It is no news that we are already in Summer. One of the things that happen during the summer is that people travel a lot. Recently, I came across a list of some of the things people hate to hear when they travel. Here are some of them:
“Really! I thought you were listening when he was giving us directions.”
“Folks, in my thirty-five years of being a Pilot, I have never seen anything like this.”
“Sir, we believe we found part of your luggage.”
“We are sorry, there is a power outage, here are some candles and matches for the night.”
“No, the man you gave your bags to does not work here.”
“Hey, Joe, you will never guess where these folks think they are.”
The last one is, “I am sorry, Ma’am, but I think you have just missed your flight.”
Today’s Gospel passage gives us the beginning of a very significant section in the Gospel according to Luke. This part is called the Journey Narrative/ The Journey to Jerusalem; it begins at Luke 9:51 and continues until Luke 19:27. For about fifteen times, Luke reminds us, just as he is doing here for the first time that Jesus was “Firmly resolved to proceed toward Jerusalem.” Luke 9: 51 introduces the journey and defines it in terms of its destination, namely Jerusalem. In Luke, Jerusalem is more than a geographical location. Jerusalem is where Jesus would be “Received up.” This expression refers to the ascension. Hence, the journey that Jesus is making here is ultimately a journey to God. That is why Luke repeatedly refers to the journey to Jerusalem, but he never indicates that Jesus actually arrived. At the point where he would have said so, he simply said that Jesus entered the Temple (Luke 19:45) and the journey appears to be incomplete. The point here is that there is actually no arrival here on earth; our true arrival is in God in the world to come.
This passage is about Jesus’ journey; it is also about the journey of the Church; it is also about our journeys as individual Christians. Jesus, who is our guide, gives one of the secrets to success in the journey as follows; “Let the dead bury their dead.” These words come across as very harsh and inhumane. One can hardly imagine a more selfless act than burying the dead for it is one act of kindness that cannot be reciprocated. “To bury the dead” is one of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy. Why does Jesus seem to discourage his would-be followers from burying the dead? The conversation in this gospel passage did not take place while the would-be disciple’s father’s corpse was in the mortuary. His father was still alive. Jesus was challenging him because he wanted to delay discipleship until his father dies, and until he buries his father. “Let the dead bury their dead” is better explained by what Jesus said later, “No one who sets a hand on the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” As Christians, our journey is characterized by “Forward ever, backward never!” We look ahead to eternal life; we do not bury our heads in the past in regret, and we are not obsessed with the great things of the past. Our focus is eternal life with God.
What transpired between Elijah and Elisha in the first reading should not be misunderstood as something intended to contradict the gospel. In the first reading, Elisha is permitted to return to bid his folks farewell, but in the Gospel passage, Jesus turns down a similar request from a would-be disciple. We must not forget that the main message here is that nothing must stand in the way of discipleship no matter how noble it may seem. Jesus is not discouraging us from relating with our families. On a different occasion, Jesus would not accept as a follower anyone who refuses to honor his/her parents and care for them (cf. Matthew 15: 4-6); however, there are rare moments when even parents may obstruct what is clearly God’s will for us. In the first reading, Elisha wanted to cut all past ties, attachments, and relationships that may stand in the way of doing God’s will. He went to the extent of slaughtering his oxen and giving to his people to eat. He was ready to let go to let God. In the case of the man in the Gospel passage, discipleship was given a secondary place after his other concerns.
There will always be legitimate excuses for procrastinating, rationalizing, and even disqualifying ourselves from following Christ. One can say, “I will follow Christ- when I graduate – when I get a job – when I retire – when my children leave for college – after next Summer.” A few chapters ahead, Jesus will be even more forceful when he says, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother … he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14: 26). Some of the things we do may not be sinful in themselves. However, they can become sinful if they become more important to us than following Christ. As St. Ambrose already pointed out, discipleship demands that we postpone human things in favor of the divine. Therefore, discipleship calls for full surrender to the providence of God the Father who in turn provides for every human need, and Scripture sums it up like this, “Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well.” (Matthew 6: 33). As you travel around during this summer, when you arrive at your destination, remember that your place of arrival soon becomes your place of departure; the ultimate arrival is in God in the world to come. Are we prepared for that ultimate arrival?