Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
For better or for worse, we are in the election season, which seems to get longer all the time. One of the charges that is leveled from one politician to another, no matter what their particular stripe, is that the opponents adjust their message to their audience to the point of contradicting messages. As we read the Gospel today we are reminded that Jesus was no politician.
Last week we read the description of Jesus’ reading and the attentiveness of the people to Him. Then He went to make the statement that begins this week’s Gospel. His statement was a bold introduction of His role as the fulfillment of the old testament prophecies of a future servant and Messiah. He knew to whom He was speaking. He knew He was speaking to people who had watched Him grow up. They knew Him as a local carpenter. They knew Him as a faithful participant in their synagogue worship. The incident described in the Gospel probably was not the first time He spoke in the synagogue. The people of Nazareth were familiar with Jesus. While there was most likely some respect for Jesus, there was a familiarity that bread contempt at least among some. To honestly identify Himself as He did in the synagogue included a risk of rejection, even hostile rejection, on the part of some. Jesus heard their question. He further read the hearts to see their doubts that would contemptuously want Him to prove Himself with miracles they heard He did elsewhere (if He could). When He confronted their doubt they responded with rejection to the point of near violence.
The rejection Jesus experienced in Nazareth set the stage for the rejection He would experience later at the hands of individuals and groups. It was the eventual rejection that led to His arrest and crucifixion. It was the rejection that old testament prophets experienced as well. Our first reading reminds us of the prophet Jeremiah hundreds of years earlier. He was warned as the Lord called him to service, that people would fight against him, but not prevail. When Jeremiah spoke a challenging truth to God’s people, Jeremiah indeed experienced rejection and persecution, but God’s plan prevailed, most importantly eventually in the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. And with Jesus Christ God would prevail through suffering and death to deliverance in resurrection. Jesus Christ is therefore the source of our hope that we can prevail through experiences of rejection when an honestly proclaimed and lived faith is challenged by people around us.
As we do seek to witness to fidelity to Jesus Christ, in word and deed, we are inviting others to come along to meet and follow Jesus as well. But we do so as imperfect people, and some people will try to silence our witness because of our imperfection. While we may be prudent in how we witness to Jesus Christ, we shouldn’t be silent. But we should witness with the attitude of humility and gratitude for the mercy that God continually shows us. Even if our witness is with confidence, it is not to be with arrogance or personal judgment. (We must indeed judge actions, but hold back in judging the motives or heart of the person who acts.)
The awareness of our imperfection as follower of Jesus leads to what I consider the other part of the message of today’s Gospel. It is the message that we should be aware of our own vulnerability to reject Jesus. It is not some outright and total rejection of Jesus. It might simply be rejecting one element of Jesus’ teaching or another. I think if we are honest, and take a few moments we could probably jot down our favorite teachings of Jesus and those we prefer to ignore, or excuse. That is, if we have a complete knowledge of all that Jesus teaches in the Gospels. (I recall on the way to discerning my vocation the experience of reading the Gospel of Matthew in its entirety. While I don’t remember the specific passages that challenged me the most, I do recall the bottom line of realizing that following Jesus could not be a halfway measure.)
Once again, I would point to the spiritual exercise of making use of the Rediscover Jesus took throughout Lent. I am sure that all of us will find chapters to cheer and chapters to, well, not cheer so much. I want to suggest a great Lenten exercise, as we read, pray and share in an effort to deepen our knowledge and relationship with Jesus. Pick out some point of Jesus’ teaching, some expectation from His Gospel that you are most enthusiastic about. Then think of some particular way you can live that teaching more effectively. Think of some teaching that really challenges you, perhaps even to the point that you have excused yourself from that challenge. Then identify some concrete way you can change your approach to that teaching. It might be an effort of prayer, and effort of learning and most importantly an effort of action. And whatever personal challenge there may be in this effort, we trust that God will give us the grace to fulfill His desire that we be more fervent and effective disciples of Jesus Christ.