From time to time, people wonder why God chose Late Second Temple Judaism and Palestine as the time and place to reveal the Savior. This question is raised often in academic circles. The religious, social, and political circumstances during Jesus’ lifetime do not seem to be the most conducive to the proclamation of universal salvation by means of God’s generosity.
The prevailing religious practice among most people in antiquity was a polytheism that happily embraced the inherited gods of the Greek and Roman Empires along with a wide spectrum of household gods, superstitions, and oriental mystery cults. Judaism represented a radical alternative to gentile paganism but, at the time, Judaism was deeply divided by multiple factions dedicated to a wide range of political and religious causes.
Both the Jewish and gentile societies during Jesus’ lifetime were subjugated by Roman society, which itself struggled under the burden of a failing economy. Roman politics as well as Jewish politics were riven by internal divisions. One would think that God could have found a more congenial time and place to reveal universal salvation. A cursory reading of today’s Gospel passage, however, might indicate the contrary.
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus seems to revel in the fact that he had nowhere to call home. (Lk. 9:58) He tells a man to ignore his family responsibilities and his need to grieve the death of a parent. (Lk. 9:60) Lastly, he discourages someone from joining his group of disciples. (Lk. 9:62)
The Gospel doesn’t tell us how people reacted to his actions mentioned above, but one can guess easily the reactions of people today if Jesus lived during our age. In the current politically polarized climate, his comments would provoke two opposed but predictable reactions. Having ‘nowhere to lay his head’ would sound like glorifying or lamenting homelessness, depending on one’s political leanings. Today, the instruction to “let the dead bury their dead” (Lk. 9:60) would probably be judged by all to be criminally insensitive. His reluctance to accept the third offer of discipleship (Lk. 6:62) would sound like discrimination to some people today; to others, it would sound like setting appropriate boundaries.
Today, Jesus would probably be judged to be a polarizing public figure. A generation ago, he would probably have been judged to be the original hippie. Perhaps not surprisingly, every generation and every age has reinterpreted Jesus according to their own historically-conditioned likes and dislikes. The religious leaders in Jerusalem during Jesus’ lifetime did the same.
There is, of course, an alternative to reinterpreting Jesus in ways that satisfy one’s personal prejudices. Unfortunately, that alternative requires one to attend to Jesus’ opinions rather than to one’s own. How did Jesus understand himself? I alluded to the answer to this question in last week’s homily.
Immediately before Jesus was approached by the three men mentioned above, the Gospel tells us that he entered a Samaritan village, preaching the Good News on his route to Jerusalem. (Lk. 9:51-52) The Samaritans refused to welcome him; his disciples’ immediate reaction was to wish Divine punishment on the Samaritans in retaliation for their lack of hospitality. (Lk. 9:53-54) Jesus rebuked them for trying to harm the residents of the Samaritan town. (Lk. 9:55)
The Samaritans’ lack of hospitality was the result of commonly held cultural and religious prejudices of the time. The Gospel author, however, likens their rejection of Jesus to the half-hearted would-be disciples whom Jesus refuses in the following verses. The Samaritans, James and John, the worldly man, the grieving son, and the homesick man were motivated by fear. The Samaritans were wary of a Jewish religious reformer on his way to Jerusalem. James and John felt that they had been slighted. The worldly man was afraid to leave behind the comforts of home. The grieving man was afraid of what his family would think of him. The homesick man was afraid of not being able to return home if discipleship didn’t work out well for him.
Jesus, on the other hand, was free from fear. Several popular sporting goods manufacturers have advertising slogans that encourage freedom from fear, but Jesus’ freedom was not the same sort of freedom marketed to consumers. Jesus was free from fear because he had internalized God’s will. The people around him had internalized the anxieties of relatives and a materialistic society. Jesus, by comparison, was free enough to trust in God alone.
Take a few moments to think about where you place your trust. Many people today trust their wealth and the growing economy. Others place their trust in political power or a particular era in Church history. A preacher with whom I am acquainted rarely begins a sermon without referring to his favorite sports team; it didn’t take his congregation long to realize where he puts his trust.
Jesus was free from worry and anxiety; as a consequence, he was able to trust God fully. Today’s Gospel makes it clear that there is no time or place that makes selfless faith in God easy. Waiting until a better time to get right with God is just an excuse for not repenting of one’s sins. Waiting until an opportune time to start going to church again is nothing more than an excuse for not doing the right thing. Dividing one’s loyalties between politics, money, success, and religion is gambling; it’s not faith.
The right time to trust completely in God is this present moment. It is important to keep in mind that Jesus never promised easy lives to his disciples. In the face of rejection, lukewarm loyalty, and deadly betrayal Jesus remained faithful to God. His free choice to trust God fully effected our redemption. Can you think of a good reason not to imitate him?