Why is God so demanding? – Francis Alvarez, SJ

Luke 9:18-24, 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Sundays, the First Reading is chosen carefully to mirror certain themes in the Gospel. A tip if you want to go deeper into the Sunday readings: Before the Mass, read the Gospel, then go through the First Reading looking for connections (a good website is: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings). After this, read the Gospel a second time and ask, “How does the First Reading enrich my understanding of the Gospel?”

Our First Reading and Gospel today are clearly closely linked. In our Gospel, a man Jesus calls responds by saying, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home” (Luke 9:61). In our First Reading, Elijah gives Elisha a sign that he is being called, and Elisha says “Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, and I will follow you” (1 Kings 19:20).

The request of the man Jesus calls seems to be reasonable. Why does Jesus rebuke him? Similarly, why does Elijah turn Elisha away? Jesus and Elijah have nothing against parents and politeness. We should not read their responses literally. We should read them more like how we read another of Jesus’ statements, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (Mt 5:30) – as an exaggeration meant to deliver a message more powerfully. And what is that message?

The request of Elisha and the man Jesus called can be interpreted as: “I will follow you, but on my own terms. My yes to you will coexist with my other yeses, my other commitments and attachments.” This is not far from the sentiment of the other man Jesus called: “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” Take note that the Gospel does not say that this man’s father is already dead. What this man is actually saying is: “Wait. I will follow you, but not now. I will go in my own time.”

Elijah’s “Go back” makes Elisha realize the needed response. Elisha, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen when he was called, slaughters the oxen and burns his plowing equipment to cook the oxen. This must have taken quite some time – enough for a quick visit to his parents while the beef is simmering – but there is no mention of his parents anymore. The point was never about saying goodbye to them. The point was always about Elisha’s yes. It needed to be total and complete, and it finally became so. Elisha kills the oxen and destroys his plow as a sign that from this decision, there is no turning back.

Why must our yes be without compromises? It is because it is God who asks for our yes.

We do not volunteer for a mission. It is God who takes the initiative. This is why the first man whom Jesus meets on the road, the one who presents himself and says, “I will follow you wherever you go,” is not welcomed with open arms. It would be arrogant for us to think following God comes from our own generosity and goodness. No, it comes from God. This is also in the First Reading. Elijah tells Elisha, “Have I done anything to you?” Translation (and expansion): “Do not follow me because I called you. God has chosen you.” This was made clear from the beginning of our reading: “The Lord said to Elijah: ‘You shall anoint Elisha as prophet to succeed you’” (1 Kings 19:16).

It is God who calls us. But why is the Lord so demanding? Yes, God is also kind and gentle and merciful but these characteristics do not exhaust who God is. As our readings today show, the Lord also asks a whole lot from us. In our First Reading, we saw Elisha plowing with 12 yoke of oxen. A simple farmer can plow with one ox. The detail of the 12 yoke of oxen shows that Elisha was quite wealthy. He gave up much to follow God. Why is the Lord so demanding?

On Sundays, the First Reading always highlights a theme in the Gospel, and the Responsorial Psalm is always… well… a response to the First Reading. Another tip to go deeper into the readings: After going through the Responsorial Psalm, ask, “How is the Psalm an interpretative key to the First Reading?”

Why is God so demanding? The Psalm proclaims, “You are my inheritance, O Lord!” The price we pay is high because the reward is greater than we can ever dream of – God himself! We need to invest all that we have because the R.O.I. is beyond what we can ever imagine.

When I was 6 and I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “Doctor!” That was before I ever visited a hospital. That was before I discovered I was afraid of blood. That was before I found out that I was a germophobe. So I became a priest instead. When I was ordained, what was my first assignment? I was missioned as a chaplain at the Philippine General Hospital. What a sense of humor God must have! I dreaded going to the wards. I hated the smell inside. And the first few months, I always asked, “Why is God so demanding?” But because I gave my yes, I tried to live it out. And now, I can say that PGH is the best assignment I have ever had as a Jesuit. I still cringe when I see blood. Hospital smells still make me gag. But ask me where I have felt closest to God, and my answer is PGH. I met him in the nurses, doctors, and caregivers who spent sleepless nights attending to the needs of those who may never repay them with money or even just with a word of thanks. I saw him at work in the ICU healing not only bodies but also relationships. I sensed him never leaving the side of those who were in pain, those who were dying, and those who were left mourning. I read about God in the Bible and in theology books. I tried to talk to him in prayer. But it was in PGH where I got to know him most intimately.

When you say yes to God in your everyday mission – in school, in your place of work, at home – do not expect financial rewards. Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Do not expect people to praise you for following God. In fact, expect them to misunderstand, as Jesus was also misunderstood. Expect hardship and difficulty. But if you are open enough to be able to say “You are my inheritance, O Lord,” expect to be with God, too. Hopefully, you will also be able to proclaim, “And I need nothing more.”

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