5th February. Wednesday, Week Four
Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr.
Agatha was born at Catania, Sicily. According to legend, she opted for a life of virginity and rejected the amorous advances of the prefect Quintianus, who then persecuted her for her Christian faith. She was martyred c. 251 a.D.
1st Reading: 2 Samuel 24:2, 9-17
(Having sinned by counting the people, David prays that the punishment may fall on himself.)
So the king said to Joab and the commanders of the army, who were with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba, and take a census of the people, so that I may know how many there are.” Joab reported to the king the number of those who had been recorded: in Israel there were eight hundred thousand soldiers able to draw the sword, and those of Judah were five hundred thousand.
But afterward, David was stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people. David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly.” When David rose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, “Go and say to David: Thus says the Lord: Three things I offer you; choose one of them, and I will do it to you.” So Gad came to David and told him; he asked him, “Shall three years of famine come to you on your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to the one who sent me.” Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands.”
So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from that morning until the appointed time; and seventy thousand of the people died, from Dan to Beer-sheba. But when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented concerning the evil, and said to the angel who was bringing destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. When David saw the angel who was destroying the people, he said to the Lord, “I alone have sinned, and I alone have doe wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house.”
Gospel: Mark 6:1-6
(The people of Nazareth reject Jesus and he could work very few cures there.)
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Not in your own home town!
Envy, pride and stubbornness, often seem to cluster together, and the cure for each of them is in the bond of love. A nasty example of envy flares up in the gospel, when Jesus’ own townspeople now find him “too much” for them. Why should he have more wisdom than any of them, they ask. And why should he be able to work miracles while they can not? The reading from Samuel also describes many difficulties but pride seems to be at the bottom of all of them.
Why is the Bible so severe on such “normal” faults as stubbornness, pride and jealousy? We take them for granted in ourselves and others, and presume they are as unavoidable as headaches or the common cold. Much of the power of our Scriptures is in their unwillingness to take mediocrity for granted, but they combine a continual dedication to ideals with a practical sense of living on planet earth. The Bible reflects the perception that most people are more often hurt by such day-to-day sins as pride, stubbornness and envy than they are by the heinous sins of murder, bribery and adultery.
A painful level of jealousy is present whenever that saying is fulfilled, “No prophet is honoured in his native place.” But envy hurts most the person who surrenders to it, as happened in the case of Saul and David. 1 Samuel 18:9 says bluntly, “From that day on, Saul was jealous of David”; and like a man infected by the plague, Saul was destroyed by his own envy.
The people in the gospel who were most lost sight of were the people of Nazareth. Even Jesus could work no miracle there, apart from curing a few who were sick, so much did their lack of faith distress him, and made the rounds of the neighbouring villages instead. What a sad commentary on envy: Jesus made the rounds of the neighbouring villages while Nazareth was left behind in silence. Envy is an incurable disease–so that “he could work no miracle there.” Close to envy in its symptoms and effects is the fault of stubbornness. God tries in many ways to heal this disease: Whom the Lord loves, he disciplines: he scourges every child he receives. The cure for stubbornness is not to be found in suppression, anger and coercion.
Finally, today’s text from Samuel, warns of the pestilence let loose by pride and an excessive desire to control others. It is not condemning a census of the people as such; the first part of the Book of Numbers records the results of another census, undertaken with God’s blessing. It must have been David’s motive that spoiled this census in God’s eyes. Yet, as mentioned already, it was an understandable fault. Why shouldn’t a ruler be proud of the nation he has built, and whom he intends to tax? Yet we see also how a census can lead to government control, heavier taxation and affluence at the top. The pestilence is halted by David’s prayer, a prayer in which he accepts the blame and begs God to be merciful to the sheep of the flock, who have not done wrong. It is the bond of love and loyalty that brings the solution and that heals the disease.