Every parent has heard the complaint from his or her children, “But that’s not fair! You let her do ____.” And every one of us can remember feeling slighted as kids when mom or dad let our brother or sister do something we weren’t allowed to do. Something similar plays out in the Old Testament lesson and the reading from the Holy Gospel this Sunday, which present two sharply contrasting stories. In the first, the prophet Elisha, after being called to follow his mentor Elijah, is allowed to go back and tell his mother and father good-bye before leaving to follow the prophet, yet in the Gospel, Christ does not allow the man he calls to follow him to bear his recently deceased father. Why is the former met with indulgence, while the other with a strong rebuke: “Let the dead bury their dead”?
The difference is that our Lord knows that the man’s intentions to bury his father are a mere pretense. Our Lord, knowing the man’s heart just as He knows ours even before we open it to Him in prayer, knows the man’s true intentions are not to perform an act of love towards his father, but merely to avoid the call to follow God. Elisha, though, is a completely different story. Not only does he not tarry in saying good-bye to his father and mother, but he slaughters his oxen, his means of livelihood – it’s like a farmer blowing up his tractor and burning his fields, not only giving away all his possessions but even refusing the possibility of ever earning more in the future – and cooks their meat in order to give it to the poor. We have here, then, a radical example of leaving everything to follow God.
The prophet Elisha, then, is a image of Christ who is to come. He tells us in the Gospel today, “Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” This is not just a metaphor that Christ is giving us. No, the Gospels make very clear that Christ, in His earthly life, had no physical dwelling of His own during His three years of public ministry between the wedding feast at Cana and His Passion. During that time, Christ and His disciples slept under the stars in the Galilean countryside, and borrowed lodgings where they could find them. And this is why even today, men and women choose to renounce all worldly possessions in order to follow Christ more perfectly in the religious life (that is, as religious brothers and sisters or monks and nuns).
Why, though, did Christ live this way, and why has the Church always considered the perfection of the Christian life to consist in following His example literally? The answer is given by St. Paul in the epistle, “For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.” What St. Paul is talking about is essentially the problem of self-gratification, of life lived without sacrifice. When we are accustomed to seeking our own desires at all times, to seeking that instant gratification that is glorified by our consumerist, advertising-driven culture, when we do not regularly make sacrifices – both big sacrifices on a systematic and planned basis, and small sacrifices on a daily and spontaneous basis – then we give in too easily to the temptations wrought by the Devil in the pleasures of the world.
So what, then, is this remedy to attachment to material goods that leads us to sin? As I said, for some people it is an easy remedy, that of giving up all material possessions for the sake of living out Heaven, where no one will possess anything, here on earth. That of course, is not easy in the sense of being easy to bring oneself to do, but rather in the sense of being a sure path to holiness, and therefore to salvation. For most of us, though, this is not an option, because unlike those who have taken vows of poverty, we must live in the world and possess material things. The key, then, for us, the “seculars” of the world in traditional Catholic language, is to hold material goods in order to use them, but not as ends in themselves. For this, those who work in the world should constantly ask themselves, “Do I work to support my needs and those of my family, or am I working for material goods themselves? What motivates me in my work? Is it the love of my family whom I work to support, or is it the possibility of greater acknowledgment, material prosperity, and social position?”
I’m afraid I’ve committed one of the capital sins of preaching by making my first homily at this parish sound like it’s about money, and I know how much everyone dislikes to hear about money from the pulpit. So I want to be clear: This isn’t about money, it’s about your salvation, and that is the one and only reason I am here as the new parochial vicar at your parish: to seek your salvation – to help make sure you get into heaven. There is nothing more important in this life than to secure our place in the next. For that reason, I may sometimes have some things to say that seem harsh or challenging, and I will admit to a whole host of human imperfections that will frequently get in my way, but I can promise you a single-minded devotion to the task given to me by God through our bishop – to seek your salvation. For this reason, I want to be particularly available to you in the sacrament of Penance, by which we ensure that we remain in God’s grace and are able, by receiving His forgiveness, to enter Heaven.
Christ’s final words today in the Gospel seem harsh, “Let the dead bury their dead.” Here, though, He is speaking figuratively, and is referring to the spiritually dead. All of us have left something to follow Christ, something that is now dead: Our former sins for which we’ve received absolution, maybe even a radically different former way of life, vices we’ve overcome, sacrifices you’ve made in order to raise a Christian family. Very frequently we are tempted to look back, to think about what might have been, to contemplate a return to a former way of life or a vice or sin that gave us pleasure, even if we know it ultimately left us empty. But we must have faith in Christ who has set us free from all these evils. St. Paul tells us, “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters.” This is the freedom from sin, the freedom to follow Christ without hesitation and reserve and without looking back, because no one who sets his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
13th Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVI
St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Fort Wayne