A guard in charge of a lighthouse along a dangerous coast was given enough oil for one month and told to keep the light burning every night. One day a woman asked for oil so that her children could stay warm. Then a farmer came. His son needed oil for a lamp so he could read. Another needed some for an engine. The guard saw each as a worthy request and gave some oil to satisfy all. By the end of the month, the tank in the lighthouse was dry. That night the beacon was dark and three ships crashed on the rocks. More than one hundred lives were lost. The lighthouse attendant explained what he had done and why. But the prosecutor replied, “You were given only one task: to keep the light burning. Every other thing was secondary. You have no excuse.”
Temptation is a choice between good and evil. But perhaps more insidious than temptation is conflict where one must choose between two good options. The lighthouse keeper in our story found himself in such a conflict situation. So also are the would-be disciples in today’s gospel story. In such cases the good easily becomes the enemy of the best One must then say no to a good thing in order to say yes to the one thing necessary. Today’s gospel is a sequence of four incidents and encounters with people who could have become followers of Jesus but who were held back by ulterior concerns and motives. Each encounter highlights a different concern.
The first incident is the encounter between the messengers of Jesus and the Samaritan villagers. The concern that holds the Samaritans back from accepting and following Jesus is patriotism. Samaritans and Jews were bitter enemies. The Samaritan villagers had probably heard about Jesus and what he was doing and were interested. But as soon as they learned that Jesus and his disciples were Jews and were heading for Jerusalem, their admiration turned into opposition. Patriotism and devotion to the national cause is, of course, a good thing. But when national interest becomes the spectacle through which one sees all reality, including spiritual and eternal reality, then one is in danger of losing perspective.
The second incident involves a man who says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke (9:57-58). Why did Jesus say that? Probably because he perceived that here was a man who valued financial independence and security. It is a good thing to have high economic goals so that one could provide adequately for oneself and for those under one’s care. Yet when this stands in the way of wholehearted following and service of God, then something is wrong.
The third incident is that of the man who wanted first to go bury his father before following Jesus. Burying one’s parents is part of the command to “Honour your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). So this a man with high moral principles, a man who keeps the law and is highly concerned for his religious duties. Again this is a very good virtue. Yet Jesus is saying that we should not allow religious observance to immobilize us and keep us from following Christ who is always on the move into new territories and new challenges.
Finally there is the man who wants to go and say farewell to his family before following Jesus. He wants to follow the example of Elisha (1st reading) who bid his family farewell before becoming Elijah’s disciple. This man has high social and family values. One could only wish that all men could be this sensitive to let their families know their whereabouts at all times! Yet before the urgent call of the kingdom of God, social and family concerns take a back seat. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
It’s all about decisions, isn’t it? Decisions… how decisive am I in following Jesus? That’s the big question not only today but in each and every day of our lives. The readings today present us with the reality of decisions; we are called by God to be decisive. But while we want to be decisive and have the freedom to make our own decisions, decisions bring with them consequences.
In the first reading we find the need for security being challenged by the decision to move into an unknown future. In the second reading we’re presented with a false freedom, the freedom of license and anything goes vs. the true freedom of loving for the sake of others, particularly the Other that is God. Finally, in the Gospel we find the challenge to move beyond the ties of family loyalty and affection into commitments beyond the pale of one’s immediate family, movement into the decisions and responses that go with belonging to God.
These are all hard, tough decisions. It’s not easy to definitively leave one’s childhood family in order to cling to a spouse in marriage and start a new family. We all know of husbands or wives who have never emotionally left father or mother and cannot totally surrender in love to their spouses in their new family. Being unable to leave their childhood they become emotionally arrested and fixated, without any further development. Not only that, but when we marry we quickly learn that there are things we cannot do, our freedom to do whatever we want is gone. So, too, when we have children. We quickly learn then that our freedom to do a lot of things is severely restricted.
Many folks never come to the full realization that sacrifice is not merely a nice ideal; it’s a fact of life. We don’t have a choice in the matter. The question is not whether we are willing to sacrifice. Life is filled with sacrifices. It’s always a question of how much are we willing to sacrifice… and for what are we sacrificing? We cannot have things of value and at the same time live foot-loose and carefree lives. All commitments involve sacrifice.
Oh, to be sure, there are those who try to live free and unfettered lives, but what becomes of them? To say “yes” to anything requires saying “no” to a whole lot of other things. For instance, one cannot be “a little bit religious” for very long. You either commit or you end up saying: “I don’t go to Mass very often any more because of this, that or the other thing. To say, “yes” to everything means we can’t say, “yes” to anything in particular. One cannot both commit and keep all of one’s options open at the same time. “No man can serve two masters…” Jesus said.
Keeping all of one’s options open is just another way of avoiding full commitment. It’s another form of denial. That’s true in our close and intimate relationships with others. And that’s true in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Commitment, love, marriage and friendships all impose things upon us. They require an uncluttered “yes.”
But while love demands sacrifice, it also at the same time paradoxically lets us find freedom. True lovers give each to the other the gift of freedom; the freedom to be the very best selves found living deep down inside of them. True lovers give each other the freedom to become the best they can be.
And, paradoxically, don’t you find it to be true that freedom is found in decisiveness? You and I all know of indecisive people; we find them among our friends and acquaintances. They can’t make up their minds. They’re paralyzed and immobilized in their lack of ability to make a decision. They get hung up on the hook, the paralysis of analysis.
These stories show that to follow Christ is to follow him unconditionally. Can you complete the sentence: “I will follow Christ on the condition that …” If you can complete the sentence then you are in the same situation as any of these well meaning but mistaken disciples. Jesus will not accept a second place in our lives. He will be first or nothing. It is all for Jesus or nothing at all.