Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Listen to me” Jesus added, “it is true there were many widows in Israel during the time of Elijah…Yet, he was not sent to anyone in Israel, but only to the widow living in Zarephath in the territory of Sidon. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha; yet not one of them was healed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”      Luke 4, 21-30

In our current era, a prevalent attitude seen almost daily among people we encounter is a sense of entitlement. They seem to conclude that age, status, reputation and longevity of service entitle them to preferential treatment, be they lining up for transport, waiting at a supermarket check-out, sitting in a doctor’s waiting-room or queuing for a Covid test. Apparently, the crowd Jesus addressed in the Nazareth synagogue had a sense of entitlement in regard to God. They seemed to believe that they alone were entitled to preferential treatment from God. When Jesus observed that God had seemingly overlooked them when Elijah rescued a starving Sidonian widow and Elisha cured Naaman, a commander in the Syrian army, they became incensed to the point of trying to murder the messenger. People with a sense of entitlement just don’t like being challenged or having their comfortable settlement disturbed.

One fascinating aspect of today’s account of how Jesus proclaimed his mission to the people of his own town is that Luke encapsulates in it the principal features of Jesus’ public life: a description of his ministry, an example of the kind of opposition he will experience every step of his journey and, by implication, his understanding of the God in whom he had come to trust and believe.

Worthy of note is the fact that today’s first reading from the Second Book of Kings parallels the gospel-reading in that it outlines the treatment meted out to the prophet Jeremiah by his people, who simply did not want to hear a message that confronted and unsettled them. To blot out his insistent message, they threw him into a deep cistern and left him to die there. Rescued from there, he was then exiled to Egypt. Jeremiah told of the God he had come to know, a God who had loved him into life and nurtured him till he was ready to take on the role of prophet, a God who also had warned him to expect ill treatment from a people who did not want to hear his message.

To get a real feel for today’s gospel-reading, let’s imagine how we might react if Jesus were to turn up in our local parish church next Sunday and evaluate us on how effectively we, his disciples, have carried out the mission of proclaiming the message he has entrusted to us. We would not appreciate being told that we have fallen well short of what he expected of us. We smart when evaluations of our professional or work performance indicate that we have been inadequate. The people of Nazareth would have been familiar with the repeated call of their Scriptures to care for the orphans, widows, strangers and other needy members of their community. By announcing to them that his mission was to bring good news to the poor, to release prisoners, to restore sight to the blind and free those suffering oppression, Jesus was really telling them that they had not lived true to the call of their Scriptures. Initially, they were impressed by his eloquence. But his insistence of pushing ahead with news that he wasn’t going to do miraculous things for them, together with remarks that prophets are not accepted by their own people and his observation of how Elijah and Elisha had given preferential treatment to two pagans got so deeply under their skin that they tried to lynch him.

After all that, Luke makes the non-committal remark that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way”, indicating that, if they were not going to heed his message, he was not going to force it on them.

The renowned medical missionary, theologian and Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer once observed how we are inclined to shape our image of Jesus into an image of ourselves. To see that, we only have to look at the statues of Jesus we have placed in our churches over the years. They portray a long-haired young man with blue eyes and fair complexion. We rarely see images of an assertive, confrontational Jesus with swarthy skin and fire in his eyes.

Jesus further incensed the crowd by claiming that they had a mind to quote to him the familiar proverb: “Physician, cure yourself!” In other words, he was suggesting that they were telling him that he shouldn’t have given the people of Capernaum benefits that his own hometown people deserved first. “Don’t forget, charity begins at home!”

Of course, we can watch all this from the sidelines, even wondering whether Jesus might have been more successful in wooing the crowd had he adopted a softly, softly approach. Clearly, however, from the outset, he was not prepared to water down what he had come to appreciate was the true message of the God of Israel: that all humanity had been created in the image of God and that, by naming Israel as the Chosen People, God had given them the role of alerting the whole world that God’s message of love and freedom was for the whole of humanity. For that reason, the poor, the dispossessed and the oppressed were to be given preferential treatment.

For us to participate fully in today’s gospel-reading, we have to stand among the people in the synagogue of Nazareth and open our ears and hearts to what Jesus was saying. We, too, can respond with amazement, anger or rejection. Or we can risk absorbing and heeding the full import of his words. Where might that lead us?

At the risk of gilding the lily, I suggest it would be a pity to conclude this reflection without giving some brief attention to Paul’s hymn to love (today’s second reading from Corinthians). Today’s gospel-reading and the first reading from Kings are ultimately about tough love. It’s important to remember that the hymn to love is but one part of the letter to the Corinthians. Elsewhere in that letter, Paul had to challenge his audience on their sexual immorality and other perversions. Tucked away in the hymn to love is the assertion that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things”. Let’s be assured that he is not saying that love means putting up with all kinds of excesses, betrayals and perversions, turning a blind eye to them. Rather, he is saying that we would do well not to give up on anyone, no matter how errant their behaviour. That does not mean refraining from challenging destructive, unhealthy, immoral behaviour. But it does mean being patient, understanding and reaching out to those around us when they fail. We are called to hold firmly to faith, love and hope in our dealings with everyone we encounter, even with those who confront us with tough love.