FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2019)
Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19
1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13
Being a prophet was no easy task. You worked for no pay with few retirement options, your boss was omnipresent, the job was never finished, and you frequently ruffled the feathers of many who, at best, didn’t like you, and at worst, wanted to do you harm. There are many reluctant prophets in the Old Testament, men who would rather be doing anything other than preaching God’s word to a people who were unwilling to listen. The author of our first reading, Jeremiah, is one of the most noteworthy reluctant prophets in the Old Testament.
Jeremiah was threatened with death several times. He was thrown into an empty, muddy cistern to die, he was imprisoned, and he was dragged off to exile in Egypt. Most painful of all his challenges, Jeremiah was forced to watch the destruction of Jerusalem, because its inhabitants would not listen to his message. One wonders why he wouldn’t just stop being a prophet.
Jeremiah continued to be God’s messenger because he trusted that God’s Word to him, recounted in our first reading, were true: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” Preaching God’s Word was not a job that Jeremiah could quit whenever he desired. Being a prophet was a vocation, a God-given gift, that needed to be exercised regardless of the challenges that accompanied that gift. Every prophet, from those who populate the Hebrew Scriptures, through John the Baptist and Jesus, up to our more modern prophetic voices like St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. Archbishop Oscar Romero, suffers hardship, rejection, and even the possible loss of their very lives.
Today’s gospel passage from the virtual beginning of Luke’s gospel picks up from where last week’s gospel left off, repeating Jesus’ brief prophetic teaching: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is meant to be seen as the fulfillment of all the prophets. He is the long-awaited Messiah who “brings glad tidings to the poor, who proclaims liberty to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.” Not everyone, however, will accept Jesus as the Messiah, and like all of the prophets who foretold His coming, Jesus will also experience rejection, and He will infuriate the religious leaders of His day and move them to plot His death.
In the gospel Jesus’ neighbors, who watched Him grow up in their midst, appear as an example of the pithy saying “Familiarity breeds contempt.” They could not imagine that the boy who was so dutiful about all things Jewish, and who was often seen helping his father Joseph with carpentry, could amount to anything so special. Further, while they were amazed “at the gracious words that came from his mouth,” they desired something more, “like the things that were done in Capernaum,” they said. They wanted to see something miraculous, something a bit more flashy. Perhaps then they might see something more in this hometown kid.
Jesus did not succumb to the crowds request for something more miraculous. Rather, drawing on familiar stories from the Jewish Scriptures, Jesus answered the hometown crowd by stating that in the “days of [the prophet] Elijah,” there were lots of Jewish widows, but there was only one Gentile widow who was the recipient of Elijah’s miraculous powers. He also stated, that in the “days of [the prophet] Elisha” there were no doubt many Jewish people who were sick, but only Naaman, another Gentile, was the recipient of Elisha’s miraculous powers.
Jesus’ listeners were undoubtedly insulted by these words which implied that the Jewish people in Nazareth were less worthy of a miracle being performed in their midst. The people were “filled with fury,” and, as they had acted towards numerous prophets before Him, they desired to do Jesus harm by throwing him off a hill. The God of Jeremiah and all the prophets, however, gave Jesus the “safety” that He needed, and God “rescued” Him from harm.
Jesus comes to us today as the model prophet. He is the One that all Old Testament prophets anticipated, and He is the One that all prophets who came after Him desired to model their loves on. Jesus knew the challenges of preaching God’s Word, and He would experience the rejection that Jeremiah and all the prophets knew so well, a rejection that is profoundly manifested in the cross.
Vatican II declared that as Christians we share in the prophetic role of Jesus. We are called to be prophets, who preach God’s Word with our lips and with our lives regardless of the challenges we might encounter. We too must be open to the rejection that so often accompanies prophetic work, and we too are to put our trust in a loving God who has promised to be with us on the journey. As important as the work of prophecy is, we are reminded by Paul in our second reading that it must, above all things, be accompanied by love. Paul tells us that we can have the gift of prophecy and a strong faith, but “if I do not have love, I am nothing.” As prophets who long to share the Word of God that has been shared with us, may we become so good at loving that all people we come in contact with will come to know us as Christians by our love.