Feb 3, 2019: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19

The word of the LORD came to me, saying:
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.

But do you gird your loins;
stand up and tell them
all that I command you.
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:
against Judah’s kings and princes,
against its priests and people.
They will fight against you but not prevail over you,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.

Today’s first reading is the prophet Jeremiah’s account of his being called into service to God.

The word of the LORD came to me, saying:

These same words are typically used to introduce a prophetic oracle, suggesting that Jeremiah is declaring his call from God was itself prophetic in nature.

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you,

The divine words take the form of parallelism:

before I formed you / before you were born, and I knew you / I dedicated you.

Jeremiah’s vocation as prophet was his destiny even before birth. Unlike other prophets who often had additional occupations, Jeremiah’s prophetic vocation was his entire identity.

The language used implies profound intimacy.  The verb used here for “know” (yāda’) is a versatile one; it isn’t limited to intellectual knowledge, but it includes an understanding of the needs and the will of another.

The verb yatsar, meaning “to form,” refers primarily to the modeling of pottery. Genesis 2:7-8 depicts God as a potter and the verb took on the technical meaning “to create” (see also Jeremiah 18:6, Isaiah 64:8, Romans 9:20).

The verb qadash (“to dedicate”) can also be translated “to sanctify” or “to consecrate”; in other words, separation for divine service. Jeremiah was set aside by God for his prophetic mission.

a prophet to the nations I appointed you.

An indication of the universal character of Jeremiah’s ministry; he will prophesy to more than just Judah.

But do you gird your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you.

Having assured him of his prophetic call, God now prepares Jeremiah for the fate that lies ahead of him.

To gird the loins was to gather the free-flowing garment that men wore and tie it at the waist, to allow free movement for running, physical work, or battle (see Exodus 12:11, Job 38:3, Job 40:7).  The saying is akin to the modern “roll up your sleeves.”

Jeremiah is being prepared for an ordeal in proclaiming the word of God. The task ahead of him will not be easy.

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 Lord tells Jeremiah not to fear, explaining that he will fortify the prophet as one would fortify a city.  While the imagery suggests an extraordinary military-style defense, it also implies the possibility of a massive assault.

Against Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and people.

His assailants are named: the very people that he is sent to serve.

They will fight against you, but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.

They will not only be unresponsive to Jeremiah, they will vigorously fight against him.  However, God makes it clear that they will not prevail; the Lord will be with him.

Note that God does not promise to deliver him from the onslaught, but to be with him during the ordeal and that he will not be crushed.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13

Brothers and sisters:
Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts.
But I shall show you a still more excellent way.

If I speak in human and angelic tongues,
but do not have love,
I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy,
and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge;
if I have all faith so as to move mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own,
and if I hand my body over so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.

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.

Love never fails.
If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing;
if tongues, they will cease;
if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child,
think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
At present I know partially;
then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
So faith, hope, love remain, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.

Today’s second reading is one of the most beloved biblical passages in the New Testament, in which Paul describes and praises love.

Brothers and sisters: Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts. But I shall show you a still more excellent way.

This verse shows that today’s reading is part of a longer discourse; it is a continuation of our reading from the last two Sundays.  Last week, Paul insisted that all the gifts of the Spirit functioned for the common good, and no one gift was better than another.  Today, Paul concentrates on love, the “more excellent way.”

If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.

Paul begins a list of various gifts of the Spirit, dismissing each if they do not issue from love.  The love Paul speaks of is agápē, self-sacrificing love, as opposed to philia (brotherly love/friendship) or eros (sexual passion).

Agápē, as Saint Thomas Aquinas clarified, is willing the good of the other.  It is to escape preoccupation with self and to want, really want, what is best for one’s neighbor.  Agápē is the virtue of charity.

The gift of speaking in tongues was considered by some to be the greatest spiritual gift because it was the first given, at Pentecost.  It’s used here as Paul’s first example to stress his point: even speaking in tongues is useless and even annoying if it is not grounded in love.

“Paul chooses speaking in tongues as his example because the Corinthians thought that it was the greatest of the gifts. This was because it had been given to the apostles on the day of Pentecost, before any of the others. The tongues of angels are those which are perceived by the mind, not by the ear.” [Saint Theodoret of Cyr (ca. A.D. 445), Interpretation of the Fourteen Epistles of Paul 251]

And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.

As beneficial as all these gives may be, without love they are nothing.  Paul is not stating that these gifts or functions are completely without value; rather, their value is transitory.  They are useful now, in this world, but Paul’s concern is with eternity, and at the end of this world the value of these gifts will cease if they are not rooted in agápē.

In fact, Paul states that without love, he himself is nothing.

If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Even martyrdom, the ultimate sacrifice, must come from agápē in order to have meaning.

Love is patient, love is kind.

Because love is the desire for the good of the other, the one who loves is patient because he is not concerned about his own boredom or frustration.  He is willing to wait.

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,

The one who loves is not jealous, for she positively rejoices in the achievements of the other.

it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. 

The one who loves does not brood over injury for he looks to the future good of his friend, and not his own wounded past.

It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

For the one who loves, the discomfort and/or the achievement of her own plans are not of paramount importance, but what will benefit the one she loves.

In total, Paul provides fifteen characterizations of love, all of them reflecting open acceptance or unqualified respect. In doing so, Paul is not merely expatiating on a sublime human achievement, but telling us what God is like, for God is love.

Precisely because God is perfect, he has no self-interest.  He has, quite literally, nothing to gain.  Therefore, every move he makes vis-à-vis creation is an act of love, willing the good of the other.  When we act in accord with love, we are not simply being ethically upright; rather, we are becoming partakers of the divine nature.  To love in this way may seem impossible, but we must remember that agápē is a gift from God.

If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.

The supernatural virtue of charity is eternal, but the gifts themselves are transitory. There will be no need or use for them in heaven, just as an adult has no use for childhood toys.

At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.

The gifts we receive from God are only partially realized in this world.  The fragmentary nature of this life is compared to seeing a reflection of God, while the perfect nature of the next life is like seeing God face to face.

So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Of the three theological virtues, love (charity) is the most important.

“Charity is the bond of brotherhood, the foundation of peace, the steadfastness and firmness of unity. It is greater than both hope and faith. It excels both good works and suffering of the faith. As an eternal virtue, it will abide with us forever in the kingdom of heaven.” [Saint Cyprian of Carthage (A.D. 256), The Advantage of Patience 15]

Gospel – Luke 4:21-30

Jesus began speaking in the synagogue, saying:
“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
And all spoke highly of him
and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
They also asked, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”
He said to them, “Surely you will quote me this proverb,
‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say,
‘Do here in your native place
the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’”
And he said, “Amen, I say to you,
no prophet is accepted in his own native place.
Indeed, I tell you,
there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah
when the sky was closed for three and a half years
and a severe famine spread over the entire land.
It was to none of these that Elijah was sent,
but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon.
Again, there were many lepers in Israel
during the time of Elisha the prophet;
yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
When the people in the synagogue heard this,
they were all filled with fury.
They rose up, drove him out of the town,
and led him to the brow of the hill
on which their town had been built,
to hurl him down headlong.
But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.

Today we resume from last week’s gospel reading, where Jesus read the following passage from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue (Isaiah 61:1-2):

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.

Today we see how the people respond.

Jesus began speaking in the synagogue, saying: “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

The passage from Isaiah announces the eschatological age of fulfillment.

One of the most important themes of Luke’s gospel is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to the Israelites in Jesus.

And all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

At first, the people in the synagogue speak highly of him and are amazed at his words.  As we will see, their attitude toward him will soon change.  Their amazement does not translate to belief in him.

They also asked, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”

The hearers, which probably included relatives, knew Jesus as the son of Joseph and have watched him grow up.  They think of him as only human.  How did one of their own acquire such wisdom?

Here Luke is creating dramatic irony between his readers and the characters in the story.  Luke and his readers have information that the characters know nothing about; namely, that Jesus is the son of God, not the son of Joseph.

He said to them, “Surely you will quote me this proverb, ‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say, ‘Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’”

Jesus seems to be anticipating the people’s objection before they themselves voice it.  Because they knew him as one of their own, they would expect him to perform for them the miracles they heard he had done elsewhere.  Many of his miracles were cures, and if in that sense, he were a physician, he should be able to heal not only himself but his family and townsmen as well.

And he said, “Amen,

This phrase always introduces a solemn declaration uttered only by Jesus in the gospels.

I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place.

Jesus has made Capernaum, not Nazareth, his headquarters because it generally holds true that a prophet is not well received in his hometown.

Familiarity breeds contempt; people do not think well of prophets whom they knew when they were ordinary citizens.  Because of this prejudice against him, Jesus declined to do any miracles (or anything else extraordinary) in Nazareth.

Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon.

Jesus goes on to provide examples of two of the most famous prophets of the Old Testament, prophets who chose to work among foreigners rather than among their own countrymen, presumably on the direction of God.

The first example is Elijah (1 Kings 17:1-18): the widow who benefited from the miracle he performed was a Gentile.

Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

The second example is Elisha (2 Kings 5:1-14): like the widow, Naaman was also a Gentile.

Jesus has taken his examples of universalism to the extreme.  The people of Nazareth are already envious of other Jewish cities that have benefited from Jesus’ works, but here he suggests that God goes beyond the confines of Israel and extends his power and grace to the Gentiles.

When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury.

For them, the suggestion that the prophetic promise of fulfillment or the saving power of God would be extended to the Gentiles was pure blasphemy.

Note that in his examples, Jesus does not suggest that the Gentiles will join the Jews in their experience of God’s goodness, he states that the Gentiles will receive God’s goodness instead of the Jews.  This is a bitter message for a chosen people.

They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.

They drove him out of the town because it was unlawful to execute someone within the city.  It is clear that they are ready to kill him.

Jesus has followed the pattern of the prophets who came before him: he, along with the word of God he proclaims, is rejected.

But he passed through the midst of them and went away.

As on other occasions, Jesus doesn’t flee the angry crowds but mysteriously passes through them.  No amount of opposition can thwart God’s power to save not only the Israelites, but the Gentiles as well.

By describing the intent of the people to kill him, Luke is also foreshadowing Jesus’ future passion and death.  Jesus’ ability to mysteriously slip away highlights God’s divine plan for Jesus die on the cross only at the appointed hour (see John 18:32; John 3:12-14; Matthew 20:17-19).

Connections and Themes

Complexity in our response. In moments of fervor, we might wholeheartedly answer yes to the word of God, but in reality that ‘yes’ is usually impure.  Like the people who heard Jesus first-hand and were initially amazed — then later sought to throw him off a cliff — we often turn quickly from our initial appreciation of Christ.

A similarly complex situation existed for Jeremiah: he was greatly honored by God before his birth, yet he would be attached by his very own people.  Jeremiah is assured by God not that this injustice would be prevented, but that Jeremiah would endure it.  God’s ways are sometimes as complex as our responses to them.

Call to a deeper level. Paul teaches us that the greatest response to the challenges presented to us by God is love.  Despite the struggles of living a Christian life, despite the rifts that may be cause by proclaiming the gospel, the word of God cannot be silenced.

Neither Jeremiah nor Jesus recoiled from their difficult mission; instead, they entered even more deeply into the call to God’s love.  Rather than brood over his injuries, Jeremiah took refuge in God’s assurances.  Rather than aggressively demonstrating his strength when threatened, Jesus exhibited patience and kindness.  Both men bore and endured their bitter misfortunes; this is our example to follow, to let our responses be born out of love.

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