Feast of Saint Alphonsus Liguori
Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori, the founder of the Redemptorists and a Bishop and Doctor of the Church. St. Alphonsus earned his reputation as preeminent moral theologian, a voice of clarity and reason concerning the moral obligations of being a Christian.
Although the readings for today’s Mass occur as part of an ongoing regular cycle and were not selected specifically for this feast, they have a strong moral tone as well. In both the first reading from the prophet Jeremiah and in the selection from Matthew’s Gospel we hear again the voice of the biblical prophet and the cost of proclaiming the truth.
When Jeremiah does what God wants him to do and brings challenging words to Israel during the troubled reign of King Jehoiakim, urging them to repent so that they can experience God’s mercy. But the people threaten the prophet with death and gather around him in a threatening manner. This seems to be the fate of Jeremiah-his powerful words and gestures seem to fall on deaf ears and he is constantly persecuted and rejected. It is not by accident that Jeremiah has a heavy tone, with the prophet constantly lamenting the fate of his people and their refusal to turn from their evil ways and return to God’s favor.
The responsorial psalm for today has a similar tone. Like Jeremiah, the Psalmist laments the attacks he has had to endure-insult, shame, hatred, and isolation. He turns to God for strength: "in your great kindness answer me with your constant help"!
The gospel, too, portrays Jesus as a rejected prophet, particularly in his home town of Nazareth. Jesus preaches in the synagogue in a powerful manner (wouldn’t you like to be there to hear Jesus preach?!) but the reaction of his home town congregation is skeptical and all too human. We know this man. He grew up here. We know his family. Who does he think he is?! Matthew’s Gospel notes that they "took offense at him"-in the Greek, they "found him an obstacle," the literal meaning of the verb eskandalizonto. His relatives and friends could not get past the human face they thought they knew so well and find the mystery present there. As the account concludes, Jesus laments "A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and in his own house." Jeremiah would understand…
What are we to take for our own lives from these challenging readings? The role of the biblical prophet was to speak the truth, even when no one wanted to hear it. And there are occasions in our family, our community and in our workplace, when we are obliged to speak the truth, both to maintain our own integrity and to bring the light of truth to others, even when people would prefer to ignore it. The Scriptures today remind us about the cost of such prophetic courage. At the same time, it is clear from the Scriptures that prophets such as Jeremiah and Jesus himself were not taking up their prophetic vocation out of a sense of arrogance or moral superiority not did they want to create turmoil for its own sake. Genuine prophets bring to their people a message of hope and love-the realization that repentance will lead to new life. Like what we call "tough love" there are times when God’s love should impel us to bring change to the way we live.
Fr. Donald Senior, CP., is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.