Two Approaches to Jesus

(Homily for Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C)

In today’s Gospel we see two different approaches to Jesus. The first attempts to use him to advance an agenda, in this case a rather nasty one: They asked his permission to “call down fire from heaven” on a group of people who treated them poorly. (Lk 9:54) The desire is understandable. Who has not had similar vengeful thoughts? Nonetheless, Jesus clearly rejects the suggestion. He rebuked them and told them to move on. (v. 55) He had more important matters to attend to. He was “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” (v.51)

The second approach to Jesus is the reverse: Rather than trying to use Jesus to advance ones own agenda, it recognizes that he already has one – and that our job is to fit into his. He makes that point dramatically. A man wants to follow him, but wishes to first complete his filial duty. In Jesus’ day – as indeed is true of almost every culture except the “modern” one in which we participate – there was no duty more clear than honoring ones parents. It was the bedrock of society. We see that in our Old Testament reading. Elisha could not take up the prophet's mantle until he had received his parents’ blessing. It was not a matter of mere affection. To launch ones career without first having first “kissed” ones mother and father would spell failure. (1 K 19:20)

However, Jesus brings a totally new factor into the equation. To the man who wants to say good-bye to his parents, Jesus says he is not “fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus can say this because the kingdom is not a cause, but a person, the Lord himself. For that reason his agenda must come first, ahead of even the noblest duty.

Earlier this month, the Holy Father pointed this out to the youth of Switzerland:

Christianity is not just a book of culture or an ideology, nor is it merely a system of values or principles, however lofty they may be. Christianity is a person, a presence, a face: Jesus, who gives meaning and fullness to human life.*

Most people, including many Christians, tend to look at Christianity as a series of precepts. The reason for this misunderstanding is that every person continually faces questions of obligation: sorting out what one “should” do, “ought” to do, “must” do. Each day we have duties: to take care of ones physical and emotional health, to treat others with consideration and respect, to carry out whatever tasks ones state of life requires, etc. Those duties are important and how to respond to them often seems the most important thing about our lives. However, the truth is that none of us really gets very far in becoming the kind of person we know we should be. And even if we did, we could fall into a much worse trap – thinking that becoming a “good person” or living a “good life” is the goal of our existence. It is not.

C. S. Lewis describes duty or morality as a kind of mountain which all of us have before us:

Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air at the summit, lacking those wings which with which the rest of the journey has to be accomplished. (Man or Rabbit?)**

Jesus wants to give us those wings. As St. Paul says, “for freedom Christ set us free.” (Gal 5:1) But to become truly free, we must not only strive to understand his agenda and make it our own. We must above all recognize him as the one Person who can make of us an absolute claim.


*The Holy Father added these words:

Well, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid to meet Jesus: indeed, seek him in reading Sacred Scripture with attention and availability and in personal and communal prayer; seek him in active participation in the Eucharist; seek him as you meet a priest for the sacrament of Reconciliation; seek him in the Church which is manifest to you in parish groups, movements and associations; seek him in the face of the suffering brother who is in need and a stranger.

**In C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church Joseph Pearce shows the profound influence of Dante on Lewis. The above comparison evokes the image of the seven storey mountain (purgatorio) which the soul climbs with considerable assistance before being raised to paradise.

Spanish Version

From Archives (Homilies for Thirteenth Sunday, Year C):

2016: Becoming a Disciple Week 4: Consistency
2013: For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free
2010: Celibacy vs. Not Getting Married
2007: True Freedom
2004: Two Approaches to Jesus
2001: The Paradox of Jesus
1998: Don't Look Back

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