“I Have Decided to Follow Jesus. Or Have I?” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, June 26, 2022

I performed a wedding ceremony at St Philip’s last Saturday. The couple picked a reading from the book of Ruth, which was not a reading most couples choose. In fact, most Catholics probably don’t even realize that there actually is a book of Ruth in the Bible. The passage the couple chose contained these words: ”Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. Not even death shall part me from you!”

These beautiful words of commitment are actually spoken by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law, who have both recently lost their husbands. But a moment’s thought will show us that these words perfectly describe the commitment entered into between a couple at their wedding ceremony. In fact, these words are really appropriate for any kind of serious and lasting commitment. Including the commitment we make as disciples of Jesus Christ.

 Our psalm today echoes that kind of commitment. Listen again to the words of the psalmist and ask yourself: ”Does this express how I feel about Jesus?” “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot”. The mention of a “portion” and a “lot” are actually references to the Jewish tribe of Levi, whose members formed the priestly class in Israel. They, of all the twelve tribes of Israel, were not given a share in the land of Canaan, when it was invaded and conquered by Israel, led by Joshua, , and then divided up amongst the tribes  . It was understood that it was the destiny of the Levites to dedicate themselves to a life of service to God, to being mediators between God and the people. They were not to be busying themselves with material pre-occupations, such as the ownership and cultivation of land and cattle and sheep. Instead, the Lord was to be their “portion” and “lot”, and the other tribes showed how important to their own well-being this responsibility was, by undertaking to provide food and accommodation for the Levites. Some kind of similar “support structure” underlies the provision for priests and other pastors in most churches today. 

  But what the psalm today is really getting at is that the Levite’s vow to serve God above all, should be the response of every Christian to their commitment to Christ. Nothing or no-one must come before our dedication to the following of Jesus. Yes, we may have other responsibilities, such as our care of the home and our family, our job requirements, elderly relatives, and so on. But, nonetheless, our service of the Lord must be our first priority. Of course, in living out fully our other responsibilities, given us by the Lord, we can be said to be serving God first and foremost. No one is expected to live their lives 24/7 in church, nor should they, when they have other responsibilities that must come first. This is why St Paul, in our second reading, says that “the whole law of God is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. St Paul is not, of course, saying that the other great commandment: ”To love God with all your heart, soul and strength”, no longer applies. He is saying that to love our neighbor, our spouse, our children, our relatives, our colleagues, especially those in any kind of need, itself involves and implies that we are loving God in loving them. 

The gospel shows various responses to Jesus’ call to discipleship. Jesus himself, we are told, “set his face like flint” to go to Jerusalem, where he knows he will be arrested, tortured and crucified. He knows that this is the way in which he will perfectly serve his heavenly Father, and all of us, because in his death and subsequent resurrection, he will defeat the powers of sin, death and hell, which have us in their grasp.  Jesus resolutely makes his way to the fulfilment of his destiny, and allows no-one or nothing to deter, distract or dissuade him. He expects those whom he calls to follow him to be equally steadfast and determined. Yet he encounters various kinds of excuses and delaying tactics. To the first would-be follower who says, “I will follow you wherever you go” Jesus, obviously suspecting some unspoken reservation behind these seemingly words of absolute commitment, responds “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. Obviously, Jesus did not spend all the nights during his journey to Jerusalem sleeping on the ground. We know that various people gave him and his disciples food and accommodation along the way. But what Jesus is saying is that he has no lasting commitment to anything temporal or earthly, or material, and it is to be the same to those who want to be his disciples.

The same is true of Jesus’ responses to the other two people who he calls to follow him. The first is not really saying that he has first to carry out his father’s burial service there and then. He is saying that he cannot follow Jesus immediately, because he has to wait for his father to die, and then he would be free to follow. Jesus’ terse response :”Let the dead bury their own dead” indicates to this would-be disciple that others in his family can look after his father, but his task is to go out and spread the good news of the kingdom of God. To the third follower, who wants to go home and say goodbye to his family, Jesus is equally terse “if you do this, you are not really fit for the kingdom of God” sounds exceedingly harsh to our ears. But that is because we fail to understand the nature of family ties in the culture of Jesus’ time. Each person existed in an extended family network. To go home and take his time , saying goodbye to each of them, with the inevitable farewell parties and extended good-byes that would follow, would take him weeks, if not months. Jesus’ call to him expresses the urgency of the summons. It is now or never that we must make the choice to be all in for Jesus, or not. We don’t have the option to put it off until we have time to consider it from all angles. In the examples cited in our gospel, Jesus is emphasizing the primacy of commitment to the reign of God; all else is secondary, be it possessions, human responsibilities, or personal ties. All these human considerations are insignificant and negligible in comparison to God’s reign. Are we ready, brothers and sisters, to “set our face like flint” for the heavenly “Jerusalem”, our final destiny in God’s kingdom at the end of time, or not?

Some might say, in response, “Apart from eternal life in heaven with God, what else can I look forward to, if I make this all-out commitment to Jesus? I will leave you with this thought, that someone once shared with me. If you follow the biblical model for prioritizing , that is , first Jesus, then Others, then Yourself” and take the first letters of each, you end up with J O Y – joy !!