This past week I spent 4 days at a conference for FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. Perhaps you remember our 4 missionaries from FOCUS who served on the Grand Valley campus this past year. Three of them will be back in the fall along with a new team director. At the conference, there were hundreds of young, recent college graduates who have committed to serve as Catholic missionaries on over 160 college campuses across the country for the next couple years. It was so encouraging to see so many young people who have made this commitment to serve Christ and his Church. There are so many pressures and distractions out there that serve as obstacles to making this kind of commitment. And it’s not exactly an easy commitment.
In order for them or anyone to make this kind of commitment, there is one thing necessary first. And that is a relationship with Jesus Christ. Each one of those young people have in some way had an encounter with Christ – not an abstract or purely intellectual encounter but a real and personal encounter. And that encounter is life-changing and leads to a relationship with him, and this is necessary to make any kind of commitment to Christ. When a person chooses to follow Christ, you have to go forward; you can’t look back. Looking back weakens one’s resolve; it weakens one’s commitment to follow Jesus.
In our first reading and our Gospel today, we hear accounts of people who were called to follow the Lord. In our first reading from the first book of Kings, God chooses a successor to the prophet Elijah. He points out to Elijah a young man with a very similar name, Elisha, and says that he is the one who will take Elijah’s place. Elisha is in the midst of plowing a field with his team of oxen. After Elijah calls him, Elisha at first responds, not unreasonably, “Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, and I will follow you!” Based on Elijah’s response to him, it sounds like this is not acceptable: you can’t be my successor if you look back. You can’t be the Lord’s prophet if you look back. So what does Elisha do? He slaughters the oxen and uses his wooden plow as kindling for a fire to cook the flesh of the oxen as an offering to the Lord. In other words, he gets rid of what he owns: the oxen & the plow. In doing so, he effectively abandons his livelihood. All this is symbolic of the fact that Elisha was leaving everything behind to follow the Lord, to be the Lord’s prophet.
And in our Gospel, Jesus calls two people. He simply says to the first one: “Follow me.” And the person hesitates, responding, “Lord, let me first go bury my father.” This seems like a pretty reasonable request! Jesus’ answer is surprising, even shocking: “Let the dead bury the dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” And he calls another person, who answers: “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” Both of these sound like the response Elisha made to Elijah. And Jesus says to him, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”
So, in these two readings we hear three different calls coming from the Lord, the first one to Elisha and the second and third to two unnamed people. And they all respond somewhat similarly, “Yes, I will follow you, but first let me say goodbye to my parents, bury my father, etc.”. Which seems reasonable. After all, doesn’t God want us to honor our father and mother? Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do under the circumstances? The Lord’s response seems a little harsh: if you do that, you are not fit to follow me. I believe that these words of Jesus, rather than being taking literally, could instead be understood as symbolic language intended to convey an important teaching or message.
That message has a couple components. First, the Lord makes the call. He calls us to follow him. But we have to choose to respond to him. He gives us a free choice – he does not force us to follow him. We are free to reject the call. But once we have said yes, Lord, I will follow you, we cannot look back at what we are leaving behind. In other words, we can’t follow the Lord half-heartedly. We can’t look back longingly at the life we have left behind. That’s because following Christ involves a complete and radical change in how we live our lives and even how we see the world.
What must we not look back at? We must not look back at anything that might be an obstacle to following Jesus, whatever that might be. In our readings, the example given is one’s own family. One’s family is most often the people one is closest to in this life. In other words, even that which is closest and dearest to us, that which we love the most – if it’s going to prevent us from following Christ, we must give it up and not look back. It is true that sometimes some relationships can prevent us from following Christ.
Material things can also be obstacles to following Christ. When we choose to truly follow the Lord, we have to put service to Him ahead of everything else, and sometimes that involves giving up certain comforts and luxuries in life, especially if pursuing them gets in the way of our relationship with God.
Bad habits are also a huge obstacle to following the Lord. Because they are bad, they are by definition not good for us. And because they are habits, they are particularly hard to let go of. Whatever the bad habit might be, we must leave them behind and not look back. There are of course the obvious ones – things like drugs, pornography. I wish these things just didn’t exist. I have seen what they do to people, what they do to people’s minds and relationships. They have no redeeming qualities. My advice to young people who have never touched them is: never touch them. You will not benefit in any way and in fact you will definitely suffer in some way from them. And they just might ruin your life. And they might even ruin the lives of the people you love. They are not worth it. If you are involved with these things and are not actively trying to rid your life of them now, then please take my word for it and resolve to give them up. If you are not at least trying to cut them out of your life, you won’t be able to follow Christ completely.
And there are also things that are not bad in and of themselves, but which can easily become harmful and addictive. A lot of these things involve screens: video games, TV, Netflix, social media, the internet in general. They can be entertaining and useful in many ways, but they also have very addictive characteristics and can start to consume more and more time and energy. Social media can also literally affect one’s mental health and sense of self-worth. They can very quickly take over and prevent one from living one’s best life, from flourishing as a human being in this one life God has given us. In the age we live in, just about every single one of us has to contend with these things in some way, to come to terms with them, to manage them. If we are not actively trying to manage them or have not already learned to do so, very likely they will start to consume more and more of our lives. They will rob us of time, energy – especially mental energy – and even happiness. And they will serve as obstacles to following Christ.
Please don’t misunderstand me, following Jesus does not mean that we all have to take vows of poverty and live in monasteries and convents. (Although God does desire that some people do that.) It does not mean that we have to give up using smartphones, the internet, watching TV, playing video games. And it does not mean that we have to abandon our families. But when any of these things prevent us from following the Lord and his will for us, and sometimes they do, then we have to leave them behind and not look back.
When Jesus calls us, and he is calling us, it means living life differently, living it more intentionally. It means living in freedom. After all, God did not create us to live in slavery bur rather in freedom. And whatever prevents us from following the Lord eventually will enslave us. We might have the illusion of being in control, but we will not be. No person or thing can free us, only the Lord. And what exactly is freedom? It’s often believed to mean doing whatever we like: as in, if we desire it, freedom means being able to do it. However, not all desires are good. Some are truly harmful to us. And it is possible for our desires to be malformed by the world around us. This is not true freedom.
True freedom only comes from following Christ. Anything else might give the illusion of freedom but will in the end enslave us to one degree or another. True freedom does not mean being a slave to whatever desire seizes us in the moment. After all, the addict is not really free. When we follow Jesus Christ whole-heartedly, without looking back longingly on the life we’ve left behind, we will no longer be a slave to whatever passions or desires might suddenly seize us. We will be able to fulfill with peace and joy God’s will for our lives. Jesus Christ calls each one of us to follow him with our whole hearts; let us listen to Him and strive to do so every day.