I will follow you, but…
The world-renowned opera singer Luciano Pavarotti recalls, “When I was a boy, my father, a baker, introduced me to the wonders of song. He urged me to work very hard to develop my voice. Arrigo Pola, a professional tenor in my hometown, took me on as a student. I also enrolled in a teacher’s college. As graduation was nearing, I asked my father, ‘Shall I be a teacher or a singer?’
‘Luciano,’ my father replied, ‘if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose, you can only sit in one chair.’”
Pavarotti continues, “I chose one. It took seven years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another seven to reach the Metropolitan Opera. And now I think, whether it’s laying bricks, writing a book—whatever we choose—we should give ourselves completely to it. Commitment—that’s the key. Choose one chair.”
In our gospel reading Jesus is calling various individuals to make the commitment of following him. And some of what he says sounds harsh to our ears, doesn’t it? For example, when he says, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
During Jesus’ time, there was a strong sense of social and moral obligation to bury the dead. And we Catholics in our day include burying the dead as one of the corporal works of mercy. But Jesus calls for a total commitment in which the duty to God comes first. Perhaps by overstating the case as it were, Jesus wants his followers to realize how important it is to put God at the absolute center, when so often we make someone or something else more important.
We see this in the case of the last person called. He responds, “I will follow you, Lord, but…” Let’s stop right there, with that word “but”.
When Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, and James and John, to be his disciples, we are told that they immediately followed him. James and John even left their father sitting in the boat. The same thing happened when Jesus called Matthew, the tax collector. Matthew immediately followed Jesus. There were no “buts”. They didn’t try to sit in two chairs, to go part of the way, to be disciples on their terms.
We can do this is many ways. A lonely old person, perhaps a grandparent, or someone in a nursing home, or a neighbor living alone wants us to visit. And even though we feel we should, we can find all kinds of excuses for not doing so. We know that going to church on Sunday is something we are asked to do as Catholics, but for many it’s just more important to do something else. And we let things slide.
There’s an interesting passage in the Book of Revelation. The author presents a message from Jesus to various local churches, with an assessment as to how well they were doing. To the Church in Laodicea, he has this to say: “I know your deeds; I know you are neither hot nor cold. How I wish you were one or the other—hot or cold! But because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth!’” (Revelation 3:15-16)
I recently read a little poem called “The Gospel According to You”. The author acknowledges the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but also suggests that each of us is writing a gospel for others to read. It’s put together day by day by “the things we do and the words we say.” The anonymous author asks, “Do others read His truth and His love in your life? Does your life speak of evil, or does it ring true?”
Let’s place ourselves before the Lord in today’s gospel, asking us to follow him, as he did those individuals at that time. Here’s the sentence to consider: “I will follow you, Lord, but______ .