I often mention in these commentaries that biblical “call narratives” are some of the most important parts of Scripture. The Bible’s original readers presumed they also had been called by Yahweh or Jesus, and were personally interested in the implications of responding to such a unique invitation.
Our first and third readings demonstrate the implications aren’t always the same for everyone. Elijah permits Elisha to do something Jesus prohibits: kiss his mother and father goodbye. But on the other hand, both convey the same determination in responding to the call. Elisha slaughters his team of oxen and cooks the meat over a fire fueled by his plow. He can never again return to farming. Jesus’ followers can’t even “pine after the good old days.” There’s no looking back. Once one responds, life is irrevocably changed.
Our own personal response is the only thing we should worry about. Others’ response, or lack of it, shouldn’t concern us, as James and John discover in the first part of today’s gospel pericope when they plead with Jesus to annihilate the unresponsive Samaritans.
The experience of those called also shows how it affects our relationship with others. That’s why it’s important to understand Jesus’ oft-quoted remark, “Let the dead bury their dead!” The perspective disciple isn’t on his way to a funeral home to make burial arrangements for his dead father. The man isn’t asking for a three- or four-day reprieve in his discipleship until his father’s body is finally put to rest. In that culture, people were usually buried within a few hours of death. The situation here seems to mirror the case of many who wish to become followers of either the historical or risen Jesus, yet hesitate to make such a commitment because one or both parents have a problem with it. The man’s request, in this context, could be reworded, “Let me stay with my father until he dies and is buried, then I’ll leave home and become your disciple.”
Looking at the man’s request from that angle, Jesus’ response, “Let the dead bury their dead!” is both biting and insightful. He’s basically saying, “Haven’t you noticed? Your father’s already dead.” (Because of his refusal to let you accept my message.) Let someone just as dead as he is bury him.” Nothing should stop us - not even respect for, and obligations to our parents - from achieving the life discipleship offers.
Along the same line, nothing infuriates Paul more than Christians who refuse to live out their Christian calling. If he were a school teacher, he’s no doubt insist his students underline the words, “Remember that you have been called to live in freedom!” The problem he encounters in Galatia revolves around the choice of some Gentile followers of Jesus to tie themselves down to keeping the 613 laws of Moses - symbolized by having themselves circumcised. (No wonder verse 12 has been omitted from today’s liturgical passage. It’s not only mean-spirited, it’s also “R” rated!)
Of course, keeping the law provides a security which “living in accord with the spirit” can never offer. As Paul emphasizes, following the dictates of the spirit implies we’re constantly putting love first in our relations with others. “Serve one another through love,” he commands. “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
All biblical calls involve following a person, not a set of rules and regulations. But eventually those calls, as Paul discovers, lead us to respond to other people in a loving way. As I frequently reminded my high school marriage course students, “There’s no one action that everywhere, in every circumstance, to every person, always shows love.” That means there are as many implications to following Jesus’ call of love as there are human beings on earth. At last count, that number was approaching 7 billion!