July 5, 2015: 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

 14th Sunday OT (2)

1st Reading – Ezekiel 2:2-5

As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me
and set me on my feet,
and I heard the one who was speaking say to me:
Son of man, 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.
But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD!
And whether they heed or resist — for they are a rebellious house —
they shall know that a prophet has been among them.

Today’s first reading is the call of the prophet Ezekiel.  He became a prophet in Babylon, the first prophet to receive his calling outside of the Holy Land. As one of the exiles deported by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C., his first task was to prepare his fellow countrymen in Babylon for the final destruction of Jerusalem, which they believed to be inviolable.

As the Lord spoke to me, the spirit entered into me

God’s spirit (ruah) enters into Ezekiel, strengthening him for his task ahead and calling his attention to the message of God.

and set me on my feet,

In the verse prior to this reading, Ezekiel has fallen on his face in response to a vision of heaven.

The strength of God’s spirit, for which Ezekiel’s human weakness is no match, puts him on his feet, readying him for the task ahead.

and I heard the one who was speaking say to me: Son of man,

Man, mortal flesh, is contrasted with God, immortal Spirit.

Here, “son of man” is ben-’ādām, which merely means human being.  It is not to be confused with bar-’ěnôsh, the Son of Man who is described in the book of Daniel with messianic connotations.

In the moment of his highest calling, Ezekiel is being reminded of his human nature, with all its infirmity and limitations.  Regardless of his office, he is still only a human being.

I am sending you to the Israelites,

Note that all the initiative is God’s: God sends him, to the people that God selects, with the message the God determines.

This is an official mission with all the authority that it entails.

rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have revolted against me to this very day. Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you.

According to God, the people of Israel have always been rebellious, from the time of their ancestors.

This is not reassuring information!  If they have always been obstinate of heart, there is little reason to think that they will heed a new message from God now.

But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD!

The content of the message to be delivered is not conveyed here, but the authoritative proclamation that announces it is given: “Thus says the Lord GOD!”

Using this claim to speak in the name of God is a serious matter, as speaking falsely in God’s name was met with grave penalties.  Given this, and the fact that the prophet’s audience is known to be rebellious and “hard of face,” it is no wonder that Ezekiel would need to be fortified with God’s spirit to even contemplate such a task.

And whether they heed or resist – for they are a rebellious house – they shall know that a prophet has been among them.

The only test for whether a message is truly prophetic is whether or not the prediction comes to pass. From that perspective, this statement seems like a warning: the people will know that he was truly a prophet because of the dire consequences that will befall them.

2nd Reading – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Brothers and sisters:
That I, Paul, might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.

In our second reading, Paul positions his apostleship within the paradox of the cross of Jesus.

Brothers and sisters: That I, Paul, might not become too elated, because of the abundance of the revelations,

Paul has received extraordinary revelations from God.  Without the proper perspective, he — rather than the gospel he preaches — might become the center of attention.

a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.

The nature of the specific affliction is not clear. It may have been a physical or psychological ailment, or a disorder in the church.  In Hebrew “thorn in the flesh,” like the English “thorn in my side,” typically refers to persons (see Numbers 33:55 and Ezekiel 28:24), so he may be referring to some especially persistent and obnoxious opponent.

Regardless of its nature, it is an impediment to his work as an apostle, and it humbled him just at the time that he might have been personally exalted.

Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,

Paul did not unquestioningly accept this particular suffering; he prayed to be relieved of it.  Paul was no stranger to personal suffering for the sake of his ministry, so we can assume that his reluctance to accept this “thorn in the flesh” was not because it caused suffering, but because it was an obstacle to his work.

The prayer was insistent (“three times I begged”), a sign of how intolerable he felt the thorn to be.

but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,

Paul’s petition is denied; release and healing are withheld for a higher purpose.

for power is made perfect in weakness.”

A paradox: power is given most fully and manifests itself fully in vulnerability.  When stripped of power, one is more likely to turn to God.  The more capable and self-sufficient one is, the less one is prone to look to God for help.

I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.

Paul feels the power of God working through him most acutely while in his weak state.  Further, because of the public nature of his affliction, others will see that anything Paul accomplishes is the effect of God working through him.

Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

The paradox of Paul’s strength in his weakness is grounded in Christ’s death and resurrection: just as Jesus death won eternal life for us, it was precisely at his weakest moment that he was strongest and accomplished God’s salvific plan.

Gospel – Mark 6:1-6a

Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples.
When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue,
and many who heard him were astonished.
They said, “Where did this man get all this?
What kind of wisdom has been given him?
What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!
Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary,
and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?
And are not his sisters here with us?”
And they took offense at him.
Jesus said to them,
“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place
and among his own kin and in his own house.”
So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there,
apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.
He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Today’s gospel reading recounts the story of Jesus’ rejection by his own people.

Jesus departed from there and came to his native place,

Literally, patriá, his father’s house.

accompanied by his disciples. When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue,

Jesus returns to his home as a teacher; the presence of the disciples indicates an official visit.  Adult men typically took their turns explaining the scriptures in the synagogue, so the fact that Jesus did so is not unusual.

and many who heard him were astonished. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!

Note that they do not question his teaching or dispute his “mighty deeds.”  What they question is the source of these wonders.  Their astonishment is not from awe, but from resentment: who did he think he was?  If they had asked the question honestly, with soft hearts, the answer might have been revealed to them.

Is he not the carpenter,

In no other gospel is Jesus a carpenter.  In Matthew 13:55, he is “the carpenter’s son.”

This is probably meant as a derogatory term for someone who claims to teach God’s word.

the son of Mary,

Contrary to Jewish custom, which calls a man the son of his father, this expression probably indicates that Joseph was already dead.  It may also be a reflection of the author’s faith that God is the father of Jesus and that Mary was a virgin.

Some see this is as the people accusing Jesus to be illegitimate, but had they thought this, both Mary and Jesus would have likely been marginalized by the society.

and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”

In Semitic usage, the terms “brother” and “sister” are applied not only to children of the same parents, but to nephews, nieces, cousins, half-brothers, and half-sisters.  (For examples, see Genesis 14:16, Genesis 29:15, and Leviticus 10:4.)

When he was dying on the altar of the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother, Mary, to Saint
John. If Mary had other children, Hebrew tradition would have demanded that she be
placed under their care.

And they took offense at him.

Familiarity with his family and his background leads them to regard him as pretentious.

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.”

This saying has parallels in other cultures, especially Jewish and Greek literature, but without reference to a prophet.  By comparing himself to previous Hebrew prophets whom the people rejected, Jesus hints at his own eventual rejection by the nation, especially in view of how his own relatives had treated him (see Mark 3:21).  He is rejected by those who knew him the best, but who apparently understood him the least.

So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

In an exercise of their gift of free will, the people rejected Jesus and lacked the faith required for the power of God to be effective in their midst.

“Two things must coincide for the reception of healing: the faith of those who need healing, and the power of him who will heal. If either of these are wanting, the blessing of a cure will not readily be attained.” [Pseudo-Victor of Antioch (5th century), Commentary on Mark 6].

Connections and Themes

  • The prophetic life is a strong theme in this week’s readings.  Because prophecy is often associated with sectarian and destructive religious visionaries, we must revisit its biblical definition if we are to understand scripture.  The word “prophet” comes from the Greek prophētēs, which means “one who speaks on behalf of.”  A prophet speaks on behalf of God, but also on behalf of those who have no one to speak for them: widows, orphans, exiles, and other marginalized from society.¹
  • The life of a prophet wasn’t easy.  They were frequently mistreated, rejected, and sometimes killed.  This happens primarily for two reasons: 1) prophets often proclaim a radical message, summoning people to live lives that are faithful to the true roots of their religious traditions, and very different from their current lifestyle, and 2) it’s often difficult to distinguish a true prophet from a false one.  It is all too natural for us to accept the voices that sound like our own, and challenge those who challenge us.  Yet we compound our offenses if we reject those sent by God to bring us back to him.
  • We can see commonalities across Ezekiel, Paul, and Jesus, each of whom served in some kind of prophetic capacity:
    • Ezekiel’s prophetic mission was to the exiled Israelites in Babylon, calling them back to God and warning of further devastation if they continued in their ways.  His message was opposed by the leaders of the community, who preferred the message of false prophets who optimistic predictions of a quick return from exile and the re-establishment of the Davidic throne in the person of Jehoiachin.
    • Paul’s mission was to bring the gospel to the Gentiles.  In today’s second reading, we hear of his “thorn in the flesh,” which was likely a person who was persecuting him somehow.  In fact, the New Testament is filled with examples of Paul’s suffering because of his ministry and message: he was run out of towns, beaten, and imprisoned.  He was likely beheaded by the Romans, under Emperor Nero.
    • Jesus was a prophet who proclaimed the nearness of God’s reign, urging people to examine their lives and repent from sin (Mark 1:14-15).  He also lived as an example of God’s mercy, associating with those rejected by society and preaching a message of forgiveness, even of one’s enemies.  Today’s gospel reading recounts the rejection of his townsfolk, and earlier in Mark’s gospel (3:20-21, 31-35) we are told that his family rejected him as well.  None of the named relatives of Jesus were among his first disciples.  He teaching shocks them; they cannot figure him out.  His understanding of God does not fit into their categories.
  • Competence can lead to pride, complacency, and smugness.  When things are going well, we can sometimes begin to think that we are self-reliant, not needing help from God or others.  When we admit our human frailty — or, more likely, are harshly reminded of it — we open ourselves to the power of God.  Paul’s acceptance of his weak state and his willingness to let God’s power work through him despite his limitations serves as a stark contrast to the rebellion of the people in Ezekiel’s day and the resistance of Jesus’ townsfolk in the gospel.²

Notes
1 – John F. Kavanaugh, S.J. (1996), The Word Encountered (Year B), 297.
2 – Dianne Bergant (1999), Preaching the New Lectionary (Year B), 419.

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