Done made my vow to the Lord
And I will never turn back
I will go, I shall go
To see what the end will be.
That’s a verse from a famous African American spiritual and it highlights the theme in today’s readings about choosing, vows and oaths.
The first reading from the first book of Kings features the prophet Elijah, following a command from God, to seek out a successor. Elijah hadn’t even met Elisha before and took a risk of rejection by going up to him and throwing his cloak over him, a sign that he had chosen the younger man to be his disciple and eventually his successor in proclaiming God’s message to the Israelites. Elisha is not quite ready; he asks permission to return to his parents to let them know. That isn’t a courtesy call; he’s telling them that he’s leaving his family and his father Shaphat forever. He’s not coming back. When you were a disciple of a prophet, the prophet and his other disciples became a new family.
So Elisha is giving his parents very sad news; news that will be difficult for them to accept. And he offers the oxen he was plowing the fields with – his father’s oxen – as a sacrifice and burns the plow. Again, it sounds like an offering we hear of often in the Old Testament, but its symbolic of Elisha spiritually ending his own life and following a new path with the prophet.
The words of the psalm were very true for Elisha after that life-changing moment; God truly became his only inheritance. He made his vow to the Lord and never turned back.
Jesus speaks of vows and oaths in the Gospel. When you make a promise – follow through on it; this is how you honor God. Speak the truth, simply and directly. All of the commandments against taking oaths that follow are meant to drive home the point. The people of Jesus’ time would often make oaths invoking some aspect of God, both to avoid speaking God’s name, which was considered too holy, and to play both sides. Some would try to get out of their oath “to God” by saying that they didn’t swear they would do something “before God” only before God’s throne, or the earth, or Jerusalem, or one’s own person.
So in that context, oaths were often the opposite of what they were supposed to be. The were supposed to indicate that the person would speak the truth; instead they became double-talk. The people Jesus was referring to made their vow to the Lord, but always seemed to find a way to turn back!
Jesus is reminding his disciples that its easy to make an oath you think you can get out of easily. It’s a lot harder to keep your word, and to live by the truth when it is hard.
Those of us who are Christian have made a vow to the Lord, too, in our baptisms.
Baptism committed us to a spiritual unity with God and with the community of the church. It demands of us that we speak the truth and, more importantly, we live the truth – following the example of Jesus.
The vow of baptism is one we should be reminded of frequently, a reminder of our blessed status as adopted children of God, as prophets of God’s promises in our own right, and as witnesses to the Reign of God who must seek the truth, and speak and live it anew each day.
We find that truth when we recognize the all people as precious children of God, like ourselves, and we fulfill the vow of our baptism, when we live our lives to show how much that matters and never turn back from it. And we know that the end … will be … glorious.
God give you peace!
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As Director of Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), I have the opportunity to record video reflections on the readings of the Scriptures proclaimed at daily Mass. I do so as part of larger group of colleagues at the Conference, along with lay and ordained leaders from around the country. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the readings for the life of faith today and to share them here, along with the written text of the reflections. To view these video reflections for past and upcoming celebrations of the Eucharist, visit the USCCB website.