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Thirteenth Sunday of the Year

Personal commitment, when concerned with faith and family, is the irrevocable investment of self in another. As such it is both feared and avoided in a self-indulgent society. Statistically, we are increasingly reluctant to make the commitments implied by marriage and family life. We tend to speak in terms of lifestyle choices so as to avoid the challenge implied by lifelong commitment. Faith, properly understood, is never superficial. It is our unconditional commitment to the person of Christ.

St Paul examines the conflict between faith and personal freedom. Our imagined freedom is frequently compromised. Sin undermines the freedom to choose Christ. We long to be with Christ, and yet, within sinful humanity, there are selfish undercurrents that stifle our freedom to choose. We become the slaves of our own selfishness. Paul describes redemption as a grace of liberty, the freedom to choose Christ above our selfish inclinations. He calls us to the vigilance that refuses to surrender its freedom to casual self-indulgence. “My brothers, you were called to liberty; but be careful, or this liberty will provide an opening for self-indulgence.”

The commitment that Christ demanded of his disciples was costly on both sides. It led to the Cross, the death of self that affords the freedom to choose the other. Such commitment, precisely because it is the surrender of self to the person of Christ, can never stipulate its own terms.

The call of Elisha to succeed Elijah emphasised the costly nature of discipleship. Elisha, while willing to take up the mantle of Elijah, sought to impose a seemingly innocent condition on his acceptance.

“Let me kiss my father and mother, then I will follow you.” The point of the story was not so much the worthiness of Elisha’s filial piety as the absolute nature of God’s call. We are meant to understand that any compromise with our selfishness ultimately undermines our freedom to choose God. Confronted with a further challenge from the prophet Elijah, Elisha burnt the plough and oxen that had represented his life’s work. This symbolic act emphasised that only when we sacrifice our selfishness are we are truly free to choose God.

The words of Jesus in the Gospel emphasise the costly nature of discipleship. The passage is introduced with a reflection on the totality of Christ’s commitment. “Jesus resolutely took the road to Jerusalem.” There would be no drawing back from the will of the Father, no compromise with the fulfilment of that will in the events that were about to unfold. It is against Christ’s selfless gift of himself that we are to understand the subsequent words of Jesus. To the possibly superficial protestation that “I will follow you wherever you go” Jesus emphasised the radical nature of his own commitment: “Foxes have their holes… but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Sinful human nature never loses its desire to follow the Lord, but only on its own conditions. The further requests to Jesus, to follow only after burying the dead and bidding farewell to family, are a stark illustration of this point. The riposte of Jesus, to leave the dead to bury the dead, is not a rejection of family loyalties. It is, however, a challenge to honestly examine the priorities that govern faith’s costly choices. Christ’s has won for us the freedom to choose life. It is in his strength that we are enabled to make the difficult choices.