Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Receive

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Our Gospel this week continues the Gospel from last week.  Last week Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, and told those who wanted to follow him that, regardless of whether they went to bury their dead or say farewell, they must keep their face set on that goal: to heaven through the cross.  This week begins with him sending others “to every town and place he intended to visit.”  The verb for sending is the word for apostles, but I think it’s not so much that these are “other” apostles, as that even those of us who are not apostles are still sent. 

The first reading, from the end of Isaiah, sets the tone in a surprising but helpful way.  “Rejoice with Jerusalem . . . .  Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort, that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts!”  The Lord strangely unites himself to Jerusalem: “You shall be carred in her arms . . . ; as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”  Through Jerusalem, the image of the Church and the heavenly city, God comforts us.

The rest of the readings will be about the crosses we face.  But we can face those crosses because we know that God comforts us.  We set our face joyfully towards Jerusalem, the place of our crucifixion, because the cross seems like nothing, knowing that God is there.

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So too at the end of Galatians, in our second reading, Paul says, “I never boast except in the cross” and “neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.”  There are all these sides issues that people get really focused on—but all that matters is passing through the cross with Jesus, entering into God’s new creation, the power of his Spirit and his comfort.  (Paraclete is Greek both for the Holy Spirit and for comfort.)

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In the second part of our Gospel, Jesus talks about going into the cities.  “I am sending you like lambs among wolves.”  Yes, the world is hostile.  Yes, the world is full of the cross.  But he doesn’t say, “so you’d better get ready to fight.”  He says the opposite, “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals.”  This is the freedom of the children of God: to march toward the cross fearlessly, knowing that we have God, and God’s comfort, and nothing can hurt us.

There’s a scene where Plato describes Socrates wandering around a battle field with his head in the clouds.  He was a terrifying warrior, because he didn’t care what happened to him.  That’s not a perfect parallel, but it’s kind of like what Jesus describes.

Go into the houses.  Offer peace.  Sure, you can eat, “for the laborer deserves his payment,” but don’t seek out great opportunities, don’t worry.  Just proclaim, “The kingdom of God is at hand for you” and “Peace”: and the kingdom and the peace of God will be at hand for you, whether or not they receive it.  If they don’t receive it, shake the dust from your feet—no big deal—and move on. 

There is a kind of carefree attitude of the disciples of Jesus. 

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The third part of our Gospel (after the Lectionary skips a couple verses of extended scolding of those who haven’t received Jesus) says that when the seventy-two returned, they rejoiced, saying, “Even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” 

Jesus responds, sure, yes. “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.”  You are winning a cosmic battle—or, sharing in my victory, which obviously you can’t make happen on your own.  And you will win earthly victories, “tread upon serpents and scorpions.”  Nothing can hurt you.

And yet, again, the attitude is care free. Jesus is not saying, “you have almighty power!  Strike them!”  He is saying, “don’t worry, I have the victory.”  And so he concludes, “Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject o you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

Keep your face set on Jerusalem.  Find your comfort there.  The battle is won not by focusing on the battle, but by focusing on the Lord.  Satan can do nothing to you if you live for Jesus Christ.

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The first part of our Gospel had the line, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”

Often we read this line in terms of evangelization: we need missionaries to go bring people to Jesus.  And that’s fine, sure.  And the seventy-two are somehow “apostolic.”

But it isn’t just about evangelization, the harvest isn’t just converts.  (And anyway, if it is effective to pray for God to send out other apostles, then it doesn’t sound like God exactly needs our help.) 

The harvest is also all God’s goodness.  He sends us out into a world brimming with his presence, if we want it, a world where the kingdom is near and his peace is there for the taking.  Receive, and pray that others will gather the same riches for themselves.

Do you get so focused on the fight that you forget to be grateful?

Thirteenth Sunday – Follow Me: Death and the Kingdom

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We finally return to Ordinary Time, and our orderly reading through Luke’s Gospel. 

We begin at the defining turning point of Luke’s Gospel, Luke 9:51: “When the days of Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined [literally: set his face] to journey to Jerusalem.” 

(Much of the material from Matthew and Mark comes before this turning point: Luke 1-4, like Matthew 1-4, is the infancy and then the temptation and baptism, but Luke 5-9 crams in the rest of Matthew 5-25: calling the disciples, cleansing lepers, healing paralytics, questions about fasting, Lord of the sabbath, the sermon on the mount/plain, the centurion’s servant, the widow’s son, the woman who anoints his feet, the parables, the storm, the demonaic, the sending of the apostles, the five thousand, the confession of Peter—phew.  From Luke 9:51 until chapter 22, the last supper and the crucifixion, we find all the exciting, unique parts of Luke: the Good Samaritan, Martha and Mary, the midnight begger, the rich fool with his barns, “come up higher,” inviting the poor to your feast, the prodigal son, the dishonest steward, the rich man and Lazarus, “we are unworthy servants, only doing our duty”, the persistent widow, the Pharisee and the tax collector, let the children come to me, Zacchaeus the tax collector, weeping over Jerusalem, the widow’s mite.)

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The second half of our Gospel reading is more memorable: “foxes have dens,” “let the dead bury their dead.”  But the deeper point is in the first half.

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Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem.  That is his identity: focused on his mission, facing the cross, pressing on.  For Luke, this is the heart of the Gospel.  But as he goes through Samaria (the region between Galilee and Judaea, where Jersualem is), “they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem”—or, literally, “because his face was of one going to Jerusalem.” 

Now, part of of the Samaritans’ problem was that they were the location of the Lord’s temple before David and Solomon built the capital and the temple in Jerusalem; they dispute the importance of Jerusalem.

But in our context, the bigger point is that Jesus was facing his destiny—and they didn’t want that.  They were comfortable where they were.  That’s the setup for what’s coming, about foxes having dens, etc.

Then Luke gives a brilliant flipside.  James and John respond, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”  (What an odd question!)  Ironically, in their opposition to the Samaritans, James and John are a lot like them: they too are focused on here and now, on winning battles, on control—whereas Jesus is focused on going to meet his destiny in Jerusalem.  James and John—and all of us, in our nasty anger—want to have dens like foxes, and to destroy anyone who tries to invade our comfort.  That is not Jesus.

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In the second half, Jesus is not as contrary as we think.  (This is impotant, because there’s a tendency to say Jesus is using “Semitic exaggerations,” and he doesn’t really mean what he says.  I think it’s better to look at what he actually says, which tends to be true, and to demand that we take him literally.)

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The first guy says, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  Jesus responds, “Foxes have dens . . . but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”  That’s not a rebuke, it’s only a warning.  Yes, good, follow me.  But know that you’re not following me to a place of comfort and rest, but to the cross.  That’s what it means to follow.

The second guy, on the other hand, says nothing—till Jesus says, “Follow me.”  He responds, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”  We read too fast, and we think Jesus says, “No, you’re not allowed to bury your father, you have to follow me”—and we think, on the one hand, that Jesus doesn’t seem to appreciate the goods of this world, and on the other hand, that we can’t possibly take him literally.

But that isn’t what Jesus says.  Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead.  But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Notice the details.  Jesus tells him to “go.”  In fact, it’s the same word the man says, “Let me go.”  In the Greek, it’s even specific, in both cases, “let me go away.”  Jesus does let him go away—he commands him to go away, which is, on the literal level, the opposite of “follow me.”  Jesus was setting him up: he says, “follow me,” and then lets the guy discover what that following means: for him, yes, it does mean “going away,” instead of following Jesus to Jerusalem.

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But what Jesus changes is what the man is going away to do.  He doesn’t tell him not to bury the dead.  He does tell him to “proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Since Jesus has his face set toward Jerusalem—and one of the last things he said before he set his face toward Jerusalem was, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men,” he understands death.  Yes, whether you go with me to Jerusalem or whether you stay to bury your father, you are entering into death.  But proclaim the kingdom of God.  That’s what it will mean for you to “follow me”: whether in Jerusalem or right where you are, death and the kingdom.

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And so when the third guy says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home,” Jesus does not say, “nope, you’re not allowed to say goodbye,” but “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”  In plowing, as in sailing, you cut a straight line by keeping your eye on your destination—your face set on Jerusalem.  If you look away, you go off course. Just as with the previous man, he doesn’t tell him to ignore his family.  He does tell him that, wherever he goes, he needs to keep his face set on Jerusalem.  It’s as if, just as the first man says, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus says, “I will follow you, wherever you go.”

It will take Jesus thirteen chapters to make his way to Jerusalem.  There’s plenty for us to do between here and there, and Jesus is not denying that we should do it.  He is saying that we must keep our face resolutely set on the goal, facing death and the kingdom of God without flinching, no matter what we do.

Are there parts of your life where you think you need to take your eyes off of Jesus?