June 30; 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year C

13th OT2Raising the Bar

Often enough, the height of a pole bar presents a challenge for most of us. However, it depends on whether you’re doing one of two very different activities: a limbo dance or a pole vault! For the limbo dancer, its’ “how low can you go” – the lower the better. But in the case of a pole vault, its “how high can you jump” – the higher the better. So, do you lower the bar or raise it? This is the question that often troubles many priests and church leaders and gets them into uneasy situations with parishioners. Do you “raise the bar” or seek to “lower” it? Well, it would seem that though standards in all aspects of life seem to be rising – sports, education, job opportunities, choice of spouse, technology, to name a few - people tend to lower the bar on all things related to the Christian faith, as a result, they tend to minimise the significance of it or blow it off entirely.

Here’s our fear: if we raise our standards and enforce them, we will lose people. And, no doubt, that is true. That’s often the basic argument; to lower the bar in Church. But did we really ever “have” these people to begin with? I don’t think so. People who leave even at the slightest offence or inconvenience demanded of them, are already demonstrating a lack of commitment. But the people you do “have” who are open to the challenge will begin to take the challenge of Christ more seriously. And they should. The Church is the hope of the world; being popular is not. Yet we treat popularity as if it is the most important thing whilst treating the Church like some recreation. We are quick to abandon her once it gets too tough or boring.

Today’s readings have to do with the demands of discipleship and let me assure you from the very start – we are not talking about “lowering the bar” when it comes to this. In the first reading, we see a radical model from the Old Testament where Elijah appoints Elisha as his successor. Elijah allows Elisha to bid farewell to his parents but Elisha wishes to demonstrates his whole-hearted surrender to this new mission by slaughtering two of his twenty four plough oxen and giving the meat to his servants to eat. It is a generous act, a marvelous example of obedience, one that can even be described as radical and foolish. But note, Elisha still left 11 pairs of oxen for his father’s use. Prudent son. But demands of our Lord in today’s gospel would far surpass the sacrifice made by Elisha.

Our Lord’s requirements exceed those of the Old Testament. Three men present Him with their wish to follow Him. In response to the first, our Lord points to His own example and fate – He has no place to call home. By using an analogy, He describes His condition as worse off than the animals: He lives in utter insecurity. He owns nothing but His mission. And the destination of His mission is revealed at the opening of the gospel passage: “as the time drew near for Him to be taken up to heaven.” He was committed “resolutely” to this mission, a mission that will eventually end not only in the rejection by the Samaritans or even the Jews but also by the whole world as it climaxes with His death on the cross. We are not sure whether such a reality check would have dampened the enthusiastic spirit of this man but it is clear that Christians are not meant to naively commit themselves to this way of life unless they knowingly and freely are able to commit themselves to the cross. Freedom is premised on such knowledge. Discipleship must always be deliberate and intentional. There are no accidental disciples.

The second would-be follower first wants to bury his father. But just like so many of us, this may just be another excuse to get out of this commitment. Here, the Lord of Life answers, “Leave the dead to bury their dead.” The dead are the mortals who bury each other. But our Lord is above life and death, He dies and rises again “in order to be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom 14:9). This is not the job of His disciples. They have a far more important and urgent mission: “your duty is to go and spread the news of the Kingdom of God.” The demands of proclaiming the Kingdom of God take precedence.

The third potential disciple wants to say good-bye to his family. We immediately recall the request of the prophet Elisha in the first reading. But here our Lord exceeds Elijah. For the person radically called, there can be no compromise between family and the decision for the Kingdom. Relationships with family and other men are governed by the norm provided by that decision. But to be fair to Elisha, we see in him an example of resoluteness in decision making. The act of slaughtering the oxen (though only a pair out of twelve pairs was sacrificed) and burning the plough expresses Elisha’s decision to pursue wholeheartedly his new vocation as a prophet. He is burning his bridges. There is no turning back.

Most people who misunderstand this text would believe that the demands of our Lord are unreasonable. This is when Christianity is perceived as a religion which lays unnecessary and even unnatural burdens on a human person. Today’s world has canonised sin, mediocrity and unfettered freedom as the perennial human condition; thus the demands of Christ and of His Church are regarded as inhumane and a form of enslavement. The Church is constantly being pushed to lower the standards, to make it easier, lighter and certainly more convenient. Just because something is easier or lighter, does not necessarily make it any freer. On the contrary, freedom can only be offered together with the gift of Truth – the truth will set us free.

And this is the Truth, Christ is the Truth and only Christ can set us free. St Paul tells us in the second reading, that “when Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” What the world fails to recognise is that our Lord, through His cross and resurrection, had come to free us from the tyranny of sin and the power of death. The demands of the Lord may seem harsh here, but He is only asking of His disciples what He asks of Himself. Jesus' unconditional commitment to God's saving work will demand of Him his life. Christian freedom therefore is far from an abstract philosophical ideal. It is impossible to be free when we choose to do evil and commit sin. We see how sin often has a stranglehold on us through addictions. Rather, freedom is the victorious death of Jesus. The freedom ultimately becomes ours when we deliberately and freely choose His way of life, and His way of life is simply to do the will of the Father.

I’ve often heard people use this rhetorical question as an attack against the demands made by the Church, “What would Jesus do?” Well, in today’s readings, you have the answer. He came to “raise the bar” not to “lower” it. What the Lord wants of us today, as He has been asking from the very beginning, is total commitment. The goal and mission of the Church is not to accommodate, to make things easier, more convenient or more palatable to public opinion. The goal and mission of the Church is to challenge and point us to the stars. We are here to win the race, not just get a consolation prize for participation by sitting on the bench. From the very beginning of Christianity - as we read in scriptures, in the history of the Church, we have seen in the living and dying testimonies of so many Christians who have heard Christ's call to renounce normal ties of family and country, and to keep before their eyes the goal of total discipleship. They understood that there are no half measures, no turning back, not just an ideal to be contemplated, but a call to follow Christ to the very end.