13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Let Freedom Ring!
Readings: 1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21; Psalm 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62
I have a dream… I have a dream… These words call to mind that famous speech given in 1963 by the late leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. He was speaking of his hope that one day all those of the Negro race would enjoy freedom from discrimination. His dream was for a future in which all Americans would be treated equally, regardless of the colour of their skin.
Sisters and brothers, I too have a dream. I too dream of freedom. But my dream is of a far less lofty, far less noble, far less honourable freedom than Mr. King's. I’ve had this dream for quite some time now, though I can’t quite remember when it began. I’m not always aware of it. It seems to make its presence felt especially when things aren’t going so well. Its shape has been changing with the passing of the years. But at its core it has always remained the same dream.
As a child, for example, I sometimes found myself dreaming of a day when I would no longer have a nagging grownup breathing down my neck, insisting that I take a bath when I didn’t want to or refusing to let me out of the house to join the neighbourhood kids in their games. As a student, I dreamt of no longer having to suffer under the burden of mathematics exams and physics tutorials. In the army, I dreamt of no longer having to book into camp at some unearthly hour, of no longer having to spend those seemingly senseless nights performing guard duty. At work, I dreamt of not having deadlines to meet, or a boss to answer to. And, to be honest, now that I’m a religious, there are days when I dream, dare I say it, of being free from one or other of my confreres in community, or even of my superior.
In other words, what I dream of from time to time is not so much to be liberated from the burden of discrimination as to be freed from the yoke of responsibility and accountability. My dream is to live the life of a free agent, one who can do whatever s/he wishes, one who is tied down by nothing and answerable to no one. Indeed, aren’t there people who seem already to be living this kind of life? Aren’t there people who seem rich enough and unattached enough to be burdened with no worries, to be able to do whatever they want?
To use an image from our readings today, my dream is to no longer have a field to plough. Of course, I’ve never actually ploughed behind an ox before, let alone twelve of them. But I can imagine what a backbreaking job it must be. Such that there is a part of me that doesn’t quite understand the hesitation on the part of Elisha in the first reading and those people in the gospel who asked to follow Jesus. I don’t quite understand what the fuss is all about. Isn’t this what the Lord came among us to do? Doesn’t Jesus come to take us away from it all, to set us free from the burdens of life? Isn’t this the answer to our prayers – to finally be liberated from the tiresome grind of our daily responsibilities? Why hesitate?
Thankfully, Saint Paul comes to my rescue. He clarifies for me the true meaning of freedom. You were called to liberty, he says, but be careful or this liberty will provide an opening for self-indulgence. Quite surprisingly, he even refers to this self-indulgence as a yoke of slavery. Paul reminds me that my dream of freedom can quite easily turn into a nightmare of bondage. And really, deep in my heart, I know that he speaks the truth. I know that simply doing whatever I want can actually mean becoming a slave of some unseen force, and even of myself. Isn’t this how our different addictions arise? Isn’t this how we end up being enslaved by food and drink, or gambling and the Internet. Isn’t this also somehow connected to the violence that some of us do to ourselves, as for example, when people starve themselves to the point of death for the sake of keeping slim, or when they cut themselves so that the physical pain will help ease their emotional hurts. And aren’t the more respectable addictions just as, if not more, dangerous? We’ve spoken before, for example, of those other isms such as workaholism, perfectionism, and keeping up with the Jonsesism. If the neighbours change their car, shouldn’t we do the same? If the neighbours send their kids for ballet, violin, karate and art classes, shouldn’t we follow suit?
More than that, in light of today’s readings, my dream is shown up for what it really is: wishful thinking. There really is no such thing as a life of absolute freedom. At least not in the way I understand it. The truth of the matter is that to live a truly human life in this world is to always be ploughing a field, to always be labouring under some yoke of responsibility. Isn’t this what our readings tell us today?
In the first reading, even though, Elisha stops ploughing his field, even though he slaughters his oxen and uses his plough as fuel for cooking them, we are told that he then follows Elijah and becomes his servant. Instead of escaping from all responsibility, Elisha is merely trading one plough for another.
We see the same thing in the gospel as well. Even though Jesus challenges the three men he meets to leave their old lives, it is only so that they might wholeheartedly follow him, that they might lay their hands on the plough that Jesus will give them, without looking back. Indeed, isn’t this what Jesus himself does? Isn’t Jesus himself labouring under the yoke of responsibility? Isn’t he ploughing the field set apart for him by his heavenly Father? Isn’t this why he resolutely took the road for Jerusalem? And aren’t we well aware of the significance of his resolution? Jesus knows that the field he is ploughing will soon be sown with the seed of his own body and blood, so that we might all reap a harvest of life in its fullness. Jesus journeys resolutely to Jerusalem so as to climb Mount Calvary, to be lifted up on the Cross and to be raised from the dead on the third day.
And Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is the image for us of what true freedom looks like. It is not the freedom of my dream. It is not the freedom of one who bears no responsibilities. It is not the freedom of one who cares only for the self and the fulfillment of its endless wants. Rather is it the freedom of one empowered by the Spirit of whom Paul speaks in the second reading. It is the freedom of one who loves God and neighbour even to the very last drop of his blood. It is the freedom of one who is able, resolutely, to lay down his life so that others might live. This is what true freedom looks like. This is the field in which we are all invited to labour, indeed, the only field worth ploughing. Today we are being awakened from the dream of living as free agents. We are being invited to leave the dead to bury their dead, so that we might labour in the field that bears fruit unto eternal life.
Sisters and brothers we began with that famous phrase spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963: I have a dream… It’s only fitting that we end with three other words from that same speech. The words are: let freedom ring! Sisters and brothers, this is our prayer today. Let freedom ring! In the power of the Spirit, in the footsteps of Christ the Lord, let freedom ring! In our world and in our country, in our parish communities and in our families, in each of our own individual lives, let freedom ring! Let (true) freedom ring!