“Burning One’s Bridges and One’s Boats”, by Fr. Robert Manansala, OFM

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Last Saturday, I officiated the beautiful wedding of a wonderful couple named Christian and Chassie. One of the highlights of the ceremony was the couple’s touching personally written exchange of vows. This was done before the official and canonical exchange of vows prescribed by the Church, which can never be done away with to make the wedding valid.

In the said exchange of vows, one could clearly sense the strong commitment made for the present and the future. The bride and the groom pledged themselves to each other and to unconditional and faithful love in marriage and family life. They appeared, using the words in the gospel today, “resolutely determined” to make their marriage work or succeed and to keep their vows till death do them part. According to them, without using the words, there was no more turning back. They were, as if, burning their bridges.

The idiomatic expression “to burn one’s bridges” can mean “cutting the way back where you came from, making it impossible to retreat” or “making decisions that cannot be changed in the future.” Etymologically, it is based on the military action of burning a bridge you have just crossed to prevent the enemy from crossing it after you.

Nil Guillemette says that an equivalent expression of this idiom “to burn one’s bridge” is “to burn one’s boat.” This expression is an allusion to Julius Caesar and other military officers who burned their boats or ships when they invaded an enemy country to make their soldiers realize that retreat would be impossible and that they must either win the battle or die.

“To burn one’s bridges” or “to burn one’s boats” is to give everything to succeed, to make an unchangeable decision, to get rid of everything that can distract or deter one from pursuing what one has set oneself on.”

Burning one’s bridge or one’s boat is, I believe, the challenge of the readings today.

In the First Reading from the First Book of Kings, when God called Elisha to be a prophet through the prophet Elijah, we see Elisha burning his bridges and boats to respond resolutely to the prophetic call of God. He threw his cloak over Elijah. He left the oxen. He acceded that he could not even kiss his parents to bid goodbye. God’s call was urgent and Elisha responded promptly.

The Second Reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians tells us of freedom given to us by God so that we can stand firm and not succumb to the yoke of slavery. This freedom enables us to love and serve others and to be always guided by God. Indeed, one who can be truly be firm is free and one who is unfree will have a hard time being resolute.

The Gospel according to Luke tells us that Jesus was “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” Jesus was fully aware of what awaited him in Jerusalem – suffering and death. Twice in Luke he had predicted his passion and death before today’s gospel passage.

According to Guillimette, Jesus’ being resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem can be rendered in Greek as ‘he hardened his face” or “he stiffened his face.” Any of these is a metaphor that indicates “determination and courage in overcoming fear.” Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem was the beginning of his passion and death as God’s Suffering Servant. By showing resolute determination, he was burning his bridges and his boats. There was no more turning back for him.

While on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus passed through Samaria and was met with unwelcoming reactions of the Samaritans. The Jews and the Samaritans were enemies. The Jews considered the Samaritans inferiors and outsiders because of their association with foreigners. They refused their help to build the temple in Jerusalem. In return, the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerizin as an alternative to the temple in Jerusalem.

The gospel passage clearly states that the Samaritans did not welcome Jesus because he was on his way to Jerusalem. This led James and John to suggest to him to respond to the Samaritans’ inhospitality by sending a consuming fire upon them. Jesus rebuked James and John. In doing this Jesus, in effect, reminded them that his Gospel is not involved in wiping people out of vengeance and violence. They must never allow themselves to be dictated by the mean reactions of people against him. They must always act out of graciousness and compassion. And in this particularly incident, they must not allow the adverse reactions of the Samaritans to distract them from their journey to Jerusalem. So, Jesus instructed his disciples to be focused on their journey to Jerusalem and to move on.

Indeed, what can distract us from pursuing what we need to pursue are not only inviting alternatives but also difficulties and adverse reactions along the way. Thus, being resolutely determined is a quality that is most needed so that we can reach what we need to reach or achieve what we need to achieve. And these include giving up – things, relationships, attitudes, values, ways – that can make us out of focus.

In the gospel we find also three prospective disciples of Jesus. Fundamental in the exchange between Jesus and the prospective followers was the question: “How does one follow Jesus?” Jesus, in his individual responses to the prospective disciples, outlined a triple demand: anyone who follows the Lord must give up all security and put his security only in God; one must subordinate everything without delay to the following of Jesus and the duty of evangelizing; and, one must forget the past and face the future. In short, anyone who wants to follow the Lord must act decisively and burn one’s bridges or boats.

Indeed, following Jesus requires resolute, courageous, firm decision and action. There can never be discipleship if we do not want to pay the price. There is cost in following Jesus, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in his book “The Cost of Discipleship.” We either follow the Lord faithfully or not.

This is also very true in the different forms of Christian life and commitment we embrace. One who decides to get married cannot remain a bachelor in his lifestyle. One who decides to be a priest or a religious cannot but be single-hearted in his commitment to the Lord and to God’s people. One who decides to change the direction of his life cannot keep on looking back to his former life. One who decides to turn to the Lord cannot but turn away from sin or from what is not of God. In short, one must burn his bridges or boats.

It seems this is one of the big problems regarding decisions and commitments. Many of them are not made and sustained with resolute determination by the grace of God. There is really no burning of bridges and boats as we often want to enjoy both worlds.

St. John of the Cross, the great Carmelite mystic, had a beautiful insight into this resolute determination and single-heartedness of purpose and action. He said: “The soul that is attached to anything however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for, until the cord be broken the bird cannot fly.”

To put is simply, a bird cannot fly whether what binds it is a strong rope or a slender and delicate thread. The cord must be broken before it can be free to really fly.

What are those bridges and boats that we need to burn so that we can truly be true and faithful to the commitments that we have made in life?

About Fr. Robert and his reflections