Gayla Benefield lived and worked in a small town in Montana. In the late 1980s she noticed that many people in their 40s and 50s were home during the day and using oxygen. She did some investigating and found out that a toxic form of asbestos was used in the homes. One form was also used as a fertilizer in the parks and football fields.
She began to tell her findings and tried to raise the alarm in her town. No one would listen. At one point the townsfolk had bumper stickers made: “Yes, I’m from Libby, Montana; and No, I do not have asbestosis.” The ridicule did not dissuade Gayla and she keep pushing for the situation to be investigated.
At one point, a scientific researcher confirmed her suspicions. Still the people in town refused to believe. Eventually the EPA had to spend $120 million to clean up the town and establish an asbestos clinic. By that point 400 people had died and 1,200 others were affected with health difficulties.
In one sense Gayla was playing the prophet to whom no one would listen. Jesus faced the same situation as recounted in this Sunday’s gospel passage. For the past two months we’ve been following the presentation of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel according to Mark. We’ve seen him do incredible things, including miraculous healings, restoration of life, calming the sea, just to name a few. The reaction has been amazement, astonishment and for many, faith.
But not everyone reacted this way. Today we hear of his preaching in his home town. While all were “astonished” at his teaching, many refused to believe. They ask: “where did he get all this?” Their attitude has been described as “willful blindness.” They can see and hear but refuse to acknowledge or believe. Jesus’ response is the same here as elsewhere. He remains faithful and continues the mission of proclaiming the kingdom.
Ezekiel, in the beginning of his prophetic ministry, was alerted by God that he would face the same situation. Indeed, many of the prophets had to deal with “willful blindness” or obstinacy. The Lord said: “I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day. Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you.”
Ezekiel realized the situation but goes forth and answers his call. The power to face such obstacles is seen in the opening line of the passage of the account. Ezekiel recalls “… the spirit entered into me and set me on my feet.” He acknowledges that his strength comes from God. God is the one who gives him the power to face rejection and hardship. Ezekiel relies on this help and depends on God to give him courage.
St. Paul eloquently echoes the same theme in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. He speaks of a “thorn in the flesh” as his torment. He does not identify this “thorn.” It may be related to “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints” that he mentions at the end of the passage in today’s liturgy. He notes that he “begged the Lord” for relief but hears the response: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Paul sees this as an opportunity to grow in his dependence on the Lord. It is the Spirit dwelling within him where he finds the courage to continue and to proclaim. He shares “for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
At different times in life we will have to face difficult situations. Maybe the “thorn in the flesh” will be associated with rejection. It might be something else. Knowing that the Lord is with us and will see us through is a great help. Faith in his presence and his mission as well will empower us to face the difficulties of life.
Notice in all three readings that God does not remove the obstacle. He does not force people to believe in Jesus, Ezekiel or Paul. He rather gives them the courage to continue. This is one of the aspects of “mercy.” His grace is sufficient and is the source of help to see them through. In each case, the persistence led to great benefit for countless people.
The same grace is available to us to face the challenges of life. It is for us to recognize and ask for that grace so that we too may realize it is only “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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