July 4, 2021: 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 part of Ezekiel’s call story. 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 BC, 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 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,

Here, “son of man” is ben-’ādām, which means “human being.” This is not to be confused with bar-’ěnôsh, the Son of Man who is described in the book of Daniel with messianic connotations. The Book of Ezekiel (537 BC) predates the Book of Daniel (165 BC) by several hundred years.

In the moment of his highest calling, Ezekiel is being reminded of his human nature, with all its infirmity and limitations. Regardless of Ezekiel’s office, there is a vast difference between God’s divinity and his humanity.

“[Ezekiel] is brought up often into heaven and his soul rejoices at great and beautiful mysteries which remain invisible to us. But it is fitting that he be called son of man while he contemplates those hidden wonders, so that he will not forget who he is or glory in the splendour that has been revealed to him” (Saint Gregory the Great, Homiliae in Ezechielem prophetam, 1, 12, 22).

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 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.

God informs Ezekiel that 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. However, that doesn’t stop God from taking the initiative to reach out to them.

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

This instruction is often referred to as a “messenger formula” and occurs often in the prophetical books. By prefacing his message with this authoritative announcement, the prophet makes it clear that what he is about to say is not being spoken on his own behalf, but is the word of 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.

This serves as a formal confirmation that Ezekiel is indeed a prophet.

At a time when there was no king (he was the prisoner of Nebuchadnezzar) and no temple (it had been profaned and destroyed) and no social or religious institutions among the Jews, prophets acquired increased status. The prophet was God’s only representative among the people; he was the only one with authority to demand that they listen to his message.

Neither God nor Ezekiel fails to act in the face of the people’s stubborn rebelliousness. God continues to be faithful to his covenant promise to love even in the face of their infidelity.

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.

As we begin the account we might think that Jesus’ fellow townspeople are going to respond with faith and awe, as have so many others.

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!

They are astonished at the wisdom and mighty deeds of Jesus, which they do not question. However, they do question 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.”

the son of Mary,

There are a few possibly interpretations of the people’s reference to Jesus as “the son of Mary”:

  • It might have been intended as an insult since in Jewish custom a son would be referred to as his father’s son, not his mother’s.
  • There’s a high likelihood it indicates that Joseph had died by this time.
  • It may be a reflection of Mark’s faith that God is the father of Jesus and that Mary was a virgin.

Some scripture scholars see this as the people accusing Jesus to be illegitimate, but if this were the case, both Mary and Jesus would have likely been marginalized by 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.

As often happens, familiarity has lead to contempt. The people regard Jesus as being pretentious.

Mark’s gospel emphasizes Jesus’ total abandonment by everyone from whom he might expect support, not only during his public ministry but during his passion and death.

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 members of society.
  • 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 with optimistic predictions of a quick return from exile.
    • Paul’s mission was to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. Today 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 also 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 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. His teaching shocks them; they cannot figure him out. His understanding of God does not fit into their categories.

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