow him, their integrity and their commitment to Jesus were the qualities that unified them as true disciples of Christ. While Peter and Paul were probably working together in the same place for not much more than a few weeks (at the Council of Jerusalem and later, for a very short time, in Antioch) they both travelled to Rome, the centre of the ancient world, but a city that was very hostile towards Christians.
In the gospel reading for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke tells how Jesus “resolutely turned his face towards Jerusalem”, a city that long had a reputation for murdering prophets. Moreover, he chose a route through the hostile territory of Samaria where he was rejected so strongly by the people in one village that James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven as pay-back. With no desire to settle scores, Jesus let James and John know that he was not interested in violence.
The readings of both the 13th Sunday and “Peter & Paul” confront us with the price of commitment. Despite personal risk to his life, Jesus, true to his vocation, set out resolutely for Jerusalem. Similarly, both Peter and Paul, aware of the dangers for Christians in Rome, still made their way there in order to encourage a community of disciples who had long endured persecution. For them, following in the footsteps of Jesus came at considerable personal cost.
In the 13th Sunday’s first reading from Kings (1 Kings 19, 16, 19-21) we discover that Elijah was the only prophet to have escaped the wrath of the Israelites, who had murdered all the other prophets. Yet God still gave Elijah a threefold mission - to anoint Hazael king of Aram, Nimshi, king of Israel (a very risky task), and to search out Elisha and anoint him as his own successor.
And just in case we may have missed the message about commitment, we have it spelled out for us in the account of Jesus’ journey through Samaria. To begin with, he was rejected in the first village he and his disciples entered because they were headed for Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish faith. Religious prejudice flourished even in the time of Jesus. Commitment to being God’s messenger can end in rejection. God’s message isn’t particularly popular among those whom it challenges and discomfits. So, Jesus was treated with hostility by those who had no room for religious tolerance.
Luke then highlights the cost of commitment with three brief examples of people who are attracted by Jesus and his message, but come up with excuses for their inability to commit themselves fully. And isn’t it the same with most of us? So often we make an initial commitment and, in time, our enthusiasm wanes.
Reflection on the life journeys of Peter and on the readings of the 13th Sunday raises for us the issues of vocation, commitment and freedom. Blessed with freedom, we have a responsibility to use that freedom to choose our vocation in life. Our faith tells us that God’s Spirit is at work in the world and in the depths of our own heart. But it is up to us to choose, and to commit ourselves to the choices we make, to the people to whom we make commitments, and to preserve our own integrity. Experience tells us just how difficult that can be, and we know that we sometimes slip up.
While Elisha did not literally give his life for Elijah, he did let go of personal comfort and the life he knew, in order to invest himself as a prophet of, and a participant in, the unfolding story of God’s love for Israel. He walked away from the farming life he knew and set himself on the uncertain path of being a prophet. He put purpose and commitment ahead of personal satisfaction. That’s not the choice for everyone. Yet, whatever we choose as the way to live our lives will come at a cost. That cost involves expressing the love in our heart, and living our lives with purpose commitment and integrity. And the love we express has to grow to embrace much - as much as ourselves, our family & friends, strangers we encounter, and the world itself.
To love others is to want what is best for them, to walk beside them, assisting them, when needed, to grow into their best selves. It seems to me that the best kind of love we can offer anyone is the kind that demonstrates love for him/her by being the person we know in our heart we are meant to be.
There is one last piece in the reading from Galatians (2nd reading, 13th Sunday) worthy of note. It relates to our freedom and how we use it. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free.” (Galatians 5, 1) Moreover, he added that we ought be careful not to let ourselves become slaves to anyone or anything. Jesus demonstrated his freedom by not allowing rejection to upset him. He was able to respect the freedom of the Samaritans, and not let them draw him into being controlled by anger or vindictiveness.
Paul proceeded to add that for us to slip into self-indulgence is to go the way of surrendering our freedom for the satisfaction of getting even with those who insult or reject us, or allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desires for personal gratification. The challenge for me, then is to be free enough, and sufficiently integrated to serve others in love, irrespective of what they say or do to me. Now, that’s a real challenge!