In the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus announces the fulfillment of what Isaiah has prophesied. We will see this unfold during Jesus ministry. Those who heard Jesus could not have taken in the meaning of his words as we who read Luke’s gospel do. They are impressed but also wary. This is the son of Joseph, after all. That our Lord is ushered to the edge of the hill near the synagogue shows that he indeed shattered an expectation of their community.
What did they hear that they could not accept? That God reached out beyond Israel to touch others; although accorded a favored place, Israel is not to be exclusive of others. The oppressed and the prisoner, the blind and the poor, God loves and hears the cry of those who are in need. The rejection of Jesus at Nazareth validates him as a prophet, since prophets are not welcome at home. The expectations of his people are limiting, and Jesus takes us beyond the boundaries we create.
In the story of Naaman from 2 Kings there is a back and forth among the characters. A Jewish slave girl is so full of wisdom and enthusiasm while the anointed King expects the worst after hearing the expectations of a smiling Naaman who arrives at his front door. Elijah is ready to go to work. Then it is Naaman whose expectations get in the way, but the poor people, servants, speak to him about trust, and fortunately Naaman listens to them.
Elijah is full of powerful miracles and intertwined with raw humanness. In the final part of the story Naaman leaves in a bit of a bind. He believes in the God of Israel, he takes a load of earth home with him to keep in touch with this holy place, but he will also have to follow the rules of his King who worships Rammon. And then we meet Gehazi, who seeks to profit from Naaman’s healing by asking him for a kickback. He gets a generous one, and leprosy as well!
Expectations are part of life. We live with them, sometimes to be disappointed, other times to be surprised at how much they can be surpassed. In today’s readings some expectations are limiting and caused fear. The poor, humble people are open to expectations that seem beyond realization, while the powerful question them. Like Mary’s Magnificat, the understanding of the arrogant is scattered and the lowly are raised up. Expectations of Lent and Easter are with us now. How do we tame expectations so wild? Death will be overcome, a Redeemer comes to save us, sin is a ‘happy fault’ that reveals to us so great a lover, one who suffers for us upon the cross. Can we use our Lenten days to be like the servants, humbly asking God to take us beyond our boundaries and give us expectations beyond our own? Can we do the work of Lent aware of the binds that can compromise our best hopes? Or, like Gehazi, if we lose sight of what is truly important and have lowered our expectations, can we ask God’s help to embrace us and help us to hear anew the expectations of our community on its Lenten pilgrimage, and to know that we walk with them strengthened by their prayer and support? Lent is many things, but we can say that our Lenten works will develop in us great expectations that will end not in disappointment but in celebration.
Fr. William Murphy, CP, is the pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Jamaica, New York.