Today Jesus counsels someone, reminds someone, and warns someone, saying, “Whoever puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
With this passage, the Evangelist St. Luke begins a new section of Jesus’ activity: the journey towards the sacrifice of the cross. He does not go to Jerusalem alone. Of the crowd that accompanied Jesus, seventy-two walked ahead of Jesus to the places where he was to come. The conflict in the Samaritan village is nothing extraordinary; relations between the Samaritans and the Jews were strained. What is essential is how Jesus resolves the tension. He presents himself as the one who has come to seek what has gone astray. He rebukes the brothers James and John, who want to settle the matter Elijah-style: with fire from heaven. Jesus reminds them of his situation in Nazareth when he came among his own and was not accepted.
Three tiny incidents with severe and critical content speak of a new stretch of Jesus’ activity. These are instructions on how to follow Jesus. They are radical, and Jesus demands the whole man in them. Whoever wants to follow him must exclude halfheartedness and every reversal in the spirit of the words, “Whoever puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62). He whom he calls is to have courage like Jesus, who knows what awaits him in Jerusalem.
To the first of the three who are touched by the call, Jesus speaks of his position. He has been away from home for three years; he has ceased to be interested in the earthly house. He is not looking back. He confesses, “The foxes have their hiding places, and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk 9:58). There is only one thing left for him: to fulfill the mission he has received from the Father.
The second vocation candidate wants to bury his father first. Jesus answers, “Let the dead bury the dead. You go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:60). The man misunderstood. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where death awaits him. Jesus’ words say that whoever is called by him must do the will of God, even when it is a beautiful act of love like burying the dead.
The third still longs to say goodbye to his family before seeing Jesus. Here Jesus is stricter than Elijah, who answered Elisha (in the first reading): “Let me kiss your father and mother, then I will follow you.” Elijah replied, “Go and return; for you know what I have done to you” (1 Kings 19:20). For a man who has heard such a radical invitation from Jesus, there is no compromise of reconciliation between family life and service to the kingdom of God. The decision must be extreme and immediate.
To be a Christian is to follow Christ and to fulfill the conditions.
The first is patience. Fire from heaven will not help the Samaritans, Jesus teaches James and John. With the wheat and tares parable, Jesus teaches that the time will come, and the bad will be separated from the good. We have converts when sinners become friends of God.
Who would have thought that Malenkov, Stalin’s friend, and close associate in the “purges” of the 1930s, would have repented of his crimes, converted, and attended church regularly? Khrushchev expelled him from the party in 1961 and sent him into exile in Asia. His conversion was so convincing that the faithful elected him an elder. When he died in early 1988, he had a church funeral.
The second condition is an everyday life with Christ. Jesus’ life was marked by total surrender to God. He forbids the disciples to take a purse, a staff, and two sandals, but they are to go in the name of God.
The third condition is the missionary spirit. To this, all activity must be subordinated. The missionary looks more to the present and the future than the past. He must have his hands free, his heart for the service of God. He must not allow himself to be held back by neighbors or other commitments.
To follow Christ is the true essence of Christianity. It is to receive Christ not only by reason but also by deed. Only he can follow Christ, who can detach himself from all the commitments that hold him back on the way. No one must waste the hour of his calling, not even when Jesus reaches out and calls in an unexpected moment, an event like Elijah did Elisha when he plowed and threw his cloak over him.
The act of vocation is an ever-present one to which every man should always be open. The journey to follow Jesus is a difficult one, and it is not without crosses. No one is alone on the path of vocation. The called one is to follow in the footsteps of Christ. The reward does not pass away from those who respond generously and promptly to Jesus’ call to “follow me.” For heaven’s sake, such a response will pay off. Negative calculating, procrastinating, making excuses, and making oneself deaf, blind, and dumb to the address are not worthy of the name Christian. On the contrary. Knowing how to offer myself to God, pray for my calling, and work on myself to beg a calling pleases God.
An old legend tells of a group of brave sailors who explore new territories. The leader proclaimed before the expedition that the man who touched the new land would become its owner. One of the adventurers, fearless, vowed that he would be the first to feel the land. When the crew saw the ground before them, the sailors jumped into their boats and rowed with all their might. At one point, this adventurer noticed another sailor was overtaking him offshore. He did not think long; he laid down his oar, took up his sword, cut off one of his hands, and threw it on shore so that he might be the first to touch the new land and become its owner.
We know that our homeland is in heaven. Here on earth, we are only temporary. Those who grasp this reality will do everything lawfully, true, just, and out of love to merit participation in God’s kingdom. The call to follow Christ rightly requires many sacrifices. It is often harder to follow Jesus than to cut off one’s hand. Christ, as God and Lord, is entitled to demand even great sacrifices, to give up pleasurable and permissible things for the kingdom of God, and thus to merit it.
It is undoubtedly correct to renounce everything that hinders us from accepting, embracing, and realizing the vocation to which Christ calls us. Take care not to be too late.
King Nourshirvan of Persia invited his wise men, from whom he wanted to hear the answer to the question: What is the highest degree of human misery? The answers varied. The answer was the older man, the sick man, the poor man… Then Minor, known not only for his wisdom but also for his virtuous life, demanded to speak, and he said: “According to me, one who is at the end of life and cannot remember any good deed.”
Life is short. God has addressed us more than once: follow me. What have been our answers, our deeds, our words? Have we behaved like the three in the Gospel?
The time of holidays and vacations is a time of grace. We can take advantage of them and not take advantage of them. God created the world, redeemed us, and sanctified and directed us. But we are free and rational people. Happiness, both earthly and eternal, is in our hands. Jesus has redeemed us without us, but we cannot be saved without us. Let us use the time before us to do the will of God.
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