1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62
St. Thomas More once said, perhaps in paraphrase of St. Augustine, that Scripture is shallow enough for a mouse to wade and deep enough for an elephant to drown. Today’s first reading is a perfect case in point, for it tells us of the call of the prophet Elisha in a story that anyone can understand yet at the same time touches depths of discipleship.
First, there is an element of the unexpected to the call. In the ordinariness of a working day Elisha suddenly finds himself in the midst of the extraordinary. One moment he is plowing a field, the next he is being cloaked in the mantle of Elijah. To this day God touches people in the ordinary moments of life. He may speak through Scripture, a homily, a prayer, a song; the Spirit may inspire someone to approach you and directly ask you to consider a certain ministry or calling. All of these are examples of God reaching out to us in ways or at times that may surprise us.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Elisha wasn’t; raised in the faith, he knew that God calls who He wills when He wills and for His own purposes. Elisha didn’t know how he was a part of the divine plan but he was open to being whatever was necessary. That is a lesson for us and is underscored by St. Paul when he urges us to be guided by the Spirit (Galatians 5:18). We don’t know God’s ultimate plan but we do know His infinite love and mercy. In that love He asks not for our understanding, only that we be open to doing His will. This takes the faithfulness and trust of a saint. We aren’t born saints but we become them by using the grace of God to conform our will to His as an act of faith, purely out of love for Him and our neighbor.
This isn’t easy; life-changing transformations rarely are. Things tend to get in the way and Elisha had two: Wealth and power. Few people of his time had enough money to own land and twelve oxen, yet Elisha did. Because he was landed and had money he would also have been a man of some power and influence. Following Elijah meant giving all that up. Yet that is exactly what he did; he slaughtered his oxen, burned his farm equipment to roast them for the people, and left to become Elijah’s attendant. Money and influence can be hard to let go of but if they keep us from doing God’s will then they’re no more than chains. Breaking their hold is what St. Paul meant when he said that we are called for freedom (Galatians 5:13).
This is the freedom that changes not only our own life but the lives of others as well. Consider how Elisha’s freedom to follow Elijah affected the lives of others. What would have become of all the people Elisha touched in his ministry had he refused the call and simply kept on plowing? In our own time, think about how the choices we make affect the lives of others. Where would the moral development of our children be if we chose to ignore what God has taught us? What would our relationships look like if we ignored St. Paul’s exhortation to serve one another through love (Galatians 5:13)? God’s call changes all of us no matter how we choose. If we accept it we grow closer to Him and bring others closer to Him as well; if we refuse or ignore it we distance ourselves and may well keep others from Him. The choice is ours.
Finally, the commitment to follow our Lord is all-encompassing; a total gift of heart, mind, and soul. Elisha didn’t agree to a term of service or to give God part of his time; he gave himself totally and unreservedly. In the gospel Jesus added an urgency to that; when a man told Jesus that he would follow after burying his father – a very pious deed – we heard Jesus reply, Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God (Luke 9:60). Although we believe that he is referring to those who are spiritually dead – that is, dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1,5) – Jesus nevertheless reminds us that the call is from God and God’s will takes precedence over everything.
Such total commitment demands not only great faith but also great love. We might look at our faith life and think “I love God but do I really have to do all that? OK, so I’m not always faithful; what’s the big deal?” If so, I invite you to try something. Imagine you’re at a wedding. When the groom is asked, Do you promise to be faithful to her in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love her and to honor her all the days of your life? he replies, “I love her but do I really have to do all that? So I’m not always faithful; what’s the big deal?” I think most of us would agree that his answer is a non-starter. Marriage, Holy Orders: These sacraments aren’t service contracts, they’re covenants; total gifts of self and nothing less.
This is not to say that total faithfulness will guarantee success. We are human, we fall. Even our best efforts may still get rejected. But like the town in Samaria that rejected Jesus, the proper response isn’t to call down fire from heaven but to keep moving, keep serving, keep in mind that Christ loved and forgave his persecutors even from the cross.
This is the depth of discipleship: to have nowhere but Christ to lay our head, to call down on cold hearts only the fire of the Holy Spirit, to bury in ourselves any spiritual indifference, and to never look behind at what might have been, for Christ has called us to keep going, keep trying to bring ourselves and anyone who is willing, closer and closer to Him.