Always and in everything put God first

Sunday Homily – 13th Sunday C

1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21;
Galatians 5:1, 13-18;
Luke 9:51-62

I was once talking with a tradesman who was tiling a bathroom in the house where I was living at the time. He works for both Christians and Muslims. He claimed that they have this in common: ‘Some are fully dedicated,’ he said, ‘some are half-dedicated, some a bit dedicated, and others, not at all dedicated.’ His words remind me of the message of Jesus in our gospel today.

Luke, our storyteller, speaks of Jesus beginning his final journey, his journey to the city of Jerusalem where he will suffer and die, and his journey beyond Jerusalem when he is destined ‘to be taken up’ to heaven. Luke tells us that ‘Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem’. Luke is emphasizing the single-minded determination of Jesus, and his total dedication to God’s plan for his life. Even though reaching Jerusalem will bring him rejection, betrayal and death, Jesus keeps his focus on full fidelity to his mission, cost what it may.

As Jesus walks along the road with his first disciples, the question comes up concerning how much dedication Jesus expects his followers to have.  Is there to be one standard, the highest standard, for Jesus personally, and a lesser standard, an easier standard, for people like you and me? Jesus answers that there is one standard only, both for him and for us. That standard is total dedication to God and total dedication to the people to whom God sends us. 

His great expectations are there in his three messages to would-be followers. One person says in a burst of enthusiasm: ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus answers with the plain facts: ‘Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests. But my friends and I have no home.’ In other words, you cannot follow me and still live a completely comfortable and hassle-free life.

Jesus says to another person: ‘Follow me.’ The man hesitates: ‘I have to go back for my father’s funeral. Let me do that first.’ This was required by Jewish law and is surely a reasonable request. But Jesus insists: ‘There’s something more important than a funeral – even your father’s funeral. That’s to keep going around and telling the good news of God’s love and God’s ways.’

A third person says: ‘I’ll come and join your company of friends, sir, but let me first say goodbye to my family.’ That too is a reasonable request. But you cannot plough a straight line in the ground unless you keep your focus on what you are doing. So, Jesus says to him: ‘Nobody who starts ploughing and then keeps looking back at the field behind is living in God’s way.’

The seeming exaggeration and unreasonableness of Jesus in these situations emphasizes this one point. The greatest love of our life has to be God and what God wants of us. Ask any religious sister, brother or priest just how many times they have been asked to live somewhere else to do something new and challenging there. I can say from experience just how happy, peaceful and contented we have been when we burnt our bridges behind us and did what we were asked to do, instead of resisting, digging in, and keep doing our own thing.

Of course, there are other loves in our lives besides God, legitimate loves – our homes, e.g., our families, our friends, our work, our hobbies, our sport and our leisure. But in the words that Jesus is using to make his point, he insists that God alone, God’s will alone, and God’s plans alone, must have first place in our lives. Everything and everyone else must be secondary and subordinate.

Where does this teaching of Jesus leave us? It challenges us to renew our commitment to God and to the people God has given us as our responsibility, and to do so during the Eucharist. We know from experience, perhaps from bitter experience, just how easy it is to make promises and undertake commitments, but how difficult it is to go on living and working without any turning back from, or any taking back, what we have promised.

I remember the words of the writer Michael Quoist about this: ‘Only God is faithful, he says, ‘our fidelity lies in the struggle to be faithful amid all our infidelities.’ The teaching and example of Jesus also encourage us not to rely on our power and strength to live up to our commitments but to put all our trust in the power and goodness and fidelity of God. While it’s true that Jesus the man ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’, he did so only because he was relying on the power and support of God, the power and support which were given him in his daily prayer to God.

All of us have taken on big responsibilities to God and others, whether we are married or single persons, whether we have children or not, and whether we are priests or religious. What sort of a line have we been ploughing? Has it been straight, or has it been wavy or even gone round and round in a circle?

Being baptised followers of Jesus, we are committed people, and so we cannot walk away or run away from our responsibilities, and simply become another ‘drop out’ or ‘drop kick’. For, as the saying goes, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ So let me recommend that in our Holy Communion, our close sharing with Jesus about all that concerns him and all that concerns us, we remember that it was through constant conversation with God that Jesus ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’. Words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta remind us too: ‘God doesn’t ask us to be successful, only to be faithful.’ Isn’t that also what St Paul is urging us in our Second Reading, when he says: ‘Serve one another in works of love’?

Brian Gleeson is a Passionist priest, and a member of the Passionist community in Endeavour Hills, Melbourne.