Long journeys are not always easy, and in today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus embarking on what is the most difficult journey of his life.
From here in Luke chapter 9 until Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday—ten chapters later—Jesus and his disciples will be on the road. And the journey ends in the place where Jesus will be crucified. The ultimate destination for his journey is the cross.
This week’s readings remind us that we all face great challenges in the journey of life. And sometimes we can feel worried, discouraged, or very alone in the midst of those difficulties. The readings invite us to ask if we’ve ever felt like Elijah in today’s first reading, who thought he was alone in his faith convictions, or like Jesus himself, who traveled to Jerusalem knowing the hostility, rejection, and suffering he would soon face.
We all know that life can be hard. The Christian life is not about escaping this. It’s about facing the difficulties of life head-on, about knowing that suffering does not have the final say because Jesus has conquered suffering and death on the cross. If we have the courage to follow him and face life’s challenges knowing that Jesus has gone before us, those sufferings can take on new meaning! That’s what the Christian life is all about, and that’s what our readings this week illuminate.
Unpack the First Reading
In this scene we see a small portion of a larger revelation that the great prophet Elijah receives on Mount Horeb (also called Sinai), the place where the twelve tribes of Israel had entered into covenant with God under Moses, and then his calling of the prophet Elisha to succeed him. Elisha prophesied at a very difficult time during which Israel had fallen into apostasy under King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, rejecting the covenant with God and worshiping Baal and Asherah, the Canaanite god and his consort.
Fasting and praying on the holy mountain, Elijah complains to God, “The people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:14, RSV). God answers Elijah’s prayer by promising political help against Ahab and a spiritual heir in Elisha. When called by Elijah, Elisha at first hesitates, but then he sacrifices his twelve yoke of oxen, feeds them to his people and follows Elijah. This symbol suggests that Elisha is going to aid Elijah in drawing the twelve tribes back into covenant fidelity and that he is willing to give up everything to serve God and his people, even under threat of death. In so doing, he anticipates the words of the psalmist that we pray today: “ LORD, my allotted portion and my cup, you have made my destiny secure” (Psalm 16:2).
Unpack the Second Reading
One of the fundamental laws of Christian discipleship is that we must discipline ourselves to resist evil. Like Elijah in the first reading, we must fast and pray to combat sin. But contrary to common belief, this disciplined living is not a dispassionate stoicism, nor is it born of a moralistic rigorism; it is the fruit of a love born of the Spirit, which leads us into freedom. What St. Paul calls “the desire of the flesh,” the tendency known as “concupiscence,” which we inherit through original sin, can be like an interior King Ahab or Jezebel, drawing us toward a worship of the Baals of this world. But in Christ, the Father has given us the Spirit of sonship in the Son and so also the freedom of the sons and daughters of the true King (Romans 8:14-17).
When we enter into that freedom from the inner tyrant of “the flesh,” we can be disciplined enough in our love so as not to be tyrants toward others, no longer “devouring and biting one another.” In this way, the curse that David had suffered for his sin, which we saw two weeks ago in the first reading from the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, “The sword shall never depart from your house,” is lifted in Christ and the Spirit, and we begin to walk in love.
Unpack the Gospel
When we decide to walk in the Spirit with Jesus, or, as our Gospel passage puts it, when we are “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” with him, we must not hesitate but follow in faith, hope, and love. To follow the poor, obedient, and chaste Christ, we, too, must be poor, obedient, and chaste. That is why the Church has traditionally enjoined upon all Christians what are called the “evangelical counsels.” When we choose to follow Christ we must leave the “dead” (the death of sin) behind to enter into the freedom of the Spirit, and that freedom is signified and fed by the counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Those who leave everything to follow Jesus in a radical expression of Christian discipleship—such as monks, nuns, friars, and religious sisters—take vows to observe the evangelical counsels in their purity to “go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” But all of us are called to observe the counsels in accord with our particular vocation. St. Francis de Sales says in his Treatise on Divine Love that the queen of the virtues, Charity, determines in each case how we should observe them. There is consecrated priestly celibacy, for example, or the absolute poverty of the monk, but husbands and wives are called to live marital chastity and to live simply and modestly to help them love better and place their hope in God alone. If the disciple is to follow Christ toward the new Jerusalem in faith, hope, and charity, he or she needs to exercise the freedom of the counsels to strengthen their faith by obedient living, hope through poverty of spirit, and charity through the school of chastity.
Reflect & Discuss
First, watch the short Opening the Word video on FORMED.org. Then reflect and discuss the questions below.
Some Bible translations say that Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. According to the presenter, Scott Powell, what does this expression mean?
What are some of the excuses that Jesus’ would-be followers give for their unpreparedness to follow him?
Does Jesus seem overly harsh to you in his answers? Why or why not?
In the video reflection, Scott Powell noted how in the first reading, we hear the story of Elijah and Elisha. In his time, Elijah felt alone in his faith, living in the midst of a pagan culture that didn’t acknowledge God. Elijah felt abandoned. What is God’s response to Elijah’s feelings of abandonment?