Jer 1:4-5,17-19; 1Cor 12:31-13:13 (or 13:4-13); Luke 4:21-30
“NO PROPHET IS ACCEPTED IN HIS OWN NATIVE PLACE”
Today’s gospel is a follow-up on the gospel of last Sunday. Jesus is back in Nazareth, and he is speaking in the synagogue. When he quoted the prophet Isaiah, (last week) it was OK, and went down well. But when he began to speak a few home truths about the religious people of his day, he was in serious trouble. They tolerated Jesus as long as he knew his proper place. He was a commoner whose family was known to them all, and how dare he attempt to preach to them! We are all aware of artists, actors, singers, etc., who had to emigrate before they got a break-through. It is difficult to break out of the mould within the environment that bred us. No prophet is honoured in his own country.
- THE HOME-COMING OF A LOCAL HERO
Commenting on the gospel text of today, a Nigerian priest and biblical scholar, Fr. Munachi E. Ezeogu, narrates a story about one of the first indigenous bishops in Nigeria. This prelate returned to his native town for a reception soon after he was made bishop. His townspeople, most of whom had only a faint idea of what the Christian faith or the office of bishop stands for, came together to give him a big reception. In the welcome speech, the people expressed how happy they were that one of their own sons had risen to the exalted position of those who had direct access to God. They promised him they would all embrace Christianity if he, as bishop, would use the power of his office to suppress one of the Ten Commandments for them. Before they could say which of the Commandments they had in mind, the young bishop shocked them by telling them that the Ten Commandments are of divine and not of human-making, and so are unchangeable. The celebratory mood immediately turned into disappointment and the bishop had to make a hasty departure from his own people. Jesus, in today’s gospel, went through a very similar experience.
Like the bishop, Jesus was coming home soon after his baptism where the Holy Spirit descended on him and he was publicly declared to be the SON OF GOD. Like the bishop, Jesus’ townspeople received him at first with amazement and praise: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’” (Luke 4:22). Like the bishop, Jesus was expected to use his powers and do some special favour for his own people. After all, they were his own people. And again like the bishop, when Jesus told them the truth that God has no favourites but relates to all humankind by the same standards, they turned against him in disappointment and ran him out of town.
- JESUS, THE PROPHETIC TEACHER
Jesus anticipated the people’s disappointment with him because he understood himself to be engaged in the prophetic ministry. In biblical terms, a prophet is not simply someone who foretells the future. A prophet, essentially, is someone who speaks for God, God’s own spokesperson. The prophet’s signature tune is, “Thus says the Lord….” The prophet focuses primarily on clearly expressing the word of God. Whether this word is happily received by the people or not is not the prophet’s primary concern. Prophets tell the bitter truth and this is what gets them into trouble. In view of the impending trouble that is sure to befall of prophet during his divine mission, God assures Jeremiah of his unflagging support: “Gird your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you… They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD” (Jer 1:17,19). What is the truth that Jesus is telling his townspeople in today’s gospel that gets him into trouble?
Jesus is telling his townspeople of Nazareth the truth of the universality of God’s grace. The people of Nazareth, like most of the “chosen” people of God in Jesus’ time, had come to believe in a God made in their own image and likeness. They believed in an either-or-God — “if God is for us, then he must be against them.” They believed in a God whose beneficence was limited to the “chosen” people. Jesus tells them that God cares for all of his people, and that, when it comes to help, he has no favourites. The true God is equally available to all humanity — so long as they approach God with faith and trust. To illustrate his points Jesus cites the cases of the prophets Elijah and Elisha who performed great miracles for people who were outside the confines of the “chosen” people. The people were in error and Jesus tried to give them the truth: “The truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:25-27). Jesus is telling them that when Israel resisted what was true, God gave His blessing to those outside of Israel. The people could not accept this truth because it went against their long-established beliefs in their own superiority, which made them feel good about themselves. They resented the fact that Jesus was putting them all on the same level with infidels.
- PROPHETIC Vs POPULARIST TEACHERS
The people of God have always had two kinds of teachers. There are the prophetic teachers who seek above all to please God. They speak the truth of God even when this would cost them their popularity and the people’s patronage. And then there are the popularist teachers who seek above all to please the people, to tell them what they would love to hear and confirm them in their prejudices. Scripture warns us that “the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires” (2 Timothy 4:3). Jesus was NO popularist; he was a prophetic teacher. Jesus did not mince his words when it came to the message he had to deliver. In fact, this approach was to get him into a lot of trouble as time went on. As we read on in the gospels, we discover that the conflicts between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel intensify. This would finally end with another angry mob shouting their desire for Jesus’ fate with the words: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Jesus would be led to another hill – the hill of Calvary. This time, Jesus would not walk away, but would allow himself to be submitted to a cruel, painful, and humiliating death—death on the cross. Jesus would die when his hour had come, and he alone would decide when that hour arrives. “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (Jn 10:18).
- “NO PROPHET IS ACCEPTED IN HIS OWN NATIVE PLACE”
These words are frequently quoted today. They embody the idea that it is hard for people who know you to ever see you as a prophet. People who know you will tend to dismiss you. This may be true for several reasons. Sometimes it is simply out of PREJUDICE. In Jesus’ case, the people knew his family background and concluded that someone from such a common family could not possibly be the One promised by God. Quite often, we are filled with these kinds of prejudice. We dismiss people because of:
- Their family background (this is especially true in small towns and villages)
- Their skin color or ethnic background.
- Their gender
- The job they hold. For some reason, we conclude that certain jobs are demeaning and apparently signify a “lesser person”.
- The mistakes they have once made. One wonders how many people, as adults, still have to overcome a mistake they made when they were younger. We hold people hostage to their past even though we claim to believe in the grace of God.
- Their education or their lack thereof. Interestingly we tend to measure people by the amount of education they have had. People with more education are “educated beyond their intelligence” and those with less are dismissed as “uneducated”.
PREJUDICE has its roots in arrogance. It is a form of idolatry because we conclude that we are qualified to serve as judge over someone else. People get a picture in their head of what “people like you” are like, and they can’t seem to see past that picture! Sometimes we dismiss people OUT OF COMPETITION. We hate it when a classmate or colleague is honored above us. For some reason, we feel we have been “cheated” when someone else is honored. Surely, there were some people in the hometown of Jesus who thought, “Jesus, can’t be the Messiah because I am better than he is.” Or again, we may dismiss someone simply because of HARDNESS OF HEART. It may happen that when people do not like a particular message, they reject the messenger. The prophet, Ezekiel, describes the people of Israel as rebels, “Hard of face and obstinate of heart” (Ezekiel 2:4). These people reject God, his message and his messenger. That rejection of God’s word continues into the New Testament. Before Stephen was stoned to death he said to his listeners, “You, stubborn people with your pagan hearts and pagan ears. You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do” (Acts 7:51). It is because of their hardness of heart that the people of Nazareth reject Jesus. We, on own part, how free are we of the vices of prejudice, spirit of unhealthy competition, and hardness of heart in our relationships with family, friends and acquaintances?
- THEY MISSED THE GRACE OF GOD RIGHT IN FRON OF THEM
The towns people of Jesus were so angry to the point that they wanted to push Jesus over a cliff! But Jesus just walked through the crowd and went on His way. They were powerless against him. Because of their lack of faith, Jesus did not perform any miracles there. This does not mean the people’s lack of faith somehow hindered Jesus’ power. He simply refrained from performing signs because He knew they would be wasted on these people. In fact, Jesus did not come to do “miracles on demand”. He came to point people to a new life. Sadly, the people of His hometown missed the treasure, the pearl of great price, when He stood before their very eyes.
Think of how easy it is, in our daily life, to miss what is right in front of us because of our biases! Sometimes we look past those who are right in front of us. It is, indeed, very easy:
- To notice the gifts of other children and miss how talented and special your own children are.
- To see the beauty and attractiveness in others and overlook the beauty and faithfulness and treasure of your own spouse.
- To envy what others have and miss the abundant blessings God has given to us.
- To see the vibrant program and great advantages of another church while failing to see, invest in, and appreciate the Faith of the Catholic Church.
- To dream about how wonderful a different job would be, all the while missing how great the job is that you currently have.
- To complain about those who disagree with you instead of talking with and learning from them.
- To ignore what children and other young people are saying because we have concluded they won’t say anything of significance.
The familiar does sometimes breed contempt, indeed. But that should not be the norm. It has been said that in any church service, such as this Holy Mass, the congregation preaches more than half the sermon. The faithful bring an atmosphere with them. That atmosphere is either a barrier through which the preacher’s word cannot penetrate; or else it is such an expectancy that even the poorest sermon becomes a living flame. Therefore, we should not judge a person by his/her background and his/her family connections, but by what he/she is. Many a message has been killed “stone dead”, not because there was anything wrong with it; but because the minds of the hearers were so prejudiced against the messenger that it never had a chance.
The disciple of Jesus cannot reflect on Jesus’ fate dispassionately (without any emotions). What happened to Jesus is personalized for us as we recall Jesus’ own sober warning, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first… `No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Cf. Jn 15:20). In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that the truth shall set us free. But here, he also makes it clear that the truth shall bring us persecution. While praying for the gift of courage and endurance when we are faced with persecution for what is right, we also ask God to forgive us for the times when we have actively persecuted others. May we have the faith to believe in the carpenter’s Son from Nazareth even if we feel He is so distant. Likewise, may we have the faith to see beyond the undesirable traits of people we live or work with. Though not easy, that is the path that leads to true peace, joy, and security with God and with fellow human beings.