Sunday of Week 4 of Ordinary Time (C)

Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-5,17-19; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30

THE BEGINNING of today’s Gospel repeats some of last Sunday’s. Jesus, at the beginning of his public life, has delivered what today we would call his “mission statement”, using words of the prophet Isaiah. Today, as he speaks, Jesus says that these words are being fulfilled – in him. The Messiah they have been waiting for is now here in the person of Jesus. His Kingdom has begun to be realised in his works of healing, of reconciliation and liberation from evil powers.

At first the crowd is absolutely amazed at Jesus’ eloquence, amazed at his gracious words. “Is not this Joe the carpenter’s boy?” Jesus, a carpenter and the son of a carpenter, can speak like this? What, then, are their expectations now of Jesus? What do they see in him? Maybe, suggests Jesus, they are thinking: “Doctor, heal yourself.” Not in the sense of Jesus healing his own body but in the sense of doing for his own community in Nazareth some of the things he was reputed to be doing in Capernaum and other parts of Galilee.

The prophet’s lot
But, says Jesus to them, a prophet is not normally accepted in his own place. He then gives two striking examples from the Hebrew Testament, one from Elijah and the other from Elisha, two prophets closely linked with the coming of the Messiah.

Elijah was sent to help a poor Gentile widow in Sidon (a non-Jewish area) during a famine caused by three and a half years of drought. Why did the prophet go to her when there were so many Jewish widows in the same plight? Similarly, there were many lepers in Israel but Elisha was sent to Naaman, a Syrian general. The Syrians were the hated enemies of Israel.

Jesus was being quite provocative in telling these stories. Why so? The answer comes in Mark’s account of this incident and he gives two reasons:

a. Because the people of Nazareth knew Jesus’ family so well, they were not ready to receive him or his message about his own identity and mission. It is a good example of familiarity breeding contempt. Because Jesus had grown up among them, they thought they knew who he was. They were not ready to accept that he was something very much more.

b. Secondly, Mark comments that Jesus was able to do very little healing in Nazareth because they refused to believe in him. They had no faith. It is clear on many occasions that Jesus’ healing power only came to those who had total trust in him. “Go in peace; your faith has made you whole again.” And, of course, the response of the people of Nazareth was only a foretaste of the total rejection of Jesus by many of his own people. Jesus’ words were not really provocative. They were simply a description of what was happening.

Amazement turns to hatred
At first, the crowd was amazed that one of their fellow villagers could speak with such grace and eloquence and with such authority. But it was something altogether different to put themselves in his hands. Who did he really think he was? After hearing Jesus’ words about the poor reception of prophets by their own people, they were worked up into a blind rage and hatred. They wanted to push Jesus off the cliff on which their town was built.

But, says Mark, Jesus passed through their midst and left them. These are terrible words and let us pray that such a thing may never happen to us:
– that Jesus should walk right through us
– that we should fail to recognise his presence among us (usually in the people around us)
– that we even reject him,
so that he goes off without us, leaving us behind. It will not be he who has abandoned us; we will have rejected him. And he will never force himself on us.

Gospel contradictions
As Christians, we have to be ready to face certain contradictions in living a Gospel life. The first part of this contradiction comes in the Second Reading, a famous and much-quoted passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul, after speaking about the importance of the gifts of the Spirit which each one has received, says that love is the most important gift of all.

Love indeed is a gift. Loving is an art which has to be received and nurtured. The ancient Greeks had three words for ‘love’: eros, philia and agape (pron. a-ga-pay). Putting it very briefly, eros is passionate, physical love, the love of young lovers. Philia is the love of friendship and implies a very deep intimate and mutual relationship between two people involving total transparency of one to the other. It is really the highest form of love and finds its best – but not its only – expression in a really good marriage. Agape, which is the love Paul is speaking about here, is a unilateral, unconditional reaching out in love to another, even if it is not returned or even rejected. This is the love that God has for every single person and the kind of love which should be the characteristic of the true follower of Christ in his/her relationship with people everywhere. It is agape which makes it possible to pray for those who curse us and bless those who harm us.

Without this agape, as Paul tells us, none of other gifts of the Spirit have any value. I may speak with extraordinary eloquence about the Gospel message but, if I do it without love, I am like a booming gong – all sound and no substance. I may be able to utter prophetic statements in God’s name, be gifted with the deepest insights, knowledge and wisdom. Without love, it is nothing. I may even have a faith that can move mountains but, if there is no love there, it is nothing.

Qualities of agape
Paul then lists some of the qualities of agape. It is kind, not envious, not boastful, not arrogant, not rude, not self-willed, not irritable, not resentful. It is does not rejoice in wrongdoing but in truth, integrity and wholeness. Agape has a high level of tolerance and is endlessly ready to trust. It endlessly hopes and is endlessly able to endure. In spite of all obstacles, it perseveres. With agape, one refuses, even when faced with misunderstanding and abuse, to stoop to any form of retaliation and one accepts the dignity of every single person, including enemies.

Speaking with a prophetic voice, Paul asserts that all forms of knowledge and learning will some day come to an end. But agape, as part of God’s own being, will go on forever. Now, Paul tells us, we know God and truth as in a clouded mirror but one day it will be face to face. Then there will be no need for faith or for hope. Faith will give way to total vision and hope will yield to realisation. But agape will remain. And when God’s agape meets mine the result is an eternal bonding in perfect philia.

Universally loved?
However, we now come to the other side of the contradiction we mentioned earlier. If we do succeed in becoming a totally loving people, then we will be universally loved in return. Right? Wrong!

There are two ways in which pain can come into our lives:

a. One is the result of our sinfulness, our living in disharmony with truth and love. This can produce physical, emotional or mental pain.

b. But there is also the suffering that comes from following the Way of Truth, of Love, of Compassion, of true Freedom. Following this way will often bring us in conflict with those who fear or are threatened by Truth and Love. Today’s Gospel is a perfect example. Like Jesus, the most loving person who ever lived, we may find ourselves rejected, even hated and destroyed precisely because of our goodness and integrity.

This is the contradiction or paradox: the more loving we are, the more people our love embraces as we transcend labels and prejudices dividing people, the more likely we will be rejected, persecuted and hated – even by ‘religious’ people. (There were few people more religious than the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.)

This was the experience of the poor prophet Jeremiah and it was something the Lord clearly warned him about. He was called by God to be a “prophet to the nations”. He was to brace himself for action and stand up to the people, passing on God’s message to them. He was not to be alarmed at their presence. God would give him all the necessary strength to carry out his task. He will be like a “fortified city, a pillar of iron, and a wall of bronze” confronting people from the king to the poorest peasants. But he should have no illusions: “They will fight against you.”

However, “they will not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you.” This is an experience which prophets of the Gospel have had again and again. On the one hand their message of Truth and Love has been rejected and they have been attacked and abused but they have experienced a special strength to carry on.

One thinks again of Martin Luther King and his civil rights marchers singing “We shall overcome” as they were carted off to jail, were sprayed with fire hoses and had savage dogs attack them. However, underneath this kind of suffering – unlike the pain that comes from sin – there lies an unshakeable inner joy and firm peace that only Jesus can give.

As the life of Jesus clearly indicates, there is a price to be paid for being an agape-filled person but it is a price well worth paying. The price of going along any other road is even greater.

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