“Why?” is a question that comes up frequently in life. Children, whose minds and intellects seem to grow in leaps and bounds, ask the question often of their parents. The question is asked in a sincere quest for knowledge and understanding. Adolescents may ask the question in this way also.
At the same time some may ask this question with a sense of rebellion or liberation – Why do I have to do this? – for example. The question also is asked when we move into adulthood but this time it is usually associated with the larger questions of life.
The Gospel passage for today’s Mass continues the story from last Sunday’s passage where Jesus begins his public ministry reading, in the synagogue, from the Isaiah scroll. He reads the passage, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” After reading the passage he says: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The people are filled with amazement and wonder at Jesus teaching. St. Luke tells us that “all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” The reaction quickly sours as they say, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” It’s their way of saying, “who does he think he is?”
Jesus is not deterred from His proclamation at their reaction. He continues to proclaim. As He reminds them, “no prophet is accepted in his native place,” their anger is riled and they become “filled with fury.” At this point they “rose up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.”
The actions which mark the rejection of Jesus and His word occur here at the very beginning of His public ministry. This is not the time for Jesus’ death so He passes through their midst and continues His ministry.
The encounter of Jesus with the people of Nazareth and Jesus’ rejection finds itself foreshadowed by the Scripture passage in Jeremiah, today’s first reading. The saving plan of God for His people is concretized in the life of individuals — in this case those who act as prophet. The Lord speaks to Jeremiah “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.”
The Lord carries on His work through the prophet. He makes His word known through them and ultimately, in Jesus, His Word will take flesh. The Lord commands the prophet to speak and to be strong. He warns that the prophet will be attacked. He says “They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Thus the prophet finds his strength in the Lord, and the strength he receives is powerful.
When we hear of the personal cost involved for the prophet in his mission one might ask “why?” Why is the prophet rejected? Why do the people oppress and fight him? There can be numerous answers to questions like these. Most likely, the word of the Lord, spoken through the prophet, strikes a chord in their hearts, stirs their conscience. Instead of recognizing the opportunity for change and growth, they find a reason to reject that word.
Another question that might prove beneficial to dwell on is “Why does the prophet, why does Jesus, proclaim and take the abuse, rejection and anger of His people?” The answer is love. Jesus loves His people even though they reject him. His love is more powerful than their rejection. His love is more powerful than their anger.
Jesus’s love for the Father and His faith in the Father’s will and protection drives Him forward in His mission. Jesus’ love for His people drives him forward. The love that the Lord lives is best expressed in those oft-repeated words of St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
Jesus’ passion and death are foreshadowed here at the very beginning of the public ministry. The threats and actions against His life forecast what is to come in the crucifixion. In a certain sense His passion is already beginning. Jesus’ response to the rejection and threats is powerful. He continues on inviting people to believe in Him, to experience the Father’s love and to personify mercy itself. His whole life is a witness to love. He is love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.