Reading 1: 1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21
Psalm: 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11
Reading 2: Galatians 5:1, 13-18
Gospel: Luke 9:51-62
Reading the story of Elisha slaughtering his twelve yoke of oxen and roasting them by burning his plowing equipment makes me twinge with both horror and awe. Would not a sane person have sold this wealth to give the proceeds to the poor, or at least given it to a less well-endowed family member? Instead, Elisha makes a ritual gesture of utterly destroying his means of making a living and then calling his neighbors to a feast to celebrate his extravagant sacrifice. The point of the story seems to be that the call of God completely upends all our conventional value systems. While the natural human focus is on the economic worth of such an expensive set of farm animals and equipment, Elisha’s gesture identifies all else as worthless in comparison to joining God in the project of building up God’s reign.
My twinge of horror at this conflagration of valuable property perhaps reveals that I am not yet completely free to live in the Spirit. In Galatians Paul writes, “For freedom Christ set us free.” As long as we are compelled by conventional ways of valuing things, we are still in some degree “slaves” of the cultures and economic systems which have trained us from birth in how to strive for prosperity and success in the world. Freedom in the Spirit is a complete shift of focus. Love of God replaces prosperity and success as the pinnacle of all our desire. It is this single-heartedness that frees us to love only what God loves. And what God loves, first of all, is the complete well-being of all God’s creatures. The whole law, says Paul, “is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
In the gospel reading, Jesus continues the theme with jarring demands that his followers must be free from even the most sacred expectations of household and family life, such as honoring one’s parents and burying the dead. He describes his own insecure life by saying, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Humanity has nowhere to lay his head.” No animal, let alone a human being, wants to be homeless; yet that is what Jesus accepts as the condition of fulfilling his mission. In doing so, he willingly places himself in solidarity with every person who is uprooted, vulnerable, or at risk. We often assume that peace, comfort, and security characterize the territory of Christian life, but the gospel confronts us with the reality that if we would follow Jesus, we are called to release our hold on any such assumptions.
These days the news reports are full of heartrending stories of immigrants who leave everything behind as they embark on long journeys full of extreme danger, violence, and total uncertainty about the eventual outcome. Upon arrival in the United States, many — including young children — are placed in Border Patrol facilities under despicable conditions. For most of these sojourners, their motivation is love of their families who are subjected to unbearable violence and poverty in their homelands. Thus while they do not make these terrifying journeys for the sake of mission, they are nonetheless exemplars of the courage that love can engender in ordinary human beings.
Do we have as much courage in abandoning all to follow the sojourner Jesus as these immigrants have in seeking a better life for their families? What “oxen” or “plows” must we burn in order to allow the love of God to be our single-hearted focus? From what values, practices, and assumptions do we need to be freed in order to truly join in God’s project of love and solidarity with our neighbors who are homeless, helpless, and humiliated? These are some of the hard questions with which our scriptures confront us today.