There is an unmistakable connection between this week’s Old Testament lesson and the Gospel passage. Both are about call and discipleship. In the first, Elisha is called to follow Elijah and become his successor. In the second, an unnamed ‘someone’ professes a desire to follow Jesus. Between the two, however, there is this striking difference. Whereas Elijah is happy to let Elisha first bid farewell to his parents, Jesus seems to condemn the same desire in those who want to follow him, as something that renders them ‘unfit’.
This passage in Luke (and a similar one in Matthew) is easily taken to mean that serious Christian discipleship requires us to abandon family and ordinary life. This is how those drawn to monastic life have often interpreted it. Yet if this is right, the cost of discipleship is far too high for most people. Certainly, the vast majority of those who have called themselves Christians have not made this sacrifice. Are they self-deceived?
As we think about this issue, It is helpful to recall last’s week’s Gospel. There Jesus expressly tells the demoniac who has been cured, and who wants to follow him, to return to his family. It is enough that he should give thanks for what God has done for him. Acknowledging the redemptive power of Jesus, this episode clearly implies, is wholly compatible with fulfilling the demands of domestic life.
So how do we resolve the tension between the instruction to leave family behind and the instruction to return to them? The unnamed people in today’s Gospel profess their desire to follow Jesus ‘out of the blue’ so to speak. Do they truly know what they are professing? The instruction to ‘leave the dead to bury the dead’ puts their profession to the test. What lies at the heart of this test?
The passage from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, also concerned with ‘call’ gives us a clue. “You were called to freedom”, he tells them, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence”. We easily suppose, especially at moments of high emotional or religious intensity, that what we like doing is the role we should have in God’s plan for salvation through Christ. This is self-indulgence. Accepting the discipline of the (often rather more modest) place we have actually been assigned is much harder. But that is what true discipleship means.
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