I’m very struck in today’s first reading of the image of Elisha ploughing behind “twelve yoke of oxen.” That’s a lot of meat on the hoof! Every time I see the number 12 in scripture, I immediately think it must have something to do with the Twelve Tribes of Israel, but in this case, I’m just thinking that Elisha was no slouch. To be ploughing with twelve yoke of oxen is to be working hard and efficiently, at least as efficiently as any modern tractor. It seems to me that Elisha was a good son. He was working on his father’s farm and his work ethic seems to be strong.
But then, after Elijah names Elisha to succeed him as prophet in Israel, Elisha slaughters the oxen and holds a huge barbeque for the extended family. But this is no ordinary barbeque. In real terms, it seems, Elisha is making a very strong statement… He has put an end to his livelihood. He is making a very strong statement that he is following his new path. There’s no going back to a former way of life. He prepares himself to take the definitive steps to move from one path to another. He leaves his home and his family and he begins to follow Elijah, so placing his life in service of God and of God’s people.
If I contrast the definitiveness of Elisha with those others we find in the gospel, it can seem on the surface that Elisha is to be admired. However, we might be tempted to judge the would-be disciples of Jesus poorly. Why can’t they just leave everything and follow Jesus? But if we consider these characters a little more, we might be more understanding of them than we might care to admit. I mean, who wouldn’t fault their child for taking off and leaving everything that offers stability in life? Who can blame someone for wanting the security of a roof over their heads and a meal on the table? Instead, Jesus offers total insecurity… no roof, no food, no guarantee of anything, in fact. Who among us would encourage our children to such a way of life? Whom among us, given the choice, would be willing to live with that kind of insecurity in our lives?
Or who would ever fault someone for taking care of the burial of a parent? Who would fault someone for remaining true to their family commitments and to the well-being of the family? Isn’t that to be commended in someone when we see it?
Luke, the evangelist, seems to make this sound like an all-or-nothing proposition. Either you bury your father or you follow Jesus? Either you care for your family, or you follow Jesus? I think this is a very narrow reading of the text. Instead of seeing a poverty in the response of people to the call of discipleship, I see, instead, a generosity of spirit that is admirable. Even though the young man is grieving and taking care of his father’s funeral arrangements, he still is willing to give himself in service. He’s still moved to become a disciple of Jesus. The same can be said of the other people in the gospel. The one with other family responsibilities looks to make time to be a faithful follower of Jesus.
There are times in life when we are called to go all in… all or nothing propositions sometimes confront us. And when we discern the path into which God calls us, the rewards are inestimable. But there are always opportunities for service and for growing in our relationship with Jesus even when we are living lives with multiple commitments and responsibilities. I think of the father who is also a teacher, who is also volunteering with the local homeless shelter. I think of the grandmother who is providing childcare for her grandchildren, who is also active in her senior groups and who spends three hours every week in meditation and prayer before the blessed sacrament. Making a commitment in discipleship isn’t always a zero-sum experience. Learning to respond to the call to discipleship in a busy life is challenging, but nonetheless incredibly rewarding.
As we anticipate the Independence Day Holiday, please allow me to wish you all a very happy, fun and safe Fourth of July! Enjoy time with family and friends.