3rd February 2013. 4th Sunday of Year C.
Jer 1:4-5,17-19. Jeremiah’s call by God and of his commission as a prophet.
1 Cor 12:31-13:13. In Paul’s great hymn in praise of love, as the most important virtue of all.
Lk 4:21-30. Jesus shares the typical fate of prophets, rejected by his own people in Nazareth.
Theme: As in St. Paul’s famous description of Christian charity, it is the little gestures in our lives that express our kindness, patience, politeness – and joy at the success of others.
First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land-against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13 (or, shorter version: 13:4-13)
But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Gospel: Luke 4:21-30
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 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?”
He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his own hometown. But 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.”
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Many of us will remember the long-running cartoon entitled “Love is”… Every episode showed a scene where a partner or spouse, often the husband, shows love for the other by some thoughtful little gesture. “Love is – remembering her birthday or bringing her flowers occasionally or breakfast in bed at weekends.” The list of such expressions of love is endless. It is a nice idea and a reminder to those who have committed themselves to each other for life, that nothing should be taken for granted and every little gesture helps to preserve their relationship. There is probably no more abused word in the English language than the word “love’, with the possible exception of that other four-letter word, which dictionaries strangely like to define as “making love” or “the act of love.” Nowadays, the word “love” is used almost exclusively to express romantic attachment. Almost every adult has had some experience of romantic love or has been, at least, brushed by passion, however fleetingly.
St Paul preaches a different gospel. His love-letter to the Corinthians has another theme altogether. These same named qualities are not even distant cousins. His is an heroic virtue, not an obsessive infatuation. Like other scripture writers, Paul prefers to define it negatively. What it is, is more often better communicated by what it is not. As in the case of Christ’s parables, commentary here seems not only superfluous but even diminishing. His words speak for themselves:
Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish: it does not take offence, and is not resentful.
Treated like Jeremiah
“I tell you solemnly, no prophet is ever accepted in his own country.” If this was true of Elijah and Elisha, as Christ rightly pointed out, then we can say that it was equally, if not more, true of the author of today’s first reading, the prophet Jeremiah. We are told elsewhere in the gospel of St Luke that on the first Easter Sunday, when the risen Christ wanted to reveal his identity to the two unbelieving disciples on the road to Emmaus, he went “through all the prophets and explained to them all the passages that were about himself” (Lk 24:27). He must surely therefore have mentioned Jeremiah. And what we can say for certain is that, in his life and person and God-given mission, Jeremiah in many ways paralleled Jesus. But it was not so much by what Jeremiah said, as by the demands God made on him, the kind of opposition and rejection he encountered, that this resemblance arises. We know more about Jeremiah personally, his life, his God-given vocation, his inner feelings, than we do about any other Old Tetament person. He lived during the break-up of the Judaean monarchy centred in Jerusalem, and was still a young man when God gave him the task of calling upon his own people, whom he sincerely loved, to amend their ways.
At the best of times this is a thankless job, but for a man like Jeremiah, with a gentle and affectionate nature, it became an absolute torture. He describes his task as one to “tear up and knock down, to destroy and to overthrow, to be a man of strife and division for all the land.” Few people have suffered so deeply as he did, to the extent that in the darkness and agony of his soul he cursed the day he was born. His faith had brought him to the brink of despair. But God revealed that Jeremiah himself needed to repent, to have a new heart put within him, and be guided by God’s Spirit speaking to him internally. Only then would he grasp the meaning of God’s promise: “I am with you to deliver you.” We remember that Christ too was “set for the rise and fall of many in the house of Israel,” as Simeon prophesied at the Presentation in the Temple; he would be a sign to be contradicted; he would sweat blood in Gethsemane at the thought of what people would do to him. Jeremiah met with opposition on all sides becaue people did not want to listen to the truth about themselves. They said, they had the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant, the sacrifices and the Law. They saw themselves as being justified before God, whereas Jeremiah maintained that one could walk the streets of Jerusalem and not find a single man “who does right and seeks the truth.” The truth was so bitter that Jeremiah was branded a false prophet, a public enemy, even a traitor. This charge was levelled at him especially by the princes who saw the power they wielded under a weak king being snatched away from them if, as Jeremiah pleaded, no resistance was offered to the invading Babylonian army, who were so vastly superior to the defenders of Jerusalem. So he was put in prison several times, even thrown down a deep well by the princes, and left to die in the mud at the bottom. He was rescued at the last minute by a friend in the king’s palace – ironically an Egyptian. His enemies did not stop there, and after the destruction, by the Babylonians, of Jeruslem and the monarchy a small group fled to Egypt forcing Jeremiah to accompany them. Although the Bible does not tell us anything further about him, there is a Christian tradition that says he was stoned to death in Egypt.
The Church honours John the Baptist as a saint, and we can say with certainty that Jeremiah was one of the truly great saints of the Old Testament too. The similarity between him and Christ is striking. If we let this man go on working miracles and winning over people, the Pharisees and Priests said of Christ, “the Romans will come and destroy our holy place and our nation.” Their hearts were closed to his message; he was a threat to their power, and Caiaphas, the high priest, saw the solution. “It is better for you that one man should die for the people,” he said, “rather than that the whole nation should perish” (Jn 11:48+). And so they plotted his downfall. The only way some people have of blotting out the truth about themselves, of trying to oppose spiritual values, is by using physical violence. This was tried with Jeremiah, this was attempted against Christ, it was pursued against the people of our own country for several centuries. But truth cannot be stopped in that way. It is the task of each onof us to cherish divine truth, and also to hand it on. We are all called by God to imitate Christ and be witnesses to him, each of us in his/her own way.
Drawing a picture of God
I once heard of a young girl who was bent purposefully over her copybook, her pencil poised in a clear declaration of intent. In reply to her mother’s query, she said she was drawing a picture.” Of what,” persisted her mother. “Of God,” was the answer. “But you can’t draw a picture of God,” her mother continued. “No one knows what God looks like.” “They will when I have finished drawing,” responded the girl with finality.
Jesus Christ drew for us a picture of what God is like. And because he drew it in his own body, soul and spirit the picture as the reality. Our gospel reading points to a essential element of the reality that is God. God is sovereign; he is not subject to our caprice or prejudice. He is the a God of all peoples; he belongs to all classes; no one is excluded from his love.
Jesus drew that picture when he bluntly rebuked his townspeople in Nazareth for their rejection of his message. He pointed to unlearned lessons of the past and so indicated that his own mission too would embrace the Gentiles. And so it was. There is about Jesus and his actions a certain universalism. His disciples come from a range of backgrounds; his mission is weighted in favour of the poor and disadvantaged, yet he dines with the powerful and wealthy; his healing ministry benefits both the poor an the powerful, Gentiles and Jews. It is clear that all people from all walks of life and from all nations will be the recipients of God’s saving message.
Yet Jesus’ universalism is never bland. There is always a strong hint of challenge about it. It is never a mere acceptance of the way things and people are. It is a challenge to people to be what God wants them to be his image and likeness; and to live in justice, love and peace. So Jesus will reprimand his disciples for their overweening ambition; and he will constantly call on those who are rich and powerful to become like himself and to be of service to the powerless and poor.
The people of Nazareth felt that Jesus should look after them first. Some writers say that the proverb Physician, heal yourself” is much the same as the phrase Charity begins at home.” What they failed to understand was that the gospel Jesus brought was not a gospel of privilege; insisting on preferential treatment, they failed to see that with God charity begins wherever human need is found and wherever people have faith enough to receive it. Those who must hear the world of God are those with ears to hear.
The challenge for us is to draw, in our own lives, a picture of God that is in line with what Jesus gave us. A picture in which salvation is always gift but make authentic in our daily living. A picture in which salvation has to do with all of our living. A picture in which salvation is for all people everywhere in God’s time. When we have finished drawing our picture, let’s hope that God recognises himself in it.