13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
July 1, 2007

Readings: 1 Kgs 19:16b,19-21 / Gal 5:1, 13-18 / Lk 9:51-62

Our contemporary language is chockfull of insights about what we value, about what we consider as important above all others. There was a time when we were told to “tune in” to a particular radio program, or to a particular TV channel. When there were but few choices available, we were advised to “tune in.” It was just a simple matter of turning the dial, and placing the arrow on the exact spot that corresponds to the desired radio frequency (which was either AM or FM).

In our times, we speak more of the need to “tune out.” With an almost endless array of choices that come along with cable TV; with so many products galore to select from, neatly stacked in heaving shelves in our “hypermarkets,” our capacity for freely making choices necessitates that we first, “tune out” or “zone out” in order to narrow down the list from which to make final choices. We literally need to un-clutter our lives first before we can make order come out of chaos. We figuratively need to narrow down the equivalent of our freedom “bandwidth” to be able to tune in to something that truly can set us free.

Tuning out and tuning in both have to do with the capacity for, and the actual use of, our personal freedom.

Freedom to follow Elijah is the subject of the first reading. As soon as Elijah threw his cloak over Elisha, the latter unhesitatingly un-cluttered his life, said good-bye to what bound him to his past, and “followed Elijah as his attendant.” We are told explicitly: “Taking the yoke of oxen, [Elisha] slaughtered them, used the plowing equipment to boil their flesh, and gave it to the people to eat.” He tuned out before he tuned in, and focused on becoming a prophet like Elijah was.

Paul, for his part, takes up the same icon of the “yoke” that Elisha burned, and advises the Galatians to set themselves free. But for them to be truly free, they first need to “zone out” of situations that enslaved them. Only then could they really focus on genuine freedom. In effect, Paul tells them to be “free from” in order to be “free for.” He counsels them to liberate themselves from the “law of the flesh” so that they could “live by the Spirit.” Again, we may speak of his thoughts in terms of tuning out so that we could tune in to what leads to genuine interior freedom.

The Gospel of Luke links up this interior freedom with the call to discipleship. For a disciple to be genuinely free to follow the Lord, he has to tune out three things in his life. First in the list is the need for safety, comfort, and security. He tells the enthusiastic applicant who asked to follow him wherever he went: “Foxes have dens and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” In effect, he tells him to tune out first from all his cares and tune in to the demands inherent in being a disciple.

Second in the list is the need to “zone out” of all excuses, rationalizations, and alibis, legitimate or otherwise. Various concerns and personal ambitions, wants, and desires always tend to crowd out the feeble desire in the human heart to do good. One always will find a reason to delay, to postpone, to hem and haw, and to push ahead and pull back at one and the same time, when it comes to doing something difficult but necessary. Focus isn’t possible when we are too caught up in so many conflicting concerns at one and the same time.

Third in the list, which is perhaps the most difficult of all, is the need to tune out of so many attachments, affections, and emotional bonds that tie up the human heart. With so many conflicting allegiances, so many loyalties that claim for our undivided attention at any given time, we need to narrow down the field of choices a little bit. We need to lose some in order to win some. We need to let go if we are to let grow that feeble desire to do something really marvelous for God and others. “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Our postmodern and globalized world has definitely made our field of choices wider and broader. Choices galore mark our entertainment world. Cable TV and satellite communications offer the global consumer with a wide array of choices in every language, format, and content imaginable. But our interior freedom to make wise choices may have narrowed down considerably. In many cases, commercial advertisers may really have decided already for young and old alike. In many instances, the bombardment of propaganda may really have lumped certain ideas and thought patterns down the throats of the unsuspecting masses. For many young people, who live in the midst of so much peer pressure, there may not be any interior freedom left to speak of when it comes to deciding to behave and act any differently from what the world of young people all over the world expects.

The call to discipleship, that is, the call to follow Christ truly, fully, and meaningfully, is basically a call to heighten and broaden our freedom. But before we can be “free for” Christ, we need to be “free from” so many constraints that pose as obstacles to fully following him. For us to be able to “tune in” to God, we very literally need first to “tune out” to so many things that do not lead us to Him.

At this juncture, I am reminded of the extended essay “Walden Pond” written by the American writer Henry David Thoreau. He writes about his “going to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately.” He speaks about “cutting a broad swath” and “saying no to everything that was not life.” He purposely “tuned out” in order to “tune in” and to “front the essential facts of life.”

He actually speaks of the very same stuff we are speaking of right now. He refers to the need for anyone to “tune out” or “zone out” of so many superficial and many times conflicting concerns that tend to crowd out the absolute essential of life.

Today, our readings remind us of this essential. And this essential is all about God’s call for us to follow Him. For us to do so, we need to un-clutter our lives. We need to say no to everything that is not discipleship. We need to tune out, in order for us to tune in. “Free us, Lord, from darkness and keep us in the radiance of your truth.” (Opening Prayer, 13th Sunday).

Paranaque City, June 25, 2007
3:45 PM

N.B. What follows is what I wrote three years ago whilst I was in Dundalk, MD. That explains the allusions I make to the Olympics which, by then, was just about to begin.

June 24, 2004 – Dundalk, MD

Excitement is in the air as the Olympic torch steadily, but surely, makes its way to and from Athens, the site of this year’s athletic events so much awaited by the whole, free world. It is significant that, even as the world reels under the specter of terror and ongoing violence perpetrated by both sides who belong to the wide spectrum of political, economic, cultural, and religious ideologies, the vast majority of the freedom-loving world, focuses its attention, not on battling one another with weapons of mass death and destruction, but on slugging it out peacefully in friendly and healthy sports competitions.

It is unfortunate that there are those among us peoples of all nations, races, and creeds, whose attitude and behavior seem to mar and tar the nobility of such a wholesome dream for camaraderie and competition. It is, indeed, unfortunate, that in our days, there are those of us in the human family, who continue to derail the vision of worldwide fraternity, unity, and solidarity which the God of all creeds, the God of whatever appellation, from whatever faith tradition, so clearly wants His people to work for.

The Roman Catholic liturgy today, draws from the rich Scriptural tradition of both the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), and sheds light on this on-going dream of God, on this on-going salvific work that Christ, the Son of God, prayed so fervently for just before he suffered and died, “that they might be one, even as you and I, Father, are one.”

Four important and significant Biblical personalities are presented for our reflection today: Elijah, Elisha, Paul, and Jesus Christ. All four personages figure prominently in accounts that all speak of a “giving,” “passing on,” a “handing over,” a “tra-dition” in the Latin sense, that is, to bequeath, to give, to deliver. Elijah does more than speak to Elisha. He “throws his cloak over him,” a “sacramental” act of passing on a task and responsibility. Elisha obeys, and goes forthwith to settle his personal and familial affairs. He leaves entirely what appears to be his rather copious means of livelihood, “and gave it to his people to eat.” Paul, for his part, basks in the glory and responsibility of received “freedom,” exhorting his readers at Galatia to “stand firm and not to submit to the yoke of slavery.” In the Gospel, the gift and task of discipleship were couched in no wishy-washy terms: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

There is a very clear trend in the totality of Scriptures that points to the elements that make up the “glorious liberty of the children of God.” In the same Scriptures, and in the tradition passed on by the Church founded by Jesus Christ, salvation, among other things, is very clearly associated with this concept of freedom – freedom from material goods, freedom from stifling relationships, freedom from the “slavery” of sin, freedom from both internal and external bonds that shackle women and men, to superficial cares and concerns that have nothing to do with eternal salvation. There is this unmistakable understanding that, whilst the fullness of salvation is yet to come, the sure way to this salvation already is available for God’s beloved children. In other words, salvation happens, here and now, for all those who love and follow the Lord. Salvation is a reality that takes place right now, right here, and a sure-fire sign it does take place is our sharing in, and our living concretely the manifestations of that gift of freedom.

That gift, however, does not come hermetically sealed, never to be opened. No … it is something one does, something one lives … something one not only professes, but also confesses in one’s deeds. Handsome is as handsome does… The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Freedom is both a gift and a glorious task. It is a privilege and at the same time a power for action, a promise of appropriate behavior commensurate with the nobility of that singular gift from God. It is a gift that is meant to grow, a favor from above that must flourish in our personal and social lives.

And since it is a gift to free persons, it can be abused. It can be misused. And it can plainly atrophy for sheer disuse.

Our own personal lives are a living testimony to the reality of that freedom. It is enough to look back at the choices we have made all our lives. My past 22 years of priesthood alone are an example of that freedom. I have made decisions. I have made choices. And some of those choices have caused grief both in myself and in others, even as some of those choices have led to personal good and that of others. In retrospect, I am sure you will agree with me, that if one could do it all over again, there would be choices and decisions you would have wanted to do a little differently. But choices lead to consequences. And consequences are what we all ought to be responsible for, being offshoots of the very freedom we all invoke.

The world is fast hurtling down the road of extreme polarities. The ideological spectrum now captures the undivided attention of people all over. In many places all over the world, people are neatly divided between two opposing political parties, with equally opposing ideologies. Nations are enmeshed in various forms of cultural, and economic “divides,” like the north-south, east-west problems. People from poor, developing countries like the Philippines are clearly aligned into the “haves” and “have-nots,” “educated” and “uneducated,” the “well-heeled” and the “great unwashed.” Alas, even the Church that we so love, can be scandalously divided between the “liberals,” and the “conservatives,” the “progressives” and the “ultra-traditionalists.” Polarization in everything and anything seems to be the run of the day. Polarization, I would like to suggest, is the new name for the so many “unfreedoms” in people’s lives today. Extreme polarization is the manifestation of a much deeper and subtler form of slavery that St. Paul speaks about.

In this welter of conflicting and contrasting ideological allegiances, I suggest that we return to the Biblical tradition that today’s liturgy shows us. I suggest that we return to the basic foundation of this freedom. And that foundation lies on the giver of that freedom, the source of that “glorious liberty of the children of God.” That source is no less, and no other than God. “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit to the yoke of slavery.” That freedom, ironically, is founded on “obedience” to the same God. (The Latin ob-audire from where obedience comes, has to do with “listening.”) Jesus Christ now tells us without mincing words: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

We are avidly awaiting the Olympic torch to go home to Athens. We Christians do not merely wait for that material flame to go back where it began. We live and work – and die, if need be – in order to pass on the torch of freedom to one another, and to the rest of the world.