The threats from the loggers and ranchers and their hired gunmen were coming more frequently. Some urged her to leave or to desist her relentless outcry against the devastation of the Brazilian rainforest. But Dorothy Stang, S.N.D., would not leave the poor farmers whose homes and livelihood were in peril. She forged on through almost impassable muddy roads to reach them, to read the Scriptures and pray together, to bolster their courage to stand up against injustice and to urge them to live in harmony with the rainforest, with God and with one another. Her resolute journey ended when she was gunned down on February 12, 2005.
In today’s Gospel we see the same resolute determination on the part of Jesus not to deviate from the path on which he has set out, to advocate for life for the most vulnerable. The opposition against him is mounting, and he knows it. He chooses not to turn back. There were still many ancient hatreds that needed healing, one of which was the enmity between his people and Samaritans. He tries to meet them in their own territory, but they will not receive him. The infuriated disciples want to do as Elijah did (2 Kgs 1:10) and call down on them fire from heaven. Jesus instead urges them to peaceably journey on to another village with him.
En route Jesus encounters three potential followers. Many commentators understand these as people who are initially enthusiastic but are not able to embrace the serious demands of discipleship once Jesus articulates these. But each encounter is left open-ended, and we are not told whether or not the person does ultimately follow Jesus. They all pose questions to us about our own commitment to follow Jesus all the way to Jerusalem.
The first person approaches Jesus, expressing a desire to follow him. With words akin to Ruth’s profession of loyalty to Naomi (Ru 1:16), the first says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” This potential disciple rightly voices that following Jesus requires whole-hearted dedication to him. In reply Jesus warns that his is an itinerant mission that demands mobility to go where the needs are and a letting go of any possessiveness, even of a bed of one’s own.
In the second encounter, Jesus initiates the call to follow. This person wants to take care first of filial obligations to his parents. Jesus invites him to embrace a larger family obligation: to extend his concern for life to all God’s family as his kin and to proclaim well-being for all in God’s realm.
The third person, like the first, initiates the encounter and expresses a desire to follow Jesus, asking to bid farewell first to his family, as did Elisha when called by Elijah. Jesus warns that any who come with him will not be able to return to what was before. They are forever changed and must proclaim the reign of God. Just as Dorothy Stang could not leave the people she had come to love in her 40 years of ministry in the Amazon rainforest, so disciples must follow the path of Jesus until their own moment of being “taken up” in death and resurrection.
We do not know whether the three would-be disciples accepted these sobering challenges and continued on the way with Jesus. If the conditions Jesus sets forth seem daunting, Paul reminds us that this is not a yoke of slavery we take up, but a freeing power to live by the Spirit. Just as Elijah clothed Elisha with the mantle of his prophetic power, so Jesus’ disciples are wrapped in the protective cloak of his loving spirit.