4th Sunday (C)

“ No Prophet is accepted in his own native place

The central theme of the liturgy of the word today is tragedy of rejection and prejudice experienced by Jeremiah and the Lord Jesus Christ. Jeremiah foretold of the impending dangers and the anger of Yahweh due to the infidelity of the people of Israel. Instead of listening to the word of God, they attacked him, thrown into a cistern and eventually imprisoned him. 

Jeremiah did not want to be a prophet, but God chose him and empowered him, purified his lips and gave him the power of speech to deliver the word of God. “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.” Ironically it was the invaders about whom he had warned the people who eventually released him from prison and let him live in good conditions. 

Amazement turns to hatred:

At first, the crowd was amazed that one of their fellow villagers could speak with such grace and eloquence and with such authority.We see from the Gospels how Jesus was rejected in Israel, because they were prejudiced and could not grasp the fact that the messiah would be one among them. His listeners were enraged at his words and attempted to push him over a cliff. The people were certainly outraged by Jesus presenting himself as the Messiah so long foretold.  They rejoiced in his miracles and were captivated by his message but seeing him as the Messiah was probably a step too far for most of them. 

The prophet’s lot

But, says Jesus to them, a prophet is not normally accepted in his own place. He then gives two striking examples from the Hebrew Testament, one from Elijah and the other from Elisha, two prophets closely linked with the coming of the Messiah. 

Elijah was sent to help a poor Gentile widow in Sidon (a non-Jewish area) during a famine caused by three and a half years of drought. Why did the prophet go to her when there were so many Jewish widows in the same plight? Similarly, there were many lepers in Israel but Elisha was sent to Naaman, a Syrian general. The Syrians were the hated enemies of Israel. Jesus was being quite provocative in telling these stories. Why so? The answer comes in Mark’s account of this incident and he gives two reasons:

a. Because the people of Nazareth knew Jesus’ family so well, they were not ready to receive him or his message about his own identity and mission. It is a good example of familiarity breeding contempt. Because Jesus had grown up among them, they thought they knew who he was. They were not ready to accept that he was something very much more.

b. Secondly, Mark comments that Jesus was able to do very little healing in Nazareth because they refused to believe in him. They had no faith. It is clear on many occasions that Jesus’ healing power only came to those who had total trust in him. “Go in peace; your faith has made you whole again.” And, of course, the response of the people of Nazareth was only a foretaste of the total rejection of Jesus by many of his own people. Jesus’ words were not really provocative. They were simply a description of what was happening. 

We are all called to be disciples of Christ, in other words we are asked by God to be prophets in the modern world. We are asked to be the ones who proclaim Christ’s message of salvation to the people around us. If we take on this role we will inevitably find that we are opposed and perhaps even persecuted for it. In certain circles we will find ourselves unpopular if not facing outright rejection. 

Love is the most important gift of all

It is here that St. Paul gives us clear directions to live our faith and to be a witness to our divine master by our lives of authenticity. He clearly spells out the qualities we should posses in living a life of love for God and our neighbor. Paul, after speaking about the importance of the gifts of the Spirit, which each one has received, says that love is the most important gift of all. 

Love indeed is a gift. Loving is an art which has to be received and nurtured. The ancient Greeks had three words for ‘love’: eros , philia and agape. Putting it very briefly, eros is passionate, physical love, the love of young lovers. Philia is the love of friendship and implies a very deep intimate and mutual relationship between two people involving total transparency of one to the other. Agape, which is the love Paul is speaking about here, is a unilateral, unconditional reaching out in love to another, even if it is not returned or even rejected. This is the love that God has for every single person and the kind of love that should be the characteristic of the true follower of Christ in his/her relationship with people everywhere. It is agape which makes it possible to pray for those who curse us and bless those who harm us. 

St. Paul tells us that without this agape, none of other gifts of the Spirit have any value. I may speak with extraordinary eloquence about the Gospel message but, if I do it without love, I am like a booming gong – all sound and no substance. I may be able to utter prophetic statements in God’s name, be gifted with the deepest insights, knowledge and wisdom. Without love, it is nothing. I may even have a faith that can move mountains but, if there is no love there, it is nothing. 

Qualities of agape

Paul then lists some of the qualities of agape. It is kind, not envious, not boastful, not arrogant, not rude, not self-willed, not irritable, not resentful. It is does not rejoice in wrongdoing but in truth, integrity and wholeness. Agape has a high level of tolerance and is endlessly ready to trust. It endlessly hopes and is endlessly able to endure. In spite of all obstacles, it perseveres. Examples of real people who lived like this would be Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. They consistently refused in the face of all kinds of misunderstanding and abuse to stoop to any form of violent retaliation. They affirmed the dignity of every single person, including their enemies. 

Speaking with a prophetic voice, Paul asserts that all forms of knowledge and learning will some day come to an end. But agape, as part of God’s own being, will go on forever. Now, Paul tells us, we know God and truth as in a clouded mirror but one day it will be face to face. Then there will be no need for faith or for hope. Faith will give way to total vision and hope will yield to realization. But agape will remain. Let us then cultivate this unselfish love in our lives so that we are able to see the needs of others rather than ours.