Our gospel reading for Sunday (Luke 4:21-30) takes up where we left off last week, when Jesus, after having read from the prophet Isaiah, says to the people: “Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke tells us that “all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” And then something happens. Some people also ask, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” When we read what follows, there must be more here than just and idle question. Borrowing a bit from Matthew’s version (13:54-58), I wonder if some of the people who were listening to Jesus might have said to themselves, “That was great. But, wait a minute. Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Don’t we know him? He can’t really claim to be the fulfillment of that prophecy, can he?”
So when Jesus senses that this kind of thinking is going on, He speaks about a prophet not having honor in his native place, and then gives them examples about how God works outside of human boundaries: in Elijah helping a widow outside of Israel, and Elisha cleaning a leper from Syria. Then the people get indignant. I can imagine them saying to themselves, “Who does he think he is, saying things like that?” And they get so mad, they try to kill Him!
Before we look down our noses at the people from Nazareth, do we not at times have similar thoughts and feelings towards others. Have you never said to yourself, “Who does he/she think he/she is, telling me what to do?” Are we not at a time in the U.S., and in other parts of the world, for that matter, that it doesn’t matter how reasonable, or even right it may be, we instantly reject what is being said from the other side? Isn’t this what white supremacists do? For them, the only things that are worth anything are the things that come from white people. They cannot conceive of anyone else having as much gifts and talents and worth as they. Isn’t this also characteristic of clericalism in the church, where the leaders determine somehow that lay people are to be seen and not heard? And if I, as a citizen of the U.S., convince myself that only the U.S. matters and that the only good way of doing things is the “American way” of doing things, have I not fallen into the same trap? I can take pride in my country and still be humble enough to know that we can learn from others.
Even before Jesus, as we’ve seen in the examples to which Jesus refers, it has shown that God works outside of the boundaries and barriers that we human beings construct among ourselves. And in what we see from the Gospels, Jesus reaches out to those beyond Israel, and to people beyond what conventional wisdom or piety within Israel, dictated He should reach out to.
Why would God act that way? Why would Jesus give us such a model to follow? We have a very eloquent answer in our second reading from 1 Corinthians (12:31-13:13): St. Paul’s treatise, if you will, on love. When we get righteously indignant, and believe that we are standing up for what is right, but we do it without love, we are really standing up for nothing. Love takes no pleasure in the destruction of anyone, but in the rise of justice and peace for all.
It is true that the world is already accustomed to turning a deaf ear to the promotion of life, to the need for reconciliation, to the perspective of people of faith, but we cannot let that deafness lead us away from love. Otherwise, we have no possibility of being heard.
If we believe in the meaning of the Cross and of the empty tomb; if we believe in God’s desire to heal us and reconcile us and redeem us, then we are called to love as Jesus loves. We are called to be open to where the Holy Spirit leads us, even if it means crossing the barriers that exist between people. People may not be willing to hear. The leaders in Jeremiah’s time did not. The people in Nazareth who heard Jesus were not. And those who benefit from the status quo will not. But just as God promised Jeremiah (See our first reading: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19), God will be with us.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is the local superior at St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Community in Detroit, Michigan.