Sunday, January 3, 2010

Faith, Hope, Love Remain; But The Greatest Of These Is Love.

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19

The word of the LORD came to me, saying:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
But do you gird your loins;
stand up and tell them
all that I command you.

Be not crushed on their account,
as though I would leave you crushed before them;
for it is I this day
who have made you a fortified city,
a pillar of iron, a wall of brass,
against the whole land:
against Judah’s kings and princes,
against its priests and people.
They will fight against you but not prevail over you,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.

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Psalm 71
I will sing of your salvation.
In you, O LORD, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your justice rescue me, and deliver me;
incline your ear to me, and save me.
I will sing of your salvation.
Be my rock of refuge,
a stronghold to give me safety,
for you are my rock and my fortress.
O my God, rescue me from the hand of the wicked.
I will sing of your salvation.
For you are my hope, O Lord;
my trust, O God, from my youth.
On you I depend from birth;
from my mother’s womb you are my strength.
I will sing of your salvation.
My mouth shall declare your justice,
day by day your salvation.
O God, you have taught me from my youth,
and till the present I proclaim your wondrous deeds.
I will sing of your salvation.
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Reading II
1 Corinthians 12:31—13:13
Brothers and sisters:
Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts.
But I shall show you a still more excellent way.

If I speak in human and angelic tongues,
but do not have love,
I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy,
and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge;
if I have all faith so as to move mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own,
and if I hand my body over so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, it is not pompous,
It is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.

If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing;
if tongues, they will cease;
if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

When I was a child, I used to talk as a child,
think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
At present I know partially;
then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
So faith, hope, love remain, these three,
but the greatest of these is love.

Luke 4:21-30

Jesus began speaking in the synagogue, saying:
“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
And all spoke highly of him
and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
They also asked, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”
He said to them, “Surely you will quote me this proverb,
‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say,
‘Do here in your native place
the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’”
And he said, “Amen, I say to you,
no prophet is accepted in his own native place.
Indeed, I tell you,
there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah
when the sky was closed for three and a half years
and a severe famine spread over the entire land.
It was to none of these that Elijah was sent,
but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon.
Again, there were many lepers in Israel
during the time of Elisha the prophet;
yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
When the people in the synagogue heard this,
they were all filled with fury.
They rose up, drove him out of the town,
and led him to the brow of the hill
on which their town had been built,
to hurl him down headlong.
But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.

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 recognize 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. 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. Examples of real people who lived like this would be Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. They consistently refused in the face of all kinds of misunderstanding and abuse to stoop to any form of violent retaliation. They affirmed the dignity of every single person, including their 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 washed down with fire hoses and had savage Alsatian dogs thrown at 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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