Commentary on the Readings
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
The Prophet: An Uncomfortable Person
There are unexpected and unintended tribulations, but there are others that are the result of choices made. The price to pay for those who agree to carry out the difficult and unrewarding mission of the prophet is persecution. Even the nicest people, when they are interpreters of the message of Heaven, though it may seem strange, can become irritating, annoying, unbearable and be marginalized. The prophet is never praised for long by the crowds and still less by those in power, both political and religious. At first he can also be appreciated for his preparation, intelligence, moral integrity, but soon he is looked upon with suspicion, opposed and persecuted.
Jesus has not deceived his followers; he did not promise an easy life. He did not guarantee the approval and consent of people. He insistently reiterated that adhering to him would entail persecution: “A student is not above his teacher, not a slave above his master. If the head of the family has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of the family” (Mt 10:24-25). “Still more—he added—the hour is coming when anyone who kills you will claim to be serving God” (Jn 16:2).
Regretfully recalling his past, Paul will acknowledge: “I do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor 15:9). However he will also declare to have done it, “moved with zeal” (Phil 3:6), convinced to defend God and the true religion. It could happen again today.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“You, Lord, are my hope, my trust from my youth.”
We are in 627 BC and Jeremiah perhaps was not yet twenty when he is called by the Lord to be a prophet. He is a good, sensitive, intelligent young man who wants to raise a family and live in peace in Anathoth, the village of his ancestors. Instead, even before being conceived in the womb of his mother (vv. 4-5), he is chosen for a difficult and dangerous mission. He is called to proclaim a message contrary to the expectations of his countrymen. In a time when “from the smallest to the largest, all commits covetousness; from prophet to the priest, everyone tells lies … and everyone is convinced doing so is good ” (Jer 8:10-11), Jeremiah is sent to proclaim aloud: “Doing so is not good.” His life is a succession of tragedies and failures.
The prophet is the one who sees the world through the eyes of God. He is gifted with a strong spiritual sensitivity that leads him to be immediately aware of the distance that separates the Lord’s plan from the works of people. He experiences a deep bitterness when the people choose paths of death, when unjust relationships are institutionalized in society, when those who are supposed to protect the weak, defend the orphan and the widow take the side of the powerful.
Then he can no longer suppress the anger; he cannot remain silent. An uncontrollable divine force rages in him and urges him to raise his voice to denounce sin, oppression, abuse of power, violence, the ineptitude of those who lead the people to ruin. Jeremiah is called to this difficult mission, the shy and gentle young man, destined to become “the object of strife and dissension throughout the land” (Jer 15:10).
In the second part of the reading (vv. 17-18) God tells Jeremiah what will happen to him. He does not delude him, nor promises an easy life. He will be—he says—like a soldier hunted by enemies, as a fortress besieged by a blood thirsty army. Why does God send him if he already knows that his prophet will face defeat and will be the victim of hatred of his opponents? The reading ends with words of hope and comfort. The Lord announces to Jeremiah: “They will fight against you but they shall not overcome you, for I am with you to rescue you” (v. 19).
In Corinth—as we have noted in the past Sundays—there were disagreements and envies because of charism. After stating that all gifts come from the Spirit and are intended for the building up of the community, Paul shows to the Christians a way above all: love. It is curious: he is speaking of gifts—and love is certainly a charism—and, instead of continuing in the same vein, he introduces a new image, that of the way: “I’ll show you—he says—a much better way.”
Charity, the greatest of God’s gifts, is received by man in a progressive way. Only the Father is love (1 Jn 4:8) in fullness. Man—a limited being—can only move towards this goal. Charity is a way, a long way to go with fatigue.
The passage begins with a eulogy of love (vv. 1-3). He says that charity is superior to all other gifts: to languages, prophecy, faith, charitable assistance, and even immolation of one’s own body in the fire, a gesture considered as the highest expression of courage at that time.
This love should not be confused with the selfish passion that seeks only one’s own interests and pleasure. We call love the desire to own an asset that already exists, or even the mere physical attractiveness. It is in this sense that we speak of the love of a young man for a beautiful girl. But, in reality, this often is reduced to nothing but a craving to possess, to have her all to himself.
The love of which Paul speaks is rather like that of God. He does not find the good but creates it. It is in this context that the phrase Jesus often said must be understood: “The last will be first and the first will be last” (Mt 20:16). For us, the first are the good ones and the last are the bad. God overturns this list. His preference is for sinners, the most needy of his love. When they let themselves be invaded by his love they become the first. They may have many fine qualities, may put forward wonderful initiatives, but if they are not moved by a totally free and disinterested love, if they cultivate vanity and the desire to assert themselves, they do not have “charity”.
In the second part of the reading (vv. 4-7) Paul speaks of love as if it were a person. He presents it with a set of fifteen verbs. He says that it is patient, bears injustice, controls resentment. It is lovable, is always willing to do good to all. It is not jealous. Not proud, not disrespectful. It is disinterested and cares about other people’s problems. It does not give in to provocations and always triumphs over evil.
In the third part (vv. 8-13) charity is compared to other gifts. They pass away, will no longer be necessary, will be forgotten, will be like the games of childhood that, at some point, there’s no more fun and are abandoned; charity instead will be eternal, it will never end.
Today’s passage resumes the last verse of last Sunday’s and recounts what happened in the synagogue of Nazareth when Jesus proclaimed the beginning of the year of grace (v. 21). The difficulties of this text are few and also the interpretations given are varied.
It is not clear why the inhabitants of Nazareth suddenly pass from admiration for Jesus to insults and then the attempt to lynch him. He did not say anything provocative, why do they react in this way?
It is not even clear why he cites the two proverbs: “Physician, heal yourself” and “No prophet is accepted in his own country.” The latter, in particular, seems out of place: why does he speak so if—apparently—they’re praising him? Mark says that he could work no miracle because of their unbelief (Mk 6:5). Luke instead suggests that they believe him capable of performing miracles. So why doesn’t he make them?
Finally we would like to know also how he managed to escape from so many angry people. Has he miraculously vanished? But then he made the miracle that the villagers asked him. It cannot be so.
When, reading the Gospel, we come across details that appear strange and improbable there is reason to rejoice: they are valuable signs; they are an invitation to go beyond the mere matter of record and to seek the deeper meaning of the episode.
There is a fact that, more or less explicitly, is reported by all the evangelists: the inhabitants of Nazareth and the same family did not believe in Jesus (cf. Mk 3:21; Jn 7:5). Matthew and Mark place this refusal at the end of the preaching in Galilee (Mk 6:1-6; Mt 13:53-58). Luke instead anticipates it at the beginning of the public life for a theological and pastoral reason.
What happened in the synagogue at Nazareth is like an overture of the whole mission of Jesus. In this prelude to the main themes of his message (the salvation of the poor, the weak, the oppressed), the initially favorable welcome, then misunderstanding, rejection and condemnation to death are emphasized.
The attempted lynching implemented in Nazareth has its parallel in the scene of the passion, when Jesus is led out of the city to be executed. And the expression: “Physician, heal yourself!” recalls the mockery made to him at the foot of the cross: “Let the man who saved others, now save himself” (Lk 23:35).
Having analyzed the evangelist’s theological objective, we see what are the reasons why the fellow villagers of Jesus react so aggressively to his words.
Apparently the passage begins with the unanimous approval of the discourse given by Jesus in the synagogue: “All agreed with him, and were lost in wonder while he spoke of the grace of God” (v. 22). In fact the meaning of the text can only be different, otherwise it becomes difficult to explain the sequel of the story.
The reaction of the audience is motivated only if Jesus has said or done something that has impacted their sensitivity. And one reason perhaps of the hostility can be discovered.
It is a custom during the celebration that he who proclaims the second biblical text reads at least three verses of the book of a prophet. In the poor synagogue of Nazareth probably not all the books of the prophets are there except that of Isaiah. It is likely that—read and reread every Saturday—everyone knows it by heart. The passage chosen by Jesus, by the way, is one of the best known.
The irritation of the listeners may have been determined by the fact that Jesus abruptly stopped reading after a verse and a half. Why has he not gone further? If one reads what comes next, one can deduce the reason. After “I was sent … to announce the Lord’s year of mercy” the text continues: “and the day of vengeance of our God” (Is 61:2).
That was the phrase that everyone wanted to hear. The inhabitants of Nazareth, like all the Israelites craved this revenge; they eagerly wanted the punitive intervention of God against pagans who had oppressed them for so many centuries. Now that that time of reckoning has arrived, here, instead of vengeance, Jesus announces a “year of grace”, the remission of all debts, the unconditional benevolence of God to all.
His “gracious words” contain an unacceptable, unprecedented message. All in the synagogue are witnesses to the partisanship of his approach to the holy books. Who does he think he is? Is he not the son of Joseph, the carpenter? The contrast between the traditional mindset that expects a glorious, winner and avenger Messiah and the gracious words spoken by Jesus is radical and will resurface throughout the public life. It is the conflict predicted by Simeon: “He is a sign established for the falling and rising of many in Israel, a sign of contradiction… out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-35).
Jesus is not trying to ease the tension, to soften the differences explaining that everything is born from a simple misunderstanding. No, he heightens the tension with two proverbs: “Physician, heal yourself” and “no prophet is honored in his own country” (vv. 23-24) causing a second, disappointment in his countrymen. They heard about the wonders he worked in Capernaum and they are deluded to be able to witness those miracles that would mark the beginning of the Messianic era.
The two proverbs are a denial of their expectations, a distancing from their beliefs, a rejection of their dreams, a sentence of their illusions.
In the second part of today’s Gospel (vv. 25-27) the tone of discussion rises further and becomes a provocation.
Jesus explains why he does not repeat in his village the works done in Capernaum: he behaves like Elijah and Elisha who helped foreigners instead of aiding the needy persons of their people.
This is just too much! The inhabitants of Nazareth understand where he’s getting to: Israel is not the only recipient of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants. They already did not like Jesus’ choice of leaving his village and moving to Capernaum, a market town full of pagans where life is not always conducted in compliance with the legal purity. Now they realize that his was not an isolated act, but a clear sign that God’s salvation has been extended to all peoples.
His gracious words irritate the assembly: they are a challenge to the pettiness and meanness of their religious convictions. At this point the reaction of his listeners is no surprise: all are taken by anger, they get up, drive him out of the city and try to throw him down the cliff (v. 29).
The last verse: “But Jesus passed through their midst and went his way” (v. 30) does not refer to his miraculous disappearance. It is a message of consolation and hope that Luke wants to give to the Christians of his community who are facing opposition, misunderstandings, disagreements, hostility. The risk they run is to forget that what happened to all the prophets and to their Teacher is being repeated in them. Luke ensures: Protected by God, they, too, will pass the midst of persecution and will continue confidently along until they reach their goal.