THE Apostle Paul’s account of freedom was misunderstood by many of his original readers. If anything, it is even more challenging to the wisdom of our age. He tells the Galatians that they “were called to freedom”, but cautions them not to use that freedom as an “opportunity for self-indulgence”. They are to “live by the Spirit” and not “gratify the desires of the flesh”.
As St Catherine of Siena explains, when humans confuse the gifts of creation with the Creator, they become “lost in slavery” to things which are, in themselves, good, by making those things into idols, and forgetting that we are only stewards of God’s gifts. When gifts become idols, we become unable to “let go of them without pain”, and our possessive desire enslaves us.
Paul writes that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” To grow in Christ is to cease to seek individual pleasure at the expense of love of God and neighbour, and, instead, to participate ever more deeply in his self-offering at Calvary. As we see most clearly in the sacramental life of the Church, the vocation of our flesh (as of the whole creation) is to be an embodiment of this love. This is expressed by the Psalmist: because he can sing that “the Lord is my portion and my cup,” he is confident that his “flesh” will “rest secure”.
When our desires are transformed by the Spirit, we experience freedom; for then the commands of the law are no longer external obligations. Paul tells the Galatians that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.” St Thomas Aquinas explains the Apostle’s teaching in this way: while the just obey God’s eternal law, they are not “under” it. Rather, “the movements and breathings of the Holy Spirit in them are their inspiration; for love inclines to the very things that the law prescribes.”
The transformation of our desires and attitudes is also a central theme of our Gospel reading. When the Samaritan villagers reject Jesus and his disciples, the disciples’ reaction is to seek revenge. “Discipleship”, as Judith Lieu observes, “demands a very different set of attitudes” (Epworth Bible Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke). These are the very attitudes listed in our epistle as “gifts of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”.
In the second part of our Gospel, Jesus tells those who want to follow him that “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” This is an intensification of the demands which Elijah placed on his disciple in our Old Testament reading. Elisha is allowed to say farewell to his family — which, as Gina Hens-Piazza explains, is itself an act of radical renunciation. “First, he kisses his parents goodbye. Then, he slaughters the oxen . . . and boils their flesh. Finally, he shares the boiled meat with the people, a gesture likely serving as a thanksgiving sacrifice. Together, these actions symbolize an irrevocable decision and a break with his past that readies Elisha to take up a new identity” (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: 1 and 2 Kings).
Jesus will not allow his would-be followers even this latitude. The point he is making — in a particularly forceful and dramatic way — is that, for every disciple, familial relationships must be set in the context of their ultimate obedience to God. In the words of Pope St John Paul II, the family should be understood as a “school of love”, forming children in a love which is not bounded by kinship, but extends to embrace neighbour and stranger; all in the overarching context of the love and worship of God.
This is why the prayers in the marriage service embed the love of each couple in their wider vocation as followers of Christ, asking “that the Holy Spirit will guide and strengthen them that they may fulfil God’s purposes for the whole of their earthly life together”. What is true of marriage and family life is true of all the gifts and vocations that God entrusts to us. We enjoy them to the full — in joy and freedom — only when we allow the “movements and breathings of the Spirit” to be our guide and inspiration.