God’s compassionate, non-violent reign

  • June 22, 2007
13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) July 1 (1 Kings 19:16, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62)

Freedom is very precious, but it is often taken for granted and is not fully appreciated until it is lost.
The institution of slavery expresses the loss of human freedom in the cruelest and most unjust way imaginable. It formed the basis of the ancient economy, and exists in various forms even into our own time. Nothing could be so contrary to the will of God and so far from the way we are intended to live, and yet it has its defenders, both then and now.

So who, having been freed from slavery, would willingly submit to it again? The answer, according to some psychologists and philosophers, is the majority of people. Freedom brings responsibility and uncertainty. We have to find our way, ask questions and search for truth. Difficult ethical choices confront us daily. And that can be scary. It’s easier to have someone tell us what to do, what to think and how to act. We don’t have to make decisions or run the risk of error. But when people willingly live in that manner, they have lost an essential element of their humanity.

Jesus set people free from a fearful sense of separation from God. He freed humanity from the prison of custom and tradition, as well as feelings of shame and worthlessness. He gave them access to God, even in this life. And yet humanity rushed to rebuild enslaving structures and thought patterns. Old ways quickly reasserted themselves with new window dressing.

Paul begs his community to break from the old ways of the past and to live by the Spirit, oriented to God and others rather than self. There are many forms of slavery, for we can be enslaved to fear, addiction, greed, ambition, lust for power; in short, anything that diminishes our ability to be just and loving people. For those who live by God’s spirit, no law, policeman, authority figure or threat is necessary. Spiritual maturity occurs only when we accept and live by the presence of God within us.

There are some interesting parallels between the Old Testament prophet Elijah and Jesus. Many thought that Jesus was the return of Elijah, who was supposed to come again in the last days before God’s visitation. The evangelist consciously patterns his presentation of Jesus on the life of Elijah. Both were viewed as powerful and holy prophets; both were “taken up” when their time to depart from this world arrived. But there are also some striking differences, and they serve to illustrate how different God’s reign is to that of humans.

Elijah is rather casual about his invitation to Elisha to join him as a disciple. Elisha is free to take care of his business and take his leave of his family — no need to hurry.

With the call of Jesus, on the other hand, there is a strong sense of urgency: don’t look back, don’t delay, don’t hem and haw about your commitment. The man is not even permitted to fulfill familial obligations for the time is short — a new world is being born.

Elijah did not shy away from the use of force and violence in accomplishing his mission: he butchered 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, and he called down consuming fire on a group of the king’s troops. The apostles expect that Jesus will react to the rejection of the Samaritan village in the same way. They can hardly wait — they even want to be part of the action. But Jesus rebukes them, for violence is not part of His mission, and it is not in His mind or heart. He reveals in Himself a new understanding of God and a new model of human relationships.

The call of Jesus to discipleship is no less urgent and imperative in our own time. There are far too many who would call down fire on their “enemies” — even in the name of God — or for whom spiritual ideals are an insignificant or non-existent part of life. The world is trapped in various forms of slavery and injustice. 

Jesus turned and set His face towards Jerusalem for the sake of God’s compassionate and non-violent reign. Each of us in our own way can set our face towards a better world and a life-giving awareness of God.