The Sunday Gospel
In today’s Gospel Reading (Luke 4: 21-30) we continue last Sunday’s story of Jesus returning to his home town, Nazareth, where he preached in the local synagogue. After reading from Isaiah about the power of the Holy Spirit inaugurating a time of liberation and a new way of seeing life, he handed back the scroll and announced, “This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.” Sacred Scripture is God’s word on paper. But like seeds in a paper envelope, the words are lifeless until they are planted in the compost of everyday living.
The initial reaction to the words of Jesus was very positive. The listeners were astonished at his gracious words. Gracious words are full of grace, conveying God’s presence and power. They inspire our potential for goodness and love.
From approval to rejection
But see how quickly the mood is soured. Luke takes us on a journey of emotions from approval, through growing doubt, into anger and eventually into violence. It is left to the reader’s imagination to put flesh on the story. Imagine the nudges and winks, the grunts of disapproval and the cynical guffaws. Local begrudgery begins to plant the seeds of doubt. First to speak is the voice of caution: “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?”
In other words, who does he think he is? Don’t be swept off your feet by his outrageous claims.
The begrudger can usually mask his cynicism under the guise of humour which serves to rally fellow-travellers. The voice of parochial jealousy is heard, masked in a tone of pious admiration. “We heard all that happened at Capernaum.” The voice hardens a little, “Do the same here in your own countryside.”
No prophet is accepted in his own country
Sensing the negative mood, Jesus makes the immortal statement. “No prophet is ever accepted in his own country.” It is not a new story. It happened years previously to the great holy men, Elijah and Elisha. Both got a poor reception at home but they were agents of miraculous healing to people outside the nation.
The locals think it is audacious of Jesus to couple himself with these hero prophets of history. And sorer still is the implication that he is on a mission beyond the confines of Israel. Anger is now beyond control and violence takes over.
They spring to their feet and hustle him out of the town, intending to throw him off a cliff. The swaying journey up the hill anticipates another day, another crowd, another hill. The escape of Jesus is rather vague. “He slipped through the crowd and walked away.” An angry crowd will not easily let the object of its wrath slip away. Luke is really hinting at that later day when Jesus would pass through this angry world on his journey back to the Father.
Idealists face rejection
The episode is consolation to all whose idealism or commitment to a good cause meet with resentment, jealousy and opposition. They are in good company with Jesus who was rejected by his own neighbours. The horrible thing about jealousy is that it is a sick reaction to the talents or good fortune of another person. It is a poisonous parasite sucking growth out of a good tree.
Gossip is a contagious virus
It was amazing how rapidly the initial approval of Jesus at Nazareth swung in the opposite direction. The most active germ of negativity is gossip. It is something Pope Francis speaks about quite often. We have become familiar with wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of a virus. We might profit too if we masked our mouths when tempted to spread contagion about another person. It is advisable to think before you talk, and to be guided by the five letters that spell the word think. Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind? There is a story in the Gospel about a woman with a bad name. Some of the religious leaders were scandalised because Jesus did not hunt her away. She was not born with a bad name. It was given to her. I wonder who gave her the bad name? I bet it was the people who regarded themselves better than others.
Is my talk poisonous or gracious?
In contrast to the sick words of his opponents, the words of Jesus were gracious. Today’s second reading is St Paul’s hymn to love. With a slight alteration we can take this text to describe the qualities of gracious speech.
Gracious words are always patient and kind; they are never jealous or boastful or conceited; they are never rude or selfish. Gracious words do not take offence and are not resentful. The loving heart takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes. Love does not come to an end.
Lord, may our judgments be kind and our words gracious.
Fr Silvester O’Flynn’s book Gospel, Reflections and Prayers is available at Columba Books.