This Sunday’s readings lay out one very simple fact about the spiritual life: You have to make a choice!
Each of our readings offer us little and big illustrations and guidance when it comes to what it means to hear, respond to, and follow God’s call to live our lives most authentically as believers and those who profess to bear the name Christ. This Sunday of choices comes to us in a threefold package: the choice of Elisha, the choice of Jesus, and the choice that confronts each of us.
In the first reading from the First Book of Kings, we hear proclaimed the story of prophetic succession. God has decided that it was time for — in this case, quite literally — Elijah to pass the mantle to a new representative of the Lord and it was to be Elisha, a farmer who happened to be out in the fields doing his ordinary work. It would be like the prophet showing up at your office in the John Hancock Building here in Boston and saying, while you’re in the middle of a meeting or working on a project, “it is time — God has called you, come and follow me!”
Elisha had very little time to make a choice. God’s call demands something of urgency. We see this in our First Reading and in today’s Gospel. This is something we don’t usually associate with God or ultimate choices. We like to believe “we have plenty of time” or “I’ll worry about that later,” but the truth is that God is here and now calling us to be who we are… do we listen? Do we take God seriously?
Elisha asks for time to say goodbye to his family and, while Elijah disappointedly allows it, it is clear that this is a sign that perhaps the would-be prophet’s resolve is less-than solid. It seems to be a sign of hesitation, but Elisha does come around and destroys his entire livelihood — burning his farming equipment, cooking his work animals, and feeding those in his past life. A metaphor for what is called of us — breaking the bonds of our previous way of living, while not harming those others in our past.
The second choice to be made comes in the terms of Jesus of Nazareth in today’s Gospel from Luke (9:51-62). The first lines of this Gospel passage make all the difference, first lines that we generally breeze through or look over because we “want to get to the ‘good stuff'” of the narrative. Yet, the choice is made succinctly and briefly: “When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”
Jesus, Luke tells us, formally makes the choice to go forward with what God is calling him to do, despite his anxiety, fear, worried state of mind, and so on. Despite his doubts: Jesus was fully human as he was divine, and there is — as we recall in the Garden the night before he died — doubt and fear. But he trusts in God.
From this point onward in Luke’s Gospel, until Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, every time we have a passage with a saying of Jesus, a miracle, and encounter, and so forth, the refrain “As he was heading to Jerusalem” in some shape or form will echoed. He has made his choice and the choice has made all the difference.
This is where we come in. Like Elijah in the first reading, Jesus’s choice to follow God’s call for him leaves him with the need to select successors, those who will continue to proclaim the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in word and deed. What happens between him and his disciples and the would-be disciples lays out for us what it means to respond to the call of God in following Christ. And it’s not always easy.
The primary question that we are confronted with, it would seem, is the same question that confronts the brother disciples — James and John — and the unnamed would-be disciples: What do we use to inform our choice?
In the first instance, James and John still seem to have it in their mind that the Messiah is all about worldly power and strength — calling down “fire from heaven” to smite those who dissed Jesus was what they thought was their proper role. Jesus rebukes them, reminds them that this is not what being his follower is about. Elsewhere, he makes it clear that it’s about being the least, the last, the servant of all, not a powerful wonder-worker or a mighty king.
In the second instance, Jesus is approached by those who do indeed hear the call of God in their lives, recognize what it means to experience God in Jesus, and want to follow him. But they have their feet in two worlds. In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians we hear about the two possible influences of how we make decisions: the desires of the Spirit and the desires of the “Flesh.” Oftentimes this latter desire is reduced to some sort of lustful, physical meaning, but it is broader than that. In this case we could consider Paul’s admonition to mean we must look to the Spirit in choosing to respond to God’s call because the worldly influences will not help us, they might even pull us away.
This is why Jesus is so stern with the would-be disciples. These two have very legitimate reasons to hesitate, to wait, to doubt. Burying one’s parent is a duty of the child and a social responsibility, no small task. Yet, we can anticipate Jesus growing weary of the slippery slope of excuses — “let the dead bury the dead” signals that this is such a radical life, such a new life, it is categorically different from that of the world and those concerns need to be put into perspective. Saying goodbye to one’s family is likewise a legitimate, but ultimately worldly concern in this matter — where is the resolve, where is the commitment, where is the choice?
The final line of the Gospel seems the harshest, but that’s because we misunderstand it. Those would-be disciples who hesitate, are primarily guided by the worldly concerns, and so on are “not fit for the kingdom of God.” We far-too-often moralize this and make it into something about who is the elite, who gets in and who doesn’t in the kingdom of God. That is not the point. It is descriptive and “fit” here in the Greek has more to do with attitude and disposition than it does with whether someone meets an external threshold. Think of the use of “fit” in terms of “if so and so is fit for this or that career” or “does so and so have the right attitude, disposition, skills for it.”
Those who, as Paul points out, are more concerned with worldly things than with the resolve to follow God, trust God, no matter what, those people simply don’t have the right attitude to be a disciple of Christ. The question we are faced with today is, in light of the choice that God places before us, do we need an attitude adjustment?