Turning back is no longer an option; “postponing commitment to the kingdom is tantamount to rejecting it”
The readings of this Sunday put the spotlight on two different episodes about people turning back to take care of personal matters when called upon to undertake a divine mission, one each from the OT and the NT: Elisha wanting to bid his parents farewell before taking Elijah’s mantle of prophecy; two men in the gospel hoping to “bury my father” and “say farewell to my family” before accepting Jesus’ call to follow him (Luke 9:59, 61). In the OT episode, Elisha’s request is granted, and the succession completed. In the NT episode, both men’s requests are refuted, and Jesus’ discipleship propositions come to no avail. Why the difference? Are Jesus’ refutations too harsh? This reflection will attempt to answer these two questions. Let’s begin with Jesus’ refutations.
No matter how good the intention, turning back is an act indicative of a less than total commitment. The person has decided that the task deserving his immediate attention and action somehow is not the divine invitation being extended; and that compared to the task that he personally prefers to work on, the divine mission he is called upon to do somehow has less of a priority. In Elisha’s case, since bidding his parents farewell is more important to him, succeeding Elijah’s prophetic ministry must take a back seat. In the case of the two men in the gospel, the burial of father and the farewell to family are their immediate preoccupations; following Jesus is, therefore, a secondary undertaking that must be temporarily put on hold.
Every which way we look at it, the problem underlying both episodes is that earthly undertakings, no matter how good and noble, are allowed to take precedence over divine callings worthy of unreserved dedication. This is why the Scripture teaches that the LORD is a “jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). Our relationship with God is like a marriage: it must bear the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5:22-30); it’s a loving relationship that is not only free, faithful, and fruitful; it’s also TOTAL – unreserved!
Now that we understand why Jesus’ refutations of the two men are not harsh, one more question still remains to be answered: Why is it OK for Elisha to turn back, and somehow not OK for the two men in the gospel to do the same?
One overarching principle to keep in mind for understanding the Bible is that God is like a good school teacher who takes into consideration His students’ different levels of maturity and educates them accordingly. The Catechism calls this the “divine pedagogy of God’s saving love” (CCC 122). As a result of this divine pedagogy, what God revealed to the OT people, whose understanding of the divine plan was somewhat rudimentary without the benefit of the revelation of the incarnate Christ, may “contain matters imperfect and provisional” but were somehow needed for their spiritual well-being (CCC 122). Elisha’s turning back was permitted or, shall we say, tolerated by God in the OT time as a provisional measure when the people of God were being prepared for the coming of Christ. But now that His plan of salvation has been clearly revealed, and the economy of redemption fully accomplished through Christ; what is required of His people – now the adopted children of God and “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17) - is complete holiness and unreserved acceptance of His divine will. Anything less than the virtue of the Sermon on the Mount – “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” – will be unacceptable (Mt. 5:48).
With the dawning of the New Covenant era - an era marked by Christ’s unconditional and unreserved self-giving love - what is required of the Church, the spouse of Christ, is the same unconditional and unreserved self-giving love. Turning back is no longer an option; “postponing commitment to the kingdom is tantamount to rejecting it” (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament on Luke 9:59ff).