Sunday July 1, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21) Reading II (Galatians 5:1, 13-18)
Gospel (St. Luke 9:51-62)
In the readings today, it would appear that there is a contradiction. We hear, in the first reading, about Elijah and Elisha. Elisha says to Elijah: "I will follow you, but first let me go and kiss my parents." Elijah says, "Have I done anything to you? Go!" We have to recognize that to kiss one's parents does not mean to go and simply give them a kiss and then turn around and walk away. It implied the slaughtering of twelve oxen, cutting them up, starting the fire, cooking them, and having a whole party for the family. Elijah, of course, understood that and he waited for Elisha to come. In the Gospel reading, when the man says, "First let me go and take leave of my family," Jesus says, "No, do not turn back. If you put your hand to the plow and keep turning back you are not fit for the kingdom of God."
What we see in these two readings is that there is a complete correlation between the two. Recall, at the beginning of the Gospel reading we heard how James and John wanted to call down fire from the sky to consume the Samaritan village. Three times the prophet Elijah called down fire from the sky. The first couple of times, it consumed the soldiers who had come out to capture him. This is the same thing, except now what we see is that Jesus rebukes them. Elijah tells Elisha that it is okay for him to go back to his family, and now we see Jesus saying, "Do not go back." We see a very similar correlation between the two; but, at the same time, we see that something entirely new is happening. Things are similar, but not the same.
That is, actually, what Saint Paul tells us in the second reading. He says, for instance, that the entire law is summed up in one statement: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The reason he is telling us this is that he had gone into Galatia and preached the Gospel. Galatia was in Asia Minor so it was a pagan area, a Gentile area. All of a sudden, the people of Galatia believe in the Gospel. Then, some people who were calling themselves super-apostles come along and tell these people that they have to be Jews first before they can be Christians. "The men have to be circumcised," they said. In the Letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul is telling the people that if you are circumcised you are responsible for living the fullness of the law. He says, "No one is saved by living the law."
What is new fulfills what is old. In fact, what he is telling the people is that Jesus gave us a commandment to love one another as He has loved us. Saint Paul says, "If you want to live the law, do not worry about the flesh but focus on love." That is the commandment Jesus gave. If you want to fulfill the law - love. "Do not just go through the empty rituals of the law," is what he is telling the people, "those are not going to save you, but you need to love." We see the old and the new, once again, very clearly delineated. Saint Paul tells us that the flesh wars against the spirit and the spirit wars against the flesh. The two are in opposition to one another. The point he is making to the Galatians is that if you get yourself circumcised, you are choosing the flesh rather than the spirit.
We have been baptized and the Spirit has been given to us. It is not so much a matter of being in the flesh. While we live, obviously, in the flesh, our faith is in the spirit. There is not a physical sign of our faith, like there was for the Jewish people who were circumcised; but rather, for us, it is something that is spiritual. Therefore, Saint Paul is saying, "Do not live according to the ways of the flesh but live according to the ways of the spirit. The two are in contrast." So too, we see that the law and the spirit are also, to some degree, in contrast to one another. All of those prescriptions of the law are no longer going to be the way that we will serve God. That is the point Saint Paul wants the people to understand. There is something entirely new that is happening in Christ. It builds on what is old, it fulfills what is old, but it supersedes what is old. Therefore, do not go back to the old way and try to live that yourself so that you can make your way up to being in Christ, but rather in Baptism you are already in Christ. You do not have to go back and do what the law says.
Let me make clear again what that law is all about. There are two types of laws in the Old Testament. There are moral laws and there are ritual laws or ceremonial laws. Saint Paul is talking about the ritual or ceremonial laws. He is not talking about the moral laws. That is why we still have the Ten Commandments. Many Christians who are not Catholics will say, "Well, look. It says right here that we do not have to follow the law. Therefore, we do not have to follow the Ten Commandments. Those are out." That is not true. The moral laws remain. The ritual laws do not.
That is why we do not have to follow, for instance, all the laws regarding the kosher things. We can eat various foods that the Jewish people could not eat. We can do things without having to go through the ritual purification that the Jewish people had to endure. When you read in the Old Testament about the different things the people had to do, that we do not have to, that is why. Those were things in the flesh. If you were made ritually impure, you had to bathe seven times in order to be purified. It was the flesh. In order to do certain things, it was the flesh, it was the body that had to be cared for in a certain way. You could not eat certain foods because they made you unclean. You could not touch certain animals or dead bodies because it would make you unclean. The way you were made clean again was to go through ritual purification.
But for Christians it is very different. Saint Peter, when he talks about Baptism, reminds us that it is not about the flesh. He reminds us that it is not a physical stain that is being removed, but rather what happens in Baptism is entirely spiritual. Therefore, when we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we are spiritually baptized into Him. It is the whole person that is united to Christ and consecrated to Him, both body and soul. But it is not about the flesh, so we do not have to worry about all of the ritual things regarding the flesh. Rather, what we focus on is the soul, the purity of the soul, the ritual purification that takes place in the soul - not in the body. That is why we confess our sins rather than bathing seven times. That is why we do things that are spiritual, rather than physical, in order to be one with Christ. It is because those things of the law have passed away.
This also means that we have to live according to this way. That is the freedom that Saint Paul is talking about. It is not the licentiousness that Americans equate with freedom: "I can do anything I want. If I am free that means I can say whatever I want, I can act however I want, and I can do whatever I want." We think freedom of speech means that we can cuss and swear, rip other people to shreds, and say anything we want. That is not what Jesus would call freedom of speech. In America, we think freedom means: "I can be immoral if I want and no one can tell me any different." That is not freedom - that is slavery. Jesus made that very clear. He tells us, "Whoever sins is a slave to sin." We are called to freedom, not to slavery. We have been freed from the slavery to sin and the slavery to the flesh. Therefore, we need to live according to the spirit and according to the freedom that we have as children of God. That is what the Lord has done for us. Not license; but freedom, liberality, the freedom of the children of God. That is what we need to focus upon.
The Lord told us that the truth will set us free. We need to embrace the truth, not just externally saying, "If I do these external things then I have freedom in Christ." No, that is not it. We are to do the internal things and externally we will act upon it. In other words, if we are accepting our dignity, if we are accepting our unity in Christ, if we are accepting the consecration to the Holy Trinity which is ours in Baptism, and if we accept what happens to us when we receive Holy Communion and are united with the Lord in the Spirit then we will love, we will act upon what it is that we already are, and we will live in a new way. It will not be merely external things.
In other words, as I have said so many times, it is not merely a matter of showing up for Mass on Sunday and going through the motions saying, "I have completed my Christian duty for the week," not at all. Coming to Mass is merely an external sign of what is happening in the heart. What happens in the heart is not one hour a week, it is 24 hours a day. To be a Catholic person is to have time every day for prayer to develop that union with Christ. It is to be able to accept all the truths; not externally saying, "Ok, I will do these things," but rather saying, "I believe these things and because I believe them, I will live them." What is external is merely a sign of what is already on the inside. That is the new way.
It is not about the flesh, it is about the spirit. "Therefore, we live according to the spirit," Saint Paul tells us. We take the old which was good, the old which was of God, the old which is the law that the people had to follow so that they could live what they professed, and we supersede it completely in Christ so that we no longer live according to the old way but something that is entirely new. That is precisely what Jesus told us. Remember the Parables when He said, "You do not take new cloth and sew it to an old garment. You do not take new wine and put it into old wineskins. I am doing something entirely new." That is what He is doing. "Behold, I make all things new." You are renewed in Jesus Christ. You have become a new creation in Jesus Christ. Do not live according to the ways of the world, which are the ways of the flesh, and which are materialistic. But live according to the spirit so that you will have the freedom of the children of God. Live according to the new way in Jesus Christ.
Note: Father Altier does not write his homilies in advance, but relies solely upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.