(See the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jan. 31)
The Gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy opens where last Sunday’s reading left off. Actually it repeats Jesus’ words: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” You may recall that the Scripture passage to which he refers is the Isaian text: “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.”
Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy. As the Gospel unfolds we will encounter his proclamation and its accomplishment.
Today’s passage unites the theme of Jesus’ proclamation with his eventual passion and death where he accomplishes his mission and brings his proclamation to completion. The account recalls how amazed the people in the synagogue were at Jesus’ “gracious words.” Yet, almost immediately questions arise as to Jesus’ identity and mission. The people ask: “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” Jesus senses the underlying animosity and says: “Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place.” Recall these events are taking place in Nazareth, his home.
Jesus continues by citing several examples from the Scriptures where foreigners heard God’s message through a prophet and accepted; whereas the locals, the people of the covenant, likewise heard the word of the prophet but rejected or ignored it. Such was the case with the widow in Zarephath of Sidon and Naaman the Syrian. The figures are well known from the Old Testament.
Elijah visits the widow of Zarephath during a severe famine. He asks her to prepare a meal for him. She responds that she has little food left and that she was going to prepare it as her last meal for her son and herself. Elijah promises her that God will relieve her plight saying: “Do not be afraid. Go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me. Afterwards you can prepare something for yourself and your son. For the Lord, the God of Israel, says: The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the Lord sends rain upon earth.” (1 Kings 17:13-14)
She prepares him a meal, after which “she had enough to eat for a long time – he and she and her household. The jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.” (1 Kings 17:16)
Naaman the Syrian was a leper. Finding no cure in his homeland he hears of Elisha the prophet in Samaria. With the permission of the king he travels to Israel and is eventually sent to Elisha. When told to wash seven times in the River Jordan, Naaman protests: “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand there to call on the name of the Lord his God, and would move his hand over the place, and thus cure the leprous spot.” (2 Kings 5:11)
However, he does go and wash in the Jordan. As he washes himself his flesh “became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” Naaman returns to Elisha and proclaims: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.”
Both with the widow and Naaman these two foreigners hear the word of the prophet and accept it as authentic. They come to belief through the prophetic word.
Jesus, at the very beginning of his proclamation, foretells the universal call to salvation. Jews and Gentiles alike will be invited to share in the salvation he will win.
The struggle and opposition to the Gospel is seen as this episode concludes. The people are filled with fury at Jesus’ words. “They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.”
This immediate attempt on Jesus’ life foreshadows the cross by which his mission will be accomplished. The time however is not now, and Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went away.”
Jesus’ prophetic word and proclamation meets with rejection. However, as we will see as the Gospel unfolds, he continues on his mission trusting in his Father. In this, Jesus likewise fulfills the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah in the liturgy’s first reading. In this passage Jeremiah recalls the Lord appointing him a “prophet to the nations.” His message will be met with rejection and opposition.
The Lord says to him: “Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them; for it is I, this day, who have made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land: against Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and people. They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”
Jesus is filled with the Spirit. He embraces his mission moving forward despite the opposition. His motivation is love. He trusts in the Father’s protection and ultimate deliverance. He proclaims the Gospel of love and reveals the meaning of love, divine love, which all are invited to share.
The second reading today speaks of this love. The famous passage from First Corinthians eloquently describes love and the import of love.
“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.”
St. Paul writes these words inspired by his own experience of the love of Christ. This love, first experienced in mercy, changed Paul’s (then called Saul) life. The encounter with Christ Jesus, who is love, caused Paul to reevaluate his whole understanding of life and faith. He was transformed by this encounter with Christ and found life through him.
Now he continues the mission of Christ and his proclamation. His emphasis on love, in this passage, is based on his experience of Christ’s love. It motivates him to love as he has been loved. It fortifies him to face the challenges and opposition he faces. It strengthens him to continue the saving mission of Christ.
This is why his emphasis on love is so strong: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; If I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
The celebration this weekend invites us, once again, to recognize in Christ Jesus the proclamation of life. In him and through him we have life. The offer of life is at the same time the invitation to love. We experience this in many ways, one of which is listening to his word and accepting that word. He transforms us by this encounter of love to be persons who can love and share that love with other people whom we encounter on the journey of life.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.
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Sometimes it’s difficult to love a person who has hurt you or someone you love; but we are ordered to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. We must still love our enemies in order to be a Christian.