The Gospel for June 26th, 2016: “Departure for Jerusalem; Samaritan Inhospitality” and “The Would-be Followers of Jesus”
Gospel Reflection: The Grace of Worldly Detachment
Just when I think I am making progress in my spiritual journey, I find myself stopped by something in the gospel that makes me question if I am making any progress toward holiness at all. In today’s reading, Jesus’s response to the two would-be followers provides one of those moments. In answer to their seemingly reasonable requests for settling their final affairs before following Him—one to bury his father and the other to say good-bye to his family at home—Jesus says, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what is left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (59-62).This is a surprising and gloomy reply at this moment. What can He mean? Since this gospel is paired with the episode in 1 Kings 19 where Elisha makes a similar request to visit his parents before going with the prophet Elijah to become his successor, the reference to setting a “hand to the plow” likely refers to Elisha’s action of burning his own plow to boil his slaughtered oxen and thereby cutting ties to his life as a farmer. In so doing, he does not look to “what is left behind,” as Jesus says, but dutifully joins Elijah for his new life as a prophet.
With this in mind, Jesus’s words, although not a denial of their requests to visit family one last time, definitely carry a stern warning. If they are not prepared to leave their former life in following Him, they are not “fit for the kingdom of God” (62). As I process what this means to me in this day and age, I cannot help but feel a sense of intimidation and inadequacy. It is the same feeling I have when I think about Abraham leading his son Isaac to be sacrificed at God’s command. Perhaps, a better word to describe this feeling is awe. Both seem to require a complete surrender to God’s will that I may not be prepared to make right now. Am I not fit for the kingdom of God because I lack the resolute faith of Elisha or Abraham? Truthfully, at this moment in my life, the answer is yes, which is discouraging.
However, all is not lost. There is no cause for giving up. While it is unequivocally true that Jesus wants us to give our whole life to Him, which will require giving up those attachments to the world that distract us from our mission to serve the Lord, it is also true and easy to forget that we do not have make this break from the world without Jesus, through Whom all things are possible. As sinners, we cannot be “fit” for His kingdom without His grace. So while it is sobering to recognize we must let go of those unhealthy attachments in our lives to be His followers, it is also fortifying to remember He expects we will do this through Him and that He wants nothing more for us than our salvation. That is a power and love of which to stand in awe. Indeed, it is awesome, if I may use today’s vernacular without sounding trite.
I wish to make one additional point that gives me hope as I reflect on this challenge of turning our backs on the world and following Jesus. Such tests of faith will probably look very different for me than the would-be followers in the gospel or Elisha or Abraham or the person next to me in the pew. We all have different attachments to the world. I am reminded of Mrs. Dubose in Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. She is the cantankerous, elderly widow who lives down the street from the Finch family, around whom the story centers. Twelve year-old Jem Finch in a retaliatory fit of anger destroys Mrs. Dubose’s prized flower beds after she openly criticizes his lawyer father, Atticus, for defending a Negro accused of rape in the Jim Crow South. As punishment, Jem must read to Mrs. Dubose for extended periods of time each day, not realizing he is helping her through the withdrawals she is experiencing as she attempts to end her addiction to morphine before her time on Earth ends. Atticus, who represents Mrs. Dubose’s estate, is aware of her plans and tells Jem after she dies he would have insisted he help her with this even if he hadn’t been guilty of vandalism so he could learn the meaning of true courage. Mrs. Dubose was not asked to leave her family or sacrifice her child; but she felt the call to end her attachment to morphine. It would have been very easy for a person her age to carry that attachment to the grave and rationalize that it was fine for someone her position to keep it. However, she did not. Instead she died morphine-free; and as Atticus explains, “According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew” (Harperperennial Modern Classic edition, p. 150). To me, this is the message of the would-be followers passage. We must keep being honest about those attachments in our life that damage our relationship with God and others. And then, turn to Him to help us turn our backs on them, so that we too may die free to love God unbeholden to any other “gods.” Jesus’s words of caution to not look “to what was left behind” is only making the terms of the break clear. We will be happier with Him, but we will not get there without turning to him completely as our aid.