Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jan. 30)

James Herriot is a fictional character in the stories “All Creatures Great and Small.” The stories have been made into film and television productions, the latest running on PBS Masterpiece. Mr. Herriot is a veterinarian in a small Yorkshire town and the vast farmlands that surround it. The stories are set in the 1930s. He cares for home pets but also large animals such as cattle and horses.

The series opens as this new vet begins his practice as an associate in an established practice. One episode has Mr. Herriot faced with a serious decision. He is called to a stable home of a prized stallion. The animal is on the ground clearly in pain. His hind legs are sporadically and violently kicking. After examination, Mr. Herriot realizes there is nothing that can be done for the horse and the only course is to euthanize. The handlers object. He reexamines the animal and comes to the same conclusion. He is wrenched by the reality of his decision but soon realizes it is the only course of action.

After the fact, the owner arrives and is outraged. He calls upon Mr. Herriot’s supervisor and demands an autopsy. Mr. Herriot is grieved by having to kill the beautiful horse. He knows he did what was right but the loss of the animal is weighing him down. Word starts to get around town and the countryside and people are referring to him as the “horse killer.” The ridicule only adds to the anxiety he faces. When the autopsy is concluded, Mr. Herriot is vindicated and slowly rejection turns to respect.

A few episodes later, in a less serious setting, Mr. Herriot faces a similar but humorous challenge. He is appointed to judge the animal contests of the local fair. Three contests are being judged: a home pet contest for children, one for ponies and one for cattle. In all three, people are trying to “buy him off” or to pressure him in judging favorably. They are the typical types of pressure in these cases: appeal to sympathy, appeal of a parent for a child, sympathy for a family in need of prize money (financial), threat of harm and so forth.

The humor comes in that these situations contrast between the low level of importance of the contest and high level of interest in the competitors. Mr. Herriot time and again holds his ground and judges fairly. He is met with rejection and ridicule. The episode culminates on a more serious note. A friend’s cow is being sold for breeding. The sale would bring financial security for the friend. As the episode develops, Mr. Herriot begins to have serious doubts about the breeding ability of the cow.

Everything comes to a head at the end of the episode. The prospective buyer and seller are in the local pub. The latter demands an evaluation of the cow. Mr. Herriot then says that he suspects the animal is lame. Such is the case as others witness to a history that they have been hiding from his friends and the prospective buyer. Mr. Herriot is expecting to be cut off by his friend and the townsfolk. Fortunately, this is not the case and they soon express appreciation for his honesty. The friend, in later episodes, sees it as a blessing for if they had sold a lame cow their business reputations would have been destroyed, regardless of their ignorance of the matter.

The two episodes witness to someone who held his ground for truth and honesty despite a variety of pressures both external and internal to do otherwise. The character remains true despite the pressures. The examples recalled can easily be translated to various situations in life where we might face similar dilemmas.

The readings for this Sunday’s liturgy take the point even further. Through them we get an insight into Jesus’ faithfulness and love, which are strong and resilient, able to withstand the pressures and obstacles that could lead him off course.

The Gospel account for the liturgy follows upon last week’s passage. Jesus has just read the Isaian 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.”

Now he tells his hearers, “Today, this passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” At first the people receive the proclamation with acclaim and “were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” However, the reaction quickly changes as they begin to doubt him saying, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”

Jesus responds with some references to prophets being rejected in their homelands, from among their own people. He then begins to speak of his acceptance among the Gentiles. At this a fury arises among the people and they drive him out of town to throw him off a cliff. Yet they are unable as St. Luke tells us, “Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.”

The threat on Jesus’ life points ahead to his passion and death. Right here at the very beginning of the public ministry, Jesus is met with acceptance by some but also with rejection. His proclamation is met with ridicule. He is manhandled by the crowd. And his life is threatened. All this serves as a reminder to us that Jesus’ mission will involve suffering and death. As the Gospel presentation continues to unfold, we will come to know this more and more. The rejection and threats will increase as he travels closer to Jerusalem.

This episode reminds us of the centrality of the paschal mystery in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ mission does not consist solely of teaching and great deeds but of passion, death and resurrection. Jesus’ slipping away and avoiding death also points ahead. This is not the time, the ministry has just begun; but it will happen when all is prepared and at the appropriate time and in the appointed place.

In this short passage we see the unity of the entire mission. Jesus is the faithful servant of the Father. One aspect of his mission is that he is a prophet. He speaks on behalf of the Father and proclaims his message. Like the prophets of old he will face rejection. Yet he remains true.

The first reading from the prophet Jeremiah recalls the words of the Lord to that prophet: “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.”

The prophet’s strength, courage, fortitude, persistence, determination and resilience are all rooted in his relationship with God which is built on trust. Jesus trusts in the Father, and remains faithful to him in love.

The second reading for today’s liturgy comes from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The reading extolling the beauty, power and strength of love is one of the most favored Scripture passages. Most couples pick this reading as the second reading for their marriage liturgies.

Hearing this reading today, we might reflect on Jesus as the witness of divine love, perfect love. Jesus’ love for the Father, and his love for us, is reflected in this passage and seen ultimately in his passion, death and resurrection:

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.

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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.