Commentary on the Readings
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
The risk of being homeless
The skilled politician always manages relations with the religious structure with foresight. He does not fight but flatters it. He tries to make it an ally because he knows that the religious subject is more reliable and also the more devoted, if he can manage to convince him that supporting the established order is tantamount to promoting the kingdom of God. One in power is opposed to that which disrupts the balance of the society or institution. He arrives to his goal when he conveys the idea that there is an equation between what is normally thought and the gospel message, between the principles set forth by the current morals and the values preached by Christ, between the Beatitudes of the world and those of the mountain.
It is a subtle strategy in which, often in good faith, many Christians are involved, but that leads to distort the gospel. The church hierarchy and also the people adapt themselves at times, but never the prophet, who is not, constitutionally, a restless and dissatisfied person, but one who has received and assimilated the thoughts of the Lord. For this he refuses to put God’s seal on man’s plans and denounces the structures marked by sin. His words annoy, provoke irritation and the fate that awaits him cannot be but misunderstanding and rejection.
It happened to Jeremiah, threatened by his countrymen: “Do not prophesy any more in the name of the Lord and we will spare your life;” (Jer 11:21) and warned by God: “Take care, even your kinsfolk and your own family are false with you” (Jer 12:6).
It happened to Muhammad in Mecca. He wanted to shake his fellowmen from religious indifference, attachment to earthly life and social injustice.
It also happened to Jesus in Nazareth.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Only if I leave the house built by men I can meet the Lord.”
Ezekiel must have been thirty years old when, in 597 B.C., he was deported to Babylon, together with the last king of the dynasty of David and the able-bodied men, the carpenters, the blacksmiths and the educated. Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and left only the poor people in the country. He took everyone else with him (2 Kgs 24).
Four years later, Ezekiel was sent by God to proclaim a hard and unwelcomed message to these exiles. They yearned for the immediate return to the land of their fathers. The prophet was commissioned to dispel these illusions and convince them to organize their lives in a foreign land. From Jerusalem, Jeremiah also exhorted them: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; marry and have children. Pull yourselves together for the welfare of the land to which I have sent you” (Jer 29:5-7).
Sending a prophet is the sign that the Lord, as a father, continues to love and take care of his people. He does not abandon her, and even when she sins and becomes responsible for her own misfortune, he does not let her miss his word of salvation.
In today’s passage we have one of the best descriptions of the prophetic vocation and mission.
While prostrated on the ground, Ezekiel hears a voice that tells him, “Stand up, I am about to speak to you” (Ez 2:1). He immediately feels a spirit, a new and mysterious force that penetrates in him and lifts him to his feet. The voice continues: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites … defiant and stubborn people to tell them: this is the Lord’s word…” (vv. 2-4).
Son of man is a Hebrew expression that simply means man, a fragile being, common, mortal. Ezekiel was the son of Busi, a priest of the temple of Jerusalem. He was proud to belong to a noble family; the Lord addresses him by a new name, son of man, to remind him of his humble condition, tied to the land.
The prophet is not an angel, not a character gifted with mysterious abilities and arcane powers, but a simple man, with all defects, weaknesses, also mental and psychic limitations from which no mortal being is exempt. Ezekiel had a special sensitivity, alternating between moments of elation and moments of dejection. He was prone to depression and closed himself often in prolonged silences. After the call of the Lord—he himself tells—“I stayed there seven days with them, overwhelmed” (Ez 3:15). He spoke well, yes and people flocked to hear him, because his word was like a love song: “A beautiful song accompanied by beautiful music” (Ez 33:32).
However, what gives the prophet authority to speak in God’s name are not only the extraordinary gifts, but the fact that he was called, had received a vocation.
Chosen by the Lord, Ezekiel is given charge of a mission. He is not asked to predict the distant and hazy future, to do wonders and extraordinary feats, but to perform a service: to transmit to the deportees to Babylon the word of God.
All peoples have known forms and techniques of divination. They have relied on fortune-tellers, astrologers and sorcerers to know the secrets and plans of the gods. The sibyls who pronounced oracles were common throughout the Mediterranean, usually associated with rocks and sacred springs. Israel has rejected these early surrogates of prophecy, because she understood that the only instrument chosen by God to communicate with people is the prophet, the man capable of grasping the thoughts and the will of the Lord and to transmit them faithfully to his brothers and sisters.
With reason the prophets are accustomed to introduce their message with the solemn formula: “The word of the Lord came to me …” (v. 4), because they are aware that what they refer to does not belong to them but to God.
To whom is Ezekiel sent? To the people of his people, “to this set of rebels” (v. 5). The deportees to Babylon were not worse sinners than the others. They let themselves be seduced by those who fed them vain hopes, proposed easy and attractive choices, but not leading to life.
It is the fate of all the prophets: they disturb the conscience, inconvenience others, suggest demanding choices and, therefore, they are refused. They should not be discouraged by this. “So whether they listen or not, they will know that there is a prophet among them,” says God to Ezekiel (v. 5). Although, apparently, the mission of this prophet ended unsuccessfully, still he reached a goal. He revealed the kindness of God to his people, showed that the Lord never forgets her and that not even the greatest sin can make him break the alliance he has entered into with people.
The passage is taken from a controversial letter in which Paul shows that he is not inferior to those in the community of Corinth. They attempt to defame him, and he lists the sacrifices endured for the sake of the gospel (2 Cor 11:22-29) and the more or less extraordinary experiences he went through. He claims to have had, from the Lord, special revelations, of having heard “words that cannot be told; things which humans cannot express” (2 Cor 12:4). It was certainly not a vision, but of his being snatched into God’s world, a moment of intimacy with the Lord, an ecstasy in which he perceived sublime truths.
He could indeed boast to his opponents of these extraordinary experiences, but he does not. His pride is another; they are the weaknesses, hardships, distresses, for God usually implements his saving interventions using worthless tools.
In this passage he hints at a problem that hurts and humiliates him. It is a very painful affliction, comparable to a thorn in the flesh, to a messenger of Satan to smack him, so that he does not swell with pride (v. 7).
Many pages were written trying to explain the meaning of this “thorn in the flesh.” The majority of biblical scholars believe that Paul is referring to a disease because, writing to the Galatians, he stresses on serious infirmity that hit him and that could have aroused disgust in those who approached him (Gal 4:14). But it is possible that this “thorn” indicates another suffering, more intimate: the hostility against him by members of his people. In his Letter to the Romans, he calls “my brethren, my own people, my kin” (Rom 9:3). In every city where he went to preach the gospel, they have always impeded his preaching. Several times in his writings, he admitted his difficulty in putting up with such opposition and was tempted to be discouraged.
He earnestly prayed to the Lord to be released from this thorn, but God did not remove it from him, did not miraculously solve the difficulties but has given him the strength to overcome it (v. 9). God is not wont to free his prophets from the fragilities related to the human condition, diseases, fatigue, defects. He wants that, through the weakness of the instruments, his power is manifested.
Various details of this passage are not immediately clear. The inhabitants of Nazareth were astonished by the miracles performed by Jesus (v. 2), but then are “shocked” (v. 3). How to reconcile these two apparently contradictory reactions? To scandalize does not mean to cause a minor disagreement, but being in total disagreement. The neighbors were shocked by his words to the point of considering them an insurmountable obstacle, a major hindrance to their faith. Therefore he must have said or done something particularly provocative.
It is not clear why he was not be able to perform miracles because of their lack of faith (v. 5), even his wonder at the incredulity of the villagers is surprising. He just said that “prophets are despised only in their own country, among their relatives and in their own family” (v. 4), so their refusal should not be strange to him.
We point out one last detail: Jesus in Capernaum was involved in tragic conflicts with the political and religious authorities. He attacked the formalism of the scribes and Pharisees, denounced their hypocrisy and hardness of heart, but he never had any problems with simple people. Now instead it is the people, the peasants of his country who do not understand and reject him. There is, in fact, no reference to the presence of religious leaders. How do you explain this unusual reaction?
After spending a few months in Capernaum, visiting the villages of Galilee, preaching the gospel and healing the sick, Jesus returns to his native village (v. 1).
Some time before his relatives tried to convince him to return to his family and to resume his decent work as a carpenter, but he did not accede to their proposal. Looking on those around him to listen to him, he exclaimed: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is brother and sister and mother to me” (Mk 3:31-35).
Now, on his own initiative, he returns to Nazareth, accompanied by a group of disciples. It’s not a courtesy visit to his mother, brothers, sisters, friends, but it is a gesture of unambiguous meaning for those who, so far, has accompanied his choices in life. He returns to Nazareth to present to the ancient family, his new family, consisting of those who responded to his call. They left their nets and father on the boat with the hired servants (Mk 1:16-20), the custom-house (Mk 2:13) and followed him along the path he had chosen.
The lack of understanding towards him does not occur immediately upon his arrival. According to Mark’s account he spends a few days at home, without incidents. The dissent explodes only when, “the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue” (v. 2).
This fact should be emphasized because it is significant. As long as he remains quiet in the house where he grew up, that is, as long as he remains within the traditional mold of his people, shows appreciation of the religious beliefs transmitted by the rabbis and shared by all, no one has anything to say about him. Problems arise as soon as he leaves the house and makes public the decision to set up a new home, a new family.
The reaction of the villagers is twofold: on the one hand they are amazed by his words and admire the works he does, on the other hand they are plagued by many questions.
Raised in the faith of their fathers, they believe in the Lord who made a covenant with his people, and reserves his blessings to the children of Abraham, those who belong to the House of Israel, and sit at the feet of the rabbis to listen to the Torah.
For the people of Nazareth, Jesus is an insoluble enigma. He grew up, like them, in a family with solid religious principles, belongs to the chosen people, to that which, for 119 times in the Bible, it is called the House of Israel. Now he gives the impression of being out of place in this house. It seems that he considers it too small and wants to open it to all.
They know that, in Capernaum, he expressed his admiration for the gesture of four men who brought down the roof of a house to introduce a paralytic (Mk 2:4). He approved their action because it was a sign that the House of Israel was to be accessible to those excluded. He called sinners into his house and wanted them to join in the banquet, a symbol of the kingdom of God (Mk 2:15-17). He touched the lepers and made them pure, fit to belong to his new family (Mk 1:41), provided that they remain seated around him, listen to his word and put it into practice.
The door of the House of Israel was thus open to all. This is the scandal of the villagers. With his message and actions, Jesus broke the balance, is demolishing the house in which they have placed all their hopes. They feel challenged; they capture, in his words and in his choices the call to abandon the safety offered by the religion of their fathers, to embrace the risks of the kingdom and enter his house, in his new family, made up of disciples who believed in him.
The series of questions they put are justified (vv. 2-3). What guarantees can “the carpenter, the son of Mary” offer? For more than thirty years, has done nothing but fix doors and windows, make hoes and plows, and they know his brothers and sisters. Where does the message that he expounds come from? Who gives him the power to work wonders?
The problem that most intrigues them is not concerning the content of his teaching, but the origin of this new doctrine. They do not question the goodness of his works, but their origin. They wonder: are they done in the name of God, or, as the scribes that came from Jerusalem insinuated (Mk 3:22), they come from the evil one?
They conclude: it is better not to trust this man who proposes dangerous novelty.
One notes that they do not name him but identify him with the profession he exercised and strangely, with reference to his mother, perhaps to give greater emphasis to their negative opinion. They do not relate him with his father who, in Israel, is the link with the tradition from which he cuts himself off. They prefer not to risk, clinging to their ancient customs and habits. They do not want to give up the old house and the securities offered by the ancient family.
The very painful but inevitable separation of Jesus from his family, neighbors and friends happens.
It is the destiny of all the prophets, who are despised only in their own country, among their relatives and in their own family (v. 4).
The attitude taken by the people of Nazareth is repeated even today.
Jesus comes again to those who believe they know him and of belonging to his family and advances his proposal. He asked, as God did to Abraham, to leave everything that the home, the family and the country represent. He invites them to reconsider the religious convictions, assimilated during childhood and ever more deepened and made to evolve. He requires that they distance themselves from the principles of the current morals, ideals and values proposed by the society in which they live. The answer he receives is, in most cases, the same: first misunderstanding, then rejection.
This incredulity, however, has always dramatic consequences. Jesus is reduced to impotence, becomes unable to make those miracles that his word and contact with his person produced everywhere. He offers his salvation, but he cannot impose it, because he loves and love respects freedom.
If in today’s world miraculous events do not happen, if the conditions of life are undergoing radical transformations, if they do not establish peace, justice and reconciliation between peoples, the reason is always the same: men do not have the courage to grant full trust in Christ and his word.
There is, yes, a few small changes, as in Nazareth, he cured some who were not seriously ill: a bit more of charity and less offensive word, but the great wonders, the amazing signs of the presence of the kingdom of God in the world cannot occur where faith is lacking or missing altogether.