Monday, August 30, 2010

No Prophet Is Accepted In His Native Place.

Monday of the Twenty-second Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
When I came to you, brothers and sisters,
proclaiming the mystery of God,
I did not come with sublimity
of words or of wisdom.
For I resolved to know nothing
while I was with you
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness
and fear and much trembling,
and my message and my proclamation
were not with persuasive words of wisdom,
but with a demonstration of spirit and power,
so that your faith might rest
not on human wisdom
but on the power of God.
Paul continues to explain the basis on which he was proclaiming Christ to the people of Corinth.

When he first arrived among them from Athens about the year 51 AD, he did not come as a polished orator with convincing arguments. Perhaps Apollos, a Jewish exile from the sophisticated society of Rome who became one of the leaders of the community, had led the Corinthians to place more emphasis on eloquence and intellectual arguments. Paul more than once acknowledges his weaknesses in this area. Was this the “sting of the flesh” which distressed him so much?

The only message Paul had to bring was that of Jesus Christ and him crucified. On the face of it, it did not look like a very encouraging message. Not one to attract followers in large numbers, especially given Paul’s acknowledged weakness as a persuasive speaker.

No wonder, then that he had come among them “in great fear and trembling” (a common biblical expression) for he had none of the eloquence which they might have expected and to which they were accustomed from the intellectuals of the day.

All Paul had to offer was the persuasiveness that came from “power of the Spirit”. He came to proclaim to them the “mystery of God”. ‘Mystery’ here is not so much something that is difficult to understand as a truth which had previously been hidden but is now made known to those who are ready to hear it. Greece at the time had its ‘mystery religions’ where the beliefs of the religion were only made known to initiates, something akin to some secret societies today. The ‘mystery’ here was the revelation about what God did for us through the life, death and resurrection of God’s Son made man - something that could never be discovered by the most sophisticated philosophers.

As Paul discovered in time, his deficiency was, in fact, his strength. All he had to offer was his personal knowledge and experience of Jesus as his crucified Lord and that was all that was needed. Paul was only the fragile “vessel of clay” through whom God did his work. As a powerful orator the focus would have been more on himself and his arguments. His message did not rest on human wisdom but on “the power of God” which was clearly visible even in his weaknesses.

What Paul says here is of great importance to us in communicating our faith to others. There are those who try to convince non-believers or those who have fallen away by piling on apologetic arguments and proofs of God’s existence or the validity of the Church’s teaching.

Ultimately, though, the only really effective way to lead people to Christ is by the sharing of our own experience of knowing him and by the witness of a life that is clearly influenced by the vision of the Gospel.

It is also consoling for us to realise that the success of our evangelising does not depend on our own abilities. As Paul would say elsewhere, “when I am weak then I am strongest of all”. It is not a matter of intellectual power but of our integrity which allows God’s truth and love to shine through us.

At the same time, as one commentator reminds us, this does not give preachers a licence to neglect study and preparation. Paul’s letters reveal a great deal of knowledge in many areas of learning, and his eloquence is apparent in his address before the Areopagus [in Athens] (see Acts 17:22-31). Paul’s point is that unless the Holy Spirit works in a listener’s heart, the wisdom and eloquence of a preacher are ineffective. Paul’s confidence as a preacher did not rest on intellectual and oratorical ability, as did that of the Greek orators.

Our communicating of Christ and his vision to others will also depend much more on the inner truth of our message than on our powers of persuasion.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 119
Lord, I love your commands
How I love your law, O LORD!
It is my meditation all the day.
Lord, I love your commands.
Your command has made me
wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
Lord, I love your commands.
I have more understanding
than all my teachers
when your decrees are my meditation.
Lord, I love your commands.
I have more discernment than the elders,
because I observe your precepts.
Lord, I love your commands.
From every evil way I withhold my feet,
that I may keep your words.
Lord, I love your commands.
From your ordinances I turn not away,
for you have instructed me.
Lord, I love your commands.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 4:16-30
Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had grown up,
and went according to his custom
into the synagogue on the sabbath day.
He stood up to read
and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
He unrolled the scroll
and found the passage where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

Rolling up the scroll,
he handed it back to the attendant and sat down,
and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.
He said to them,
“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,
“Is this not 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 he passed through the midst of them and went away.
We begin today the reading of Luke’s gospel which will bring us up to the end of the Church year. We have already gone through Matthew and Mark and John’s gospel has been spread through various parts of the year, especially during the Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter seasons.

The gospel is a companion volume to the book of the Acts and the language and structure of these two books indicate that both were written by the same person. They are addressed to the same individual, Theophilus, and the second volume refers to the first.

Luke presents the works and teachings of Jesus that are especially important for understanding the way of salvation. Its scope is complete from the birth of Christ to his ascension. It appeals to both Jews and Gentiles.

However, we take up Luke’s gospel at the beginning of Jesus’ public life (chapter 4). After his baptism he had returned “in the power of the Spirit to Galilee”, the northern province of Palestine and his home province. Already people were talking about him everywhere.

Now, as our reading opens, we find him in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee and the place where he grew up. From the verses immediately preceding, it does not seem that Jesus actually began his ministry in Nazareth. The event described here may not have taken place until a year later. One suggestion (NIV Bible) is that all that is described in John’s gospel between 1:19 to 4:42 took place between the temptation in the desert and the moving north to Galilee (verses.13 and 14).

But Luke has arranged the structure of his gospel so that Jesus will begin his public life in Nazareth and will gradually proceed southwards towards his goal, Jerusalem, without turning back. In the other Synoptics he moves around Galilee in all directions and John suggests that he made a number of visits to Jerusalem during his public life.

The Jerusalem Bible suggests that our passage today actually combines three distinct parts:

the first, verses 16-22 (Jesus is honoured), occurring at the time indicated by Matthew 4:13;
the second, verses 23-24 (Jesus astonishing his audience), the visit of which Matthew and Mark speak;
the third, verses 25-30 (the life of Jesus threatened), not mentioned by Matthew or Mark and to be placed towards the end of the Galilean ministry.

In this way Luke presents an introductory tableau which is a summary and symbol of Christ’s great offer and of its contemptuous rejection by his own people.

As the reading opens we find Jesus in the town synagogue. It is a sabbath day. He gets up to read the scripture and comments on it. The ruler of the synagogue could authorise any adult Jew to read the scripture lesson. The passage he reads is full of significance. It comes from the prophet Isaiah and Jesus’ reading of it amounts to a manifesto or what we might call today a “mission statement”. ‘Books’ in those days were in the form of scrolls and the Scriptures were kept in a special place in the synagogue and given to the reader by an attendant. Jesus may have chosen the passage himself or it may have been assigned for that day.

But it is more than just a mission statement. As he reads it becomes clear that the whole statement is about Jesus himself. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” This has already been confirmed during his baptism in the river Jordan when “the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove” and a voice was heard to say, “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

“Because he has anointed me.” In saying this Jesus is making an unequivocal claim to be the Messiah or the Christ, the long-awaited liberating King of Israel. The word “Messiah”, translated into Greek as Christos, means someone who is anointed with oil. (We call the oil in baptism and confirmation ‘chrism’.) And a person was made king by having oil poured over his head. (We remember how David was anointed king.) Jesus, of course, was not literally anointed but had been figuratively ‘anointed’ by the coming of the Spirit on him in his baptism. ‘Anointing’ is our equivalent of ‘coronation’, symbolised by the putting of a crown on the new king.

Then comes the mission of this King:

To preach the gospel to the poor,
to heal the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to captives and
recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are hurt
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

There is nothing here of restoring the glories of Israel, nothing about conquering enemies and laying waste their lands. No, it is about letting the poor of this world hear the Good News of God’s love for them. It is about healing and reconciliation. It is about liberating those who are tied down by any form of enslavement. It is about helping people to see clearly the true meaning of life. It is about restoring wholeness to people’s lives and to societies. It is about the inauguration of the Kingdom by its King.

It is, in short, the whole picture of Jesus that will unfold in the pages of Luke, a gospel which focuses on the poor and vulnerable, a gospel of tenderness and compassion, a gospel of the Spirit and of joy, a gospel of prayer and healing.

It is about “proclaiming a year acceptable to the Lord”. This refers to the Messianic age when salvation would be proclaimed. Isaiah in the original text is alluding to the Year of Jubilee, when every 50 years slaves were set free, debts were cancelled and ancestral lands were returned to the original family. Isaiah was thinking mainly of freedom from Babylonian captivity but Jesus was speaking of liberation across the board of human living.

And, as he finished the reading, Jesus put down the scroll and said that these things were now being fulfilled as they were hearing them.

And the townspeople who thought they knew him so well were overawed by the wisdom with which he spoke. This positive reaction to Jesus is a favourite theme in Luke. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they asked rhetorically. But they were wrong. He was not Joseph’s son; he was the son of Mary and of the Father, the divine Word sharing our ‘flesh’. (As suggested above, this event may have occurred on a second visit.)

And this in turn leads us to the third section of the reading which provides an unexpected turn of events and is more in harmony with the later part of Jesus’ public life. Jesus’ hearers were surprised at the way he spoke but they were not moved to change. After all, he was just the son of Joseph, and someone they knew so well could have nothing to say to them. At the same time Jesus says they, his own townspeople, must be wondering why he is not doing the things in Nazareth that he was doing in places like Capernaum.

Capernaum, apparently a sizeable town, was where Peter lived and Jesus made his house the centre out of which he did his missionary work in Galilee. A 5th century basilica now stands on the supposed site of the house and there is a 4th century synagogue quite near.

The reason for their non-acceptance is that they do not really accept him for what he is. He reminds them that prophets are seldom accepted in their own place. Familiarity blinds people to their message. “I know who he is and he has nothing to say to me.” Jesus then gives two rather provocative examples:

During a great famine in the time of the prophet Elijah he was sent to help not his fellow Israelites but a poor widow in Sarepta, near Sidon in non-Jewish territory. Sidon was one of the oldest Phoenician cities on the Mediterranean coast and about 33 kilometers north of Tyre. Later, Jesus would heal the daughter of a Gentile woman here.

And in the time of the prophet Elisha, there were many lepers in Israel but he was sent to cure Naaman, a Gentile general from Syria.

God reaching out to Gentiles through his prophets sets the stage for the Gentiles to receive the message of the Prophet Jesus, which is so much a theme of Luke’s writings. But these remarks so angered the people of Nazareth that they dragged Jesus to the brow of a hill with the intention of throwing him down but he just walked through them. Whether he did this miraculously or from the sheer power of his personality is not clear. In any case, his time had not yet come.

Prophetic voices being rejected by their own is a phenomenon only too common in our own day. And it was something Jesus foretold would happen to his followers, simply for being his followers and proclaiming his vision of life. In the meantime, let us make Jesus’ mission statement our own. It is what being a Christian means.*

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

'He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free'

Initially the people of Nazareth seem quite happy to go along with the proclamation of the messianic age. It only goes wrong for them when Jesus refers to the way Elijah and Elisha helped and healed individual gentiles rather than the large numbers of suffering Jews.

The Jews at the time of Christ were proud of being free. But this was also a time when the economy was based on slavery, in the same way our economy is based on carbon. Herod's massive construction projects show that slave economy booming as never before in partnership with Rome. Jewish criminals would have come under mosaic law which - as far as I know - does not include slavery as a punishment for crime. Circumcision also would have protected Jewish men and boys from being sold by Jews. So who were the slaves on whom the economy depended?

I was shocked to read once how people who fell foul of Roman law were condemned to work in the Syrian mines. Before they were sent underground they would be blinded (it was dark anyway) and an achilles tendon would be cut to make them too lame to run away. Perhaps such slaves were working in the limestone quarries around Nazareth, to the enrichment of the locals.

Slaves would even be maimed for light but extremely repetitive work, such as polishing a jewel, which required weeks of rubbing by someone.

I expect Our Lord, growing up in Nazareth, had ample opportunity to see the cruellest type of slavery in the town's profitable limestone quarries. The attempt at throwing Him off a cliff could even be seen as a brutal way of connecting Him with such poor slaves.

The people of Nazareth were happy at the prospect of the Jewish nation being freed from the Roman yoke. But perhaps the idea that individual gentiles might be set free and have their sight restored was perceived as a direct threat to their pocketbooks. Perhaps being reminded of their gentile slaves - provided thanks to Roman law and generating wealth in their quarries - was enough to convince them that, on second thoughts, they didn't really want to be freed from the Roman yoke at all.

This man was obviously not the Messiah after all, but a blasphemer!