- Bible Reflection (26 Jun 2022)
13th Sunday Year C
The cost and caution of discipleship.
My brothers and sisters. Are you a disciple of Jesus? It is a term we hear often but often not understand. So, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? In fact, let us ask ourselves: Am I a disciple of Jesus? Does discipleship simply mean that I am baptised; I come to church every Sunday; occasionally help out with ministry work and donate a bit of money to charity? Or does it entail more? To understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, we should start by examining the Old Testament definition of discipleship. In the First Reading this week, we read the story of Elijah calling Elisha to be his disciple. At the end of the passage, we read how Elisha abandoned his old life. He “took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate.” Then, he followed Elijah (verse 21). This is also what young Samuel did when he became a disciple of Eli, as Samuel left his parents to go live with Eli (1 Sam 3:1). Fast forward to Jesus’ time, this was what the disciples of our Lord did as well: “they left everything and followed him” (Lk 5:11). And in the Gospel this week, a would-be disciple said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” (verse 57)
What is the purpose of following the master in this way? In Biblical times, to follow the master is literally to be with the master day and night. Why? So that the disciple may learn the master’s ways; to imitate him; and to follow in his footsteps. Therefore my brothers and sisters, we ask ourselves, how closely do I mirror my ways and my life to those of Jesus? While acknowledging that we could never be perfect imitators of Jesus, we need to ask ourselves: do I at least have the sincere desire to do so? Do I at least try? Or do I just pay lip service about being the disciple of Jesus? In truth, participating in worship ritual, dropping some loose change into the church collections or even doing ministry work are devoid of their true meaning if we do not do them with the heart of Jesus. In truth, many of us are not (yet) true disciples. To help us discern, the Scripture this week invites us to consider the cost and caution of discipleship.
We read in the First Reading this week that, when Elijah called Elisha to be his disciple, Elijah “threw his mantle over him.” (verse 19) What is the significance of this action? Elijah’s mantle is a symbol of his spirit – God’s Spirit. To better appreciate this, let us wind the clock forward to the event where Elijah was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, at which point Elisha became his successor. Leading up to this event, at the Jordan River, “Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground” (2 Kgs 2:8) Elijah then asked his young disciple what he wanted. Elisha replied, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” (2 Kgs 2:9) Elijah responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” (2 Kgs 2:10) So, did Elisha witness Elijah being taken into heaven and inherit his spirit? He certainly did. As Elijah was taken up in a chariot of fire, Elijah left his mantle for his young disciple. Elisha “picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.” (2 Kgs 2:14-15) This is a sign that not only has Elisha become the successor of Elijah, but he has also inherited Elijah’s spirit as the young disciple requested. Elisha is walking in the ways of the Holy Spirit.
So, my dear friends, we ask ourselves: What does it mean to inherit the Jesus’ spirit? It means to adopt the heart of Jesus as our own: to reconcile and forgive, to uphold righteousness, and live in sacrificial love. In order to do this, we must abandon the ways of the world that many of us have inadvertently adopted as our way of life. It is a new way, a new direction and a new way of life. Jesus taught us, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Mt 9:16-17) To adopt the ways of the world is to live by the flesh, where my primary concern is myself – my comfort, my enjoyment, my needs, my feelings. And if someone invites me to give up my time and money for others, the first thought that crosses my mind would be, how much of am I depriving myself? It is an inward looking view of life. The irony is, by being inwards looking, I am depriving myself of one the greatest gifts from God – true joy and true happiness. On the other hand, to adopt the ways of Jesus is to live by the Holy Spirit. The way of the spirit is an outward looking way of life, where we give without counting the cost. It is the path to true joy, for to give is to receive. Hence, St Paul wrote in the Second Reading, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” To live by the flesh is to place my needs above the needs of others, that I will do anything for my own needs, including hurting another person. St Paul said, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (verse 15-16)
At Elisha’s calling in the First Reading, “There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth.” (verse 19) This imagery is highly symbolic. In the context of St Paul’s teachings in the Second reading, it means that Elisha was under the yoke of the flesh. That is why when Elisha “left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, ‘Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.’ Then Elijah said to him, ‘Go back again; for what have I done to you?'” (verse 20) Elijah is saying to Elisha what Jesus is saying to us in the Gospel, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (verse 62). Dear friends, there is a cost to discipleship. The temptation of the flesh is strong. It is not easy to develop a sense of detachment and abandon the ways of the world. And that is not all. To adopt the ways of the Spirit often bring us hardship. We often have to make sacrifices; be ridiculed by the world; and be cancelled by the popular culture. Reflecting on His own experience, Jesus warned us in the Gospel, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (verse 58) That is why St Paul calls it living by the Spirit. For without the strength and counsel of the Holy Spirit, we would not be able to do this.
But there is another danger to discipleship. This is the caution of discipleship. Even for those of us who is committed in all sincerity to following Jesus, after a period of time, we may fall back into the temptation of the flesh. When we succumb to such temptations, we abandon Jesus’ way and adopt worldly ways while still maintaining the external appearance of discipleship. We adopt a sense of self-importance; we succumb to the sin of pride. We become hypocrites. This is perhaps even more insidious than non-discipleship. That was what happen to the Zebedee brothers James and John. In the Gospel, when people in a Samaritan village rejected Jesus, James and John asked, “‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them.” (verse 54-55) In another episode, James and John requested that Jesus grant them seats at His left and right in heaven (Mk 10:37). “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” (Mk 10:41) Self-importance and pride blind us from the reasons we follow Jesus in the first place. In the example of James and John, it caused division among the disciples. Sadly, this is also happening in our faith communities, when faith leaders, consumed by their self-importance and pride, scandalise the community. We need to constantly remind ourselves the teaching of Jesus. Seeing that the other disciples becoming angry with James and John, Jesus said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mk 10:42-44) For one of the traits of true discipleship is humility. Otherwise, as St Paul say in the Second Reading, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (verse 15)
In conclusion, to be a disciple of Jesus is to love with His heart and to live the ways of the Holy Spirit. Participating in worship rituals, paying lip services to our beliefs, scrupulous study of theology and church laws are but superficial signs. St Paul concluded in the Second Reading, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.” (verse 18) It does not mean that we should abandon our worship rituals, ignore Christian theology or break Church laws. But it does mean that when we are led by the Spirit and we let Him fill our hearts with love. When our hearts are led by love, rituals, theology and church laws take on a new dimension. They become alive in us. There is no longer the question of breaking the law. The law is no longer an external constraint that causes me to constantly struggle against, a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. Rather, when I am filled by love, I am governed by the law of love that is in my heart, so that the law is no longer an external constraint, but an internal constraint. I no longer have to struggle with the law externally, but the law become a way of my life coming from me internally. I no longer need external law. Instead, do I live a life of joy and fulfillment in line with the law of God.
My brothers and sisters, let this be our contemplation for the coming week. May the Holy Spirit be with you. Amen.