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Reflections for the IV Sunday

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the fourth Sunday in ordinary time. He says that we should have and show in our communities the courage of our Christian convictions in our Faith and in its practice, even when we face hatred and rejection because of them.

Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Cor 13:4-13, Gospel Luke 4:21-30

Homily starter anecdote:  The prophetic call and the fear of rejection: Moses tried to convince God that he didn’t speak well enough, and Jeremiah complained to God that he was too young. The prophets trembled at the trials ahead of them – and with good reason. Israel had a long history of rejecting prophets (2 Chr 36:16; Jer 2:30; Amos 2:12; Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34; I Thes 2:15; Heb 11:32ff.). Jeremiah was threatened with death several times, thrown into an empty, muddy cistern, imprisoned, dragged off to exile in Egypt, and, perhaps, most painful of all, was forced to watch the destruction of Jerusalem because its inhabitants would not listen to his message. At least twice in his lifetime, the prophet Elijah spoke the truth of God to King Ahab of Israel concerning the King’s promotion of idolatry. As a result, Elijah was forced to flee into the wilderness where he suffered great privation (I Kgs 16:29--17:3 and I Kgs 18:16--19:4). John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States and the son of a former President, reportedly said that he would rather clean filth from the streets than be President. Scripture tells us that most of the prophets shared John Quincy Adams’ feeling of inadequacy to their calling. Today’s Gospel story is another example of why the prophets did not jump for joy at their career prospects. In the space of five verses, we see the people of Nazareth turn from amazement to such fury at Jesus’ words they seized Him and dragged him off to the cliff to murder him. Speaking God’s truth by word or by deed is a risky business even today. Hundreds of missionaries have been martyred since 1990. Thousands of Christians have been killed this past year in Moslem countries and Communist countries. Christians are subjected to the white martyrdom of mental torture in advanced countries, including the U.S., by the agnostic and atheistic media and liberal politicians and judges, as forms of the media constantly ridicule and insult Christians with unprecedented vengeance. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/)

Scripture lessons summarized: The first reading tells us how God called Jeremiah as His prophet and equipped him to face opposition and rejection. In living out his prophetic vocation while encountering rejection and persecution, Jeremiah prefigured Jesus, the greatest of all prophets. The Responsorial Psalm, Ps 71, offers us a prayer in time of persecution and a declaration of our trust in God with its foundation in Him.  In the second reading, we hear Paul speaking with the courage of his convictions in correcting the Corinthian Christian community where the exercise of God's gifts was causing competition, jealousy and divisiveness.  He courageously presents to them a "way" which surpasses all others, namely, the way of love, and instructs them to exercise their gifts with love.   Today’s Gospel is a continuation of last Sunday’s Gospel presenting his own people’s negative reaction to Jesus’ “Inaugural Address” at the synagogue of Nazareth when he applies to Himself the words of Isaiah 61, announcing a new time of jubilee, liberation and healing in God’s name. The passage shows us how Jesus faced skepticism and criticism with prophetic courage. Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus believed that they were commissioned by God to proclaim a disturbing prophetic message (Jer 1:4-5, 17-19). No matter how strong the opposition, the three had the conviction that God was with them.

First reading, Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19, explained: Today's first reading prepares us to hear the Gospel, Luke 4:21-30, where Jesus, early in his mission, faces stiff opposition and compares himself to the prophets who had come before him. In both the first reading and the gospel, Jeremiah and Jesus are presented as God’s prophets (prophetes in Greek means mouthpiece), chosen, consecrated and sent to their brothers and sisters as emissaries of the Word of God The prophet Jeremiah (600-550 BC) never held back in describing the persecution he suffered. Here in the first sentences of his book, Jeremiah describes how God called him, bolstered up his Faith and courage and predicted the opposition he would endure.  Speaking to Jeremiah, God makes four assertions: “I formed you” (as a potter forms clay), “I knew you” (referring to the intimate relationship between God and Jeremiah), “I dedicated you” (consecrating Jeremiah to do God’s work), and “I appointed you” (to a mission as His prophet to Israel).    At the start of Jeremiah's ministry, Yahweh warns the young prophet not to be intimidated by those to whom he prophesies (Jer 1:4-5, 17-19). "They will fight against you," Yahweh warns, "but will not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you." During his lifetime, Jeremiah was considered a total failure, but in later times he has been recognized as one of Israel’s greatest prophets.  Jeremiah is a wonderful example of “the triumph of failure."  

Second Reading, 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13, explained: There were diverse manifestations of the gifts of the Holy Spirit among the Christians living in the Greek seaport of Corinth. Paul spends chapters 12, 13 and 14 of this letter trying to get the Corinthians to enjoy and express their gifts in ways that give strength to the community and glory to God. Paul is addressing a community on the verge of self-destruction because of the Corinthians’ inability to recognize that Jesus is present in each member of the community. So, he advises them to use their spiritual gifts for the unification of the Church, by humble submission to lawful authorities, by bidding farewell to rivalries, and by the re-direction of their efforts toward mutual service.  Paul also warns them that, if exercised without love, even the gifts of tongues, knowledge, Faith, prophecy, and generosity are useless. So, he instructs them to recognize Christ in one another and to treat each other accordingly. The only way for them, and for us, to treat others   is with love. Paul concludes the chapter by affirming that even the greatest of virtues, Faith and Hope, cannot exist without Love, the driving force of all life in time, and in eternity, the only virtue to survive.

Exegesis of the Gospel passage: Amazement turning to hatred.  The first reaction of the people in the synagogue to Jesus' words was one of astonishment.  They were amazed that one of their fellow villagers could speak with such grace and eloquence and with such authority.  Luke says they were "amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips," because they knew him only as a carpenter from a poor family, with no formal training in Mosaic Law. But their amazement turned into displeasure when, during his “Inaugural Address” or “Mission Statement,” Jesus took upon himself the identity of a prophet, different from the image of the miracle-worker that people wished to see.  Jesus came to his hometown people as a prophet with healing in his hands, mercy in his heart, and salvation for all in his words. Like the other prophets of the past, Jesus directly called upon people to relinquish their selfishness, faithlessness, their lack of justice and mercy (Mic 6:6-8), and their sinfulness.  Hence, their displeasure turned into anger when Jesus claimed that he was the promised Messiah of Isaiah’s prophecy.   They challenged his Messianic claim, asking, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”  They could not understand how a mere carpenter could be the Messiah who would liberate them from Roman rule and reestablish the Davidic kingdom. ‘Doctor, cure yourself! It means “Do not be like a bad physician, who professes medical knowledge to his patients but does not know how to treat himself.”(As several commentators point out, the challenge of “Physician, heal yourself!” in Nazareth is probably meant to be paralleled with “If you are the ‘King of the Jews,’ then save yourself,” the taunt at the end of the Gospel, as Jesus hangs on the cross dying. In a sense “Physician, heal yourself” is paralleled with “Saviour, save yourself” Dr. Watson.) Jesus explained their attitude by saying “No prophet is accepted in his native place.” Jesus clearly establishes himself as a figure in the prophetic line, a theme that Luke will highlight repeatedly, in order to show that Jesus is in continuity with (and not a break from) the earlier tradition of Judaism.

Jesus’ reaction to His people’s skepticism: In response to his townsmen's skepticism, Jesus referred to the Biblical stories of how God blessed two Gentiles, while rejecting the many Jews in similar situations.  The reason for this was that these Gentiles were more open to the prophets than the other people.  First, Jesus reminded them of the Gentile widow of Zarephath, a village on the coast of present-day Lebanon, near Sidon (1 Kings 17:7-24).  The Prophet Elijah stayed with her and her son during last year of the three-and-a-half-year drought that preceded Elijah's part in the Lord God’s victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.   Because of her kindness to the prophet, and the Faith her willingness to take him in as his God’s messenger demonstrated, the widow's small jar of flour and tiny jug of oil were never depleted.  Later, when the widow's son died, Elijah's prayers revived him from the dead. No Israelite received such a blessing.

Naaman’s healing presented as reward of Faith: Then Jesus recalled for his listeners of the story of Naaman, the Syrian Military General (II Kings 7:3-10).   Naaman had contracted leprosy. But when he heard that the Prophet Elisha had the power to heal, he appealed to the prophet for help.   At Elisha's word, Naaman bathed seven times in the Jordan, after which his leprosy was healed and his skin was restored, becoming like that of a child.  There were many lepers in Israel at the time, commented Jesus, but only this foreigner was healed because he had Faith in the man of God. Today, that same healing, mercy and salvation should be available to all through the Church.  “In the minds of his listeners, it was offense enough to be reminded that Elijah ministered to a poor Gentile widow, but it was intolerable to be oppressed by Roman occupation, and then be reminded that Elisha healed a soldier of Syria, a country which had oppressed Israel in an earlier time.” (Craig A. Evans, The Lectionary Commentary, Vol. 3: The Third Readings, p. 326).

Total rejection and attempted murder:  Jesus' words also implied that, like the Israelites of those former days, the people of his hometown, were unable to receive miracles because of their disbelief.  That was why in former times God had bestowed miracles on the Gentiles who believed in Him.  Jesus, like the earlier prophets (Jer 37:12--38:6; Mal 1:2, 6, 7, 13; Mic 3:5-8), dared to speak the Truth to people who did not want to hear it.  By using Scriptural precedents, Jesus stresses that, if he does not receive a welcome in, or support from, his own community, he will certainly be well within his rights to extend his ministry beyond the bounds of the Jewish nation, and to reach out to the Gentiles, just as the great prophets of old did. Jesus’ reference to the unbelief of the Jews and to the stronger Faith of the Gentiles infuriated his listeners.  "Good" people don't like to be reminded that God can and does work through religious systems other than their own and even through individuals who are outside any religious system. Jesus’ citing evidence from authoritative sources to prove that the Lord had compassion on Israel’s enemies was perceived as a threat to the intensely nationalistic Galileans. Consequently, the attitude of many of the townsfolk swung from proud admiration to hatred, resentment and violence. Hence, without a trial or even a hearing and in violation of both Jewish and Roman Law, his townspeople rushed to seize Jesus in order to throw him over the edge of the cliff on which their town was built. (This site cannot be located with any certainty. Tradition, however, associates this account with the cliff called the “Mount of Precipitation/Mount of the Leap,” just under 2 miles outside Nazareth. Others suggest a hill in the ridge of local mountains called the Jebel Nazra, or “Nazareth Hill”). But Jesus escaped because “his hour had not yet come. This rejection of Jesus by his own townsfolk must have sincerely grieved him.  Later John wrote, "To his own he came but his own did not accept him" (John 1:11). This rejection in Nazareth foreshadowed or anticipated the opposition and rejection that Jesus would experience in the coming years, culminating with his crucifixion.  This rejection by his own friends in Nazareth is the first of his crucifixions, and Luke speaks of the brow of the hill to remind us of Calvary, and the threat of what will happen on that hill. Jesus, in spite of all the rejections and crucifixions, now passes through our midst serenely and out of our grasp and slips away, when we have said ‘No thanks,’ and shown our choice for something less.” (Rev. Grant Gallup). Today’s Gospel tells us that prophets are rarely accepted among their own people. The pacifism of Dorothy Day, for example, was an embarrassment to the hierarchy. Archbishop Blessed Oscar Romero was hated by those in power, not simply because of his commitment to liberation theology and his advocacy of the poor, but because he was seen as opposing the ruling upper classes who felt the Church was “their own.”

Life messages: 1) Let us face rejection with prophetic courage and optimism. The story of Jesus' rejection in his own hometown is a story that we can identify with, because it is a story that has happened to most of us.  Perhaps we have experienced the pain of rejection, betrayal, abandonment, violated trust, neglect or abuse. What about rejection by those closest to us? Often our friends, families, or childhood companions fail to listen to us, refuse our advice and reject the words of grace, love and encouragement that we offer to them because they are unable to see us as God's appointed instruments, the agents of God's healing and saving grace. Perhaps we ourselves are guilty of such rejection.  How often have we discounted people through prejudice?  We must realize that God's power is always available to transform even the most unlikely people and that His power may come to us through unlikely instruments.

2) Let us not, like the people in Jesus' hometown, reject God in our lives. The story of Jesus' rejection by his townsfolk is also a story about how we often ignore and reject God. Are we unwilling to be helped by God, or by others?   Does our pride or lack of trust stop us from seeing or recognizing God’s purpose? Does it prevent us from recognizing God’s direction, help and support in our lives through His words in the Bible and through the advice and examples of others?  God calls us in many ways. Are we willing to listen to this calling and discover our role in carrying out God’s purpose?

3) We must have the prophetic courage of our convictions.  By our Baptism, God   calls us to be prophets like Jesus, sharing his prophetic mission.  The task of a prophet is to speak and to live out God’s truth.   We must never be afraid of this call, for it is Jesus who will supply us with the courage, the words and the deeds we will need to oppose the many evils in our society. By legalizing abortion in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the killing of over forty-seven million unborn children in forty years.  The Roe versus Wade decision is currently permitting the brutal execution of 4400 unborn babies every day.    Our television and movie conglomerates, which are supported by the money paid by millions of Americans and many large corporate sponsors, are spewing forth pornographic material that is poisoning our children and our society.  Our society tells adults and youngsters that promiscuous sex, drugs, gambling and alcohol are legitimate pleasures for modern, liberated people.   Our country needs to hear God’s Truth from Spirit-filled Christians with the prophetic courage of their convictions. Heroes like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King consistently refused to retaliate violently while affirming the dignity of every person, including their enemies.

4) We need to follow Christ, not political correctness, and to speak the truth of Christ without being hypocritical or disrespectful.  We must never remain silent in the face of evil for fear of being thought "politically incorrect."   Jesus was not against conflict if it promoted truth. He taught us to give respect and freedom without condoning or encouraging sinful behavior. That was the example given by Martin Luther King and his civil rights marchers singing, "We shall overcome," as they were carted off to jail, were washed down with fire hoses and had savage Alsatian dogs loosed on them. Love does not tolerate destructive behavior, but it sometimes causes pain--just as a surgeon must sometimes hurt in order to heal. We need to be kind, charitable, honest, forgiving and clear in speaking out our Christian convictions as Jesus was when He spoke in the synagogue. We live in a pluralistic society, but as the American Bishops say in their document Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics "Real pluralism depends on people of conviction struggling to advance their beliefs by every ethical and legal means at their disposal." (Fr. Antony Kadavil).

31 January 2019, 09:23