The mission of the prophets and the resolution of the Messiah

On the Readings for Sunday, June 30, 2013

• 1 Kgs 19:16b, 19-21
• Ps 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11
• Gal 5:1, 13-18
• Lk 9:51-62

“I’m on my way!” “We’re on our way!”

These are common enough expressions, and we know their meaning. They indicate movement, purpose, resolution. We’ve uttered them many times, with anticipation, or with anxiety.

Jesus, we hear in today’s Gospel reading, was “on the way.” The days for his “being taken up” had been fulfilled, and so “he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” A more direct translation is that “he hardened his face to go”. This language is meant to evoke connections with the prophets, especially Ezekiel: “Son of man, set your face toward Jerusalem and preach against the sanctuaries; prophesy against the land of Israel…” (Ezek. 21:2; RSVCE). Jesus sent messengers ahead, reminiscent of God sending messengers before Moses and the people (Ex. 23:20).

The journey to Jerusalem was, in other words, a prophetic mission and the concrete realization of a new Exodus—not from Egypt, but from sin, death, and separation from God. Jesus was resolute and unflinching in this decision, by which “he indicated that he was going up to Jerusalem prepared to die there” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 557). Some have suggested or insisted that Jesus, in going to Jerusalem, did not really know of his approaching death, but was acting with naïve optimism or blind faith.

However, as we heard last week, Jesus told his disciples that he would suffer, be rejected by the religious leaders, killed, and raised on the third day (Lk. 9:22). What the prophets of the Old Testament sometimes saw in startling glimpses, Jesus saw with calm clarity: his mission was to liberate mankind from the slavery of sin and the curse of death by being the sinless, sacrificial Lamb of God. And as the Holy One journeyed to the holy city, he encountered rejection, opposition, confusion, and even fervent promises—the same reactions he still encounters today. 

The Samaritans, whose harbored strong hostility toward the Jews, did not welcome him, apparently because he journeyed to Jerusalem and not Mount Gerizim, the site of their temple (cf. Jn. 4:20). Jesus did not fit their concept of a prophet or messiah, and so they rejected him. Of course, the Pharisees and scribes also rejected him for the same reason, and the similarities (and irony) of this fact was likely not lost on St. Luke’s first-century readers.

Jesus then encountered three men who got a taste (and give us a clear picture) of the demands of discipleship. It is easy to say to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” but keeping such promises is far more daunting than making them. Another asked to be given time to first bury his father; a third wished to first say goodbye to his family.

Was Jesus insensitive to familial responsibilities and hardships? No, said St. Basil the Great, but “a person who wishes to become the Lord’s disciple must repudiate a human obligation, however honorable it may appear, if it slows us ever so slightly in giving the wholehearted obedience we owe to God.” Jesus recognized that these men, well intentioned and fervent as they may have been, were like those who “receive the word with joy, but they have no root; they believe only for a time and fall away in time of trial” (Lk. 8:13).

As St. Frances de Sales wrote, in Treatise on the Love of God, “…we receive the grace of God in vain, when we receive it at the gate of our heart, and not within the consent of our heart; for so we receive it without receiving it, that is, we receive it without fruit, since it is nothing to feel the inspiration without consenting unto it.” Contrast that with the newly selected prophet, Elisha. Called by God, he asked permission to say farewell to his family. Yet, given permission to do so by Elijah, Elisha decided instead to literally sacrifice his old life, recognizing that following God requires going all the way.

His actions said, “I’m on the way.” What do our actions say?

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the June 27, 2010, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.