Homily for the 13th Sunday of the Year (C)
After the long months of Lent and Eastertide, followed by the feasts that we celebrate thereafter, concluding with Corpus Christi last Sunday, we return now to Ordinary Time and its characteristic green vestments. In this season of the liturgical year we celebrate not any one specific mystery of our Faith, but rather that Mystery in all its fulness, assisted by the cycle of readings from the Sacred Scriptures that the Church puts before us week by week. This Sunday, the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which follows on from the sequence of Sundays we were celebrating before Lent, an important passage from the life of the prophet Elijah is set before us, recounting the moment in which God indicates to the prophet that he must appoint and call a successor to his ministry, as Elijah’s earthly life comes to an end. The first motif that this episode centres on is precisely that of calling or vocation, because Elijah is asked to identify and call Elisha to take up a special work in the service of God. This calling in Elisha’s case is signified, by Elijah, who approaches Elisha as he is working – an agricultural occupation, ploughing – and casting his mantle (a sort of cloak) upon Elisha as a concrete indication of a call to be taken up in a divine work. The Gospel reading also refers to a calling of certain individuals in its latter section, and the dialogue that Our Lord has with each of them.
We cannot but observe that the type of vocation that emerges from each of these instances is a very radical one. Both Elisha and the (unnamed) figures in the Gospel are being asked to leave their work and family lives and accompany the Master with wholehearted dedication in a travelling ministry. It is no surprise that Scripture passages of this type have been taken by the founders of the great religious orders – to think, for example of St Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans, or St Dominic, founder of the Dominicans – as a representation of the type of radical calling given to members of those orders, who give up the prospect of a normal family life, who usually have to travel away from the familiar settings of their youth, and, taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, give up earthly ties to serve God in a special state of life. Something similar can be said of a priestly vocation, where the priest must usually give up the prospect of marriage and family, must sometimes also travel to new regions in the case of a missionary, and serve God, again, in a new state of life dedicated wholly to the apostolate. Most Christians are not called to a vocation like this, although all Christians, and especially young Christians, should consider if they may be called to this way of life – it brings many unique graces and blessings to the one called. But does this interpretation of these passages mean that these Gospel passages are not relevant to the rest of us?
It does not, and for the following reason. The figures in the Scripture and the religious or priest of all times reveal to us with special clarity, by the radical choice they make to give God the first and absolute priority in their lives, the nature of the choice that each of us is asked to make to put God first in our lives, not so that, for most of us, we give up the normal cycle of human existence, family, work, a settled existence, but that we allow our choice for God to set in order and shape all our other choices and decisions. To seek “first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness” as Our Lord says elsewhere (Matt. 6:33), and then for this first choice to colour and influence everything else that we do. Christian Faith pertains to what is ultimate, what is transcendent, and so it necessarily claims the first place in our lives, not to cancel our natural aspirations but to set them in order and purify them. Hence most are called to family life, but then to allow Faith to be the directing influence of our decisions and development in that life together as a family. Faith then, becomes the “organising principle” of our lives, that central points around which other facets or choices constellate.
In the second reading St Paul sets out the contrast between living by the Spirit or living according to the flesh. To live by the Spirit means to be directed by the Spirit in our thoughts, words and actions, which is ultimately the same as to live according to Faith, because it is Faith that opens us to the Holy Spirit of God and allows us to co-operate with that Spirit. To live according to the “flesh”, on the other hand, according to St Paul’s terminology, a special biblical use of the term, means to live according to the worst side of human nature, living a “human” or “earthly” life without reference to God, moved by sinful passions. Now in a comparable way to Faith being an “organising principle” of action, so can sin become so. This slightly unnerving idea also needs to be considered. An example comes to mind based on what many of us over past days have reflected on, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to end the so-described “right to choose”, that is to terminate a pregnancy. A political campaign to legitimise abortion has many effects. It influences policy and law. It shapes social norms of what is considered good and acceptable. So it misleads consciences. It has an influence on how people respect human life at other stages, such as how the elderly are respected. From the original campaign I described, as from a source or first cause, many effects come – and in this case, not good effects. This is in fact what St John Paul II described as a structure of sin. To give, on the other hand, an example starting from an individual, we could take that of a person who has a strong desire to possess something that doesn’t belong to him or her. So he steals it. Then, subsequently, he feels the tell one or more lies to cover up his theft. If this doesn’t work, he might make a false accusation of someone else, to deflect the blame from himself. Thus from the one original decision many evils follow.
The more that we make God the first principle and priority of our lives the more we protect ourselves against this type of dynamic. If we work at putting God first, we then identify and recognise the times that things creep in contrary to God and his love – other priorities contrary to that first principle – in an examination of conscience and then we confess our fault or faults especially in the Sacrament of Confession and ask God that we may re-order our lives according to his plan. No one is perfect, no one doesn’t sometimes let other priorities conflict at times with Faith, but the key thing is to allow God to set things back in order each time and keep working at giving him the first place in our lives. Concretely, we do this by, yes, examination of conscience and confession, but also participation in Holy Mass on Sundays (and Holy Days), giving God the first day the week and the first place in that week; and also, very particularly, in daily prayer, each morning in the first instance, asking God to lead and guide us each moment of the day. Then our lives will become an offering to him, and a response to the vocation or call he makes individually to each one of us, to serve him, our Master, our Creator, Our Lord. Amen.