Fourth Sunday of the Year January 31, 2010

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

The theme today placed before us is of the prophetic call of every person which is mainly a call to love. Jeremiah in today’s first reading is directed to give a prophetic witness to God, whose saving justice and compassion yearn to steer a wayward, stressed-out people away from impending disaster. Warned about the obstacles he will face, Jeremiah is instructed to stand firm. Jesus as prophet in today’s Gospel challenges his own people to a new way of living, a new way of seeing things. However the people while they are expecting the newness through the messiah now reject the very means to reach the wholeness, freedom and peace they have been seeking. They stubbornly resist to the prophetic invitation of Jesus to accept the wider vision of loving and accepting the kingdom of God. In our life God keeps on challenging us to prophetically confront suffering and division, to help the world to lead to suffering and new life.  Paul reveals that the key to doing this is love itself. Without love what ever we do or say will never touch others or move their hearts. It is love that enables us to be compassionate, understanding, patient, forgiving and accepting others. Love sustains us with the courage with power to endure and carries us confidently through every challenge.

The First Reading of today tells us that Jeremiah’s service to God begins with his receiving the word of God. Jeremiah hears God announce that he was chosen to be a prophet even before he was formed in his mother’s womb.  Here we have the dialogue between Yahweh and Jeremiah, which is a perfect example of Divine Love. Some of the Words that the Heavenly Father spoke are very touching. God says, “Before you were born, I consecrated you,” indicating the vocation of the prophet. Here God takes the initiative and calls Jeremiah to be the prophet. God is omniscient and he does everything with a purpose and the mission is very clear. Now the Prophet is called by God to stand firm for him and be his mouth piece.  He is now the spokesperson of God to proclaim his message. He has to tell all what God has commanded him to do.  When Jeremiah is scared at this command, God is present to support him and tells him not to be afraid because he is close to him. He will like a fortified city; iron pillar, bronze wall and no political or earthly power can overcome him as God himself is his protector. Jeremiah cannot be discouraged as God will protect him.  He has the important message to be given to the nations.  

Today’s Second Reading taken from the first Letter to the Corinthians. Paul speaks about the importance of the gifts of the Spirit which each one has received and 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.   Love is defined as Eros or passionate love, philia or intimate love and Agape or unconditional divine love. Agape 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.  Paul tells us that without agape none of other gifts of the Spirit have any value. Everything becomes empty. He then describes the characteristics of this true love: It is kind, not envious, not boastful, not arrogant, not rude, not self-willed, not irritable, and not resentful. It is does not rejoice in wrongdoing but in truth, integrity and wholeness. In spite of all obstacles, it perseveres. It affirms the dignity of every single person, including their enemies. A life of love is more than a charism. It is a constant selfless caring for others whether one feels loving or not. It is the virtue of a true Christian and manifests itself in every circumstance. Paul says: “Love never fails.”

Today’s Gospel continues from last Sunday’s reading.  Jesus, at the beginning of his public life, has given to the people, what today we would call his ‘mission statement’, using words of the prophet Isaiah. When Jesus proclaims that the text from Isaiah he had read has been fulfilled in their hearing, he is in fact applying it to himself. The Messiah they have been waiting for is now here in the person of Jesus and the words of the prophet Isaiah are fulfilled in him. His ministry is going to fulfil what the prophets had promised fro centuries.  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, and the interpretation of the scriptures. They are shocked and are not sure how to respond to his words.  At the same time they discover that they are too familiar with him.  They know him; they know his parents and the entire family history. They know him as Jesus, a carpenter and the son of a carpenter, and how can he speak like this? Their expectations of Jesus were very human and what they see in him is something extra ordinary.  The tradition had told that when the messiah comes he will come from no where but here is the messiah they are too familiar with. Jesus knows that as soon as the implications of what he has said sink in the people will be outraged. Hence he goes on the offensive. He knows that the people of Nazareth want him to do for them what he was reported to have done to the gentiles in Galilee.

Jesus tells them that a prophet is not normally accepted in his own place. The two stories Jesus tells, one about the action of Elijah caring for the widow in Zerephath during the famine caused by three and half years of drought and the other about Elisha, mediating a cure for Naaman the Syrian, particularly when the Syrians were the hated enemies of Israel, both show God’s prophets bypassing Israelites and helping the gentiles. This same prophetic call is given to Jesus and sees it being fulfilled in his own ministry.  This makes the people of Nazareth angrier as Jesus is shunning out his own people and is reaching out to the outsiders.  They feel he has betrayed his own people. In a short time the people of Nazareth have gone from praising their own person to planning to kill him. Their efforts fail as Jesus filled with the spirit walks away quietly from the middle of them until his time comes. This story of his rejection is just a beginning of the opposition he would receive throughout his life and his ministry.  The people to whom Jesus was sent are the very people who reject him. For Luke this is a consistent pattern throughout the history of Israel. God sends his prophets with the message of salvation and the people reject both the people and the message. While many of the Jews will reject the message of Jesus, the gentiles or the outsiders accept it willingly and joyously.  This in fact proves the text which spoke in the Synagogue before his own people. It also tells them that the messianic age has come and they have to be alert or else the opportunity will be lost for ever.

The implication was that the mission of Jesus cannot be limited to one social or religious group any more than God’s love can.  The people of Nazareth failed to understand that with God love begins wherever human need is found. No one was going to tell them that religion had to go so far as Elijah travelling to Sidon or Elisha cleanses a Syrian or even Isaiah teaching good news to the poor and liberty to the captives. Besides this, Jesus for them was a bundle of contradictions. His mission was weighed in favour of the poor, yet he dined with the wealthy. He reprimanded the disciples for being ambitious and yet called on them to be rich at heart and be at the service of the poor and hungry to give alms and feed when hungry. He made clear that his message is for all and no one is exempt from his call. His disciples themselves were chosen from every walk of life. In the Synagogue he challenged them and identified himself with the likes of Elijah and Elisha. This was blasphemous for the people. Yet in every word of his and every step he takes there is the manifestation of divine love and this will remain with him till the end. 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.

Contemplating the scriptural readings of today we are able to perceive how God manifests His Divine love in a very personal way. Through the incarnation in Jesus Christ, God came to dwell among us. What great love God has for us, that He set aside His divinity, took human form upon Himself, and dwelled in our midst so we may come to know Him as He truly is, holy, perfect, eternal, merciful, forgiving, etc… There is no other like Him. St John tells us that God loved the world so much that he gave his only son for us that we may have eternal life in and through him. When God came down to dwell among us, all did not accept the manifestation of His Divine love. In the Old Testament we see how the prophets were rejected in their hometown and by their own people. Now Jesus also experiences similar rejection by his own town’s men. In the eyes of the people of His hometown, He did not meet their standards. Because they knew Him since His childhood, He was nothing special to them. This is true of all human situations where familiarity with the person does not allow a person to see beyond what is utterly human.  The scriptures however assure us of God’s presence within each one of us and the Gospel calls on us to help others to become aware of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is necessary for us to open our inner eyes to recognise the spirit.

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. On the one hand the message of Truth and Love has been rejected and has been attacked and abused but people have experienced a special strength to carry on. As the life of Jesus clearly indicates, there is a price to be paid for being a person of love but it is a price well worth paying.

Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome

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