Sunday reflection: Luke 4:21–30
posted at 11:31 am on January 31, 2016 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is 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.
A prophet is not without honor, but in his home town. Today we pick up where we left off last week, where Jesus declares the prophet Isaiah’s message fulfilled and salvation to be at hand. One might expect that the people of Israel would rejoice at this, but they are blinded by what they think they know, and more importantly, who they think they know. And as Jesus reminds them, it’s not for the first time, either.
Take Jeremiah, from whose prophesying comes our first reading today. Jeremiah recounts the word of the Lord given to him as the city of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. He reminds the Judeans that the Lord will remain with them if they stay true to their covenant, but the powers of Jerusalem do not want to hear it. God tells Jeremiah to fortify himself and stand up to “Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and people” who authored the disastrous fall of Jerusalem. Jeremiah is abandoned by all but the Lord Himself, but as Jeremiah recounts, that is all that is necessary.
So it was for prophets before Jeremiah, and after him as well. Jesus reminds the gathered men in the Nazareth synagogue of this unfortunate history of the Israelites scorning the prophets who carried God’s word to them, and the consequences of that rejection. The Lord worked His miracles outside of Israel and Judah to show His power and mercy. Jesus knows that the men will demand a test, a proof of what Jesus claims, but Jesus intends to teach them the same lesson God taught the Israelites in the times of Elijah and Elisha — that without faithfulness to the Lord, we have no right to test His faithfulness to us.
At the same time, the final prophet is proving Jesus’ point. John the Baptist heralds the coming of Jesus and salvation for Israel, Judah, and the whole world, and some of the people rejoice and prepare for His coming. The powers of the region — specifically Herod Antipas and his allies in Judah — are not nearly as enthusiastic. When John the Baptist warns Herod to repent of his enormous sins, Herod casts him down into prison, and eventually beheads him to satisfy his lust.
Needless to say, those in the synagogue do not take Jesus’ prophesying well. They attempt to cast Him off of the ridge on which Nazareth sits to His death, but Jesus eludes them and passes out of Nazareth to fulfill His mission elsewhere — exactly as He warned them.
Let’s get back to why this happens. It’s a pattern, but why does it arise? Why do people not listen to Hosea, for instance, who lived his life as an example of the rejection of the Lord by an unfaithful spouse? Or Elisha, Elijah, Jeremiah, and so on? Perhaps another pattern can be recognized in the form of another old saying: familiarity breeds contempt. People knew these men or assumed they did, saw the perceived flaws that allowed them to pigeonhole each as unworthy to claim the status of prophet in some fashion. That is why Jesus’ observation that prophets are without honor in their hometown rings so true to this day.
Even that comes from a deeper impulse. The prophets called the people to repent of their sins, mend their ways, and recognize that they lived in sin. Few people want to hear that, and fewer still want to have those sins pointed out specifically and publicly. Herod Antipas is just the clearest and most specific example of this phenomenon. The Israelites throughout their history had to experience destruction and enslavement to recognize their sin and hearken to the call of the prophets in order to return to the path of salvation — usually long after those prophets had died or been killed for their efforts.
However, we can see in this a greater pattern, one that expresses God’s love for His children. The prophets who served the Lord in many cases came to bitter ends, but persevered nonetheless to act as instruments of His will. In retrospect, the children of the Lord came to recognize their ministries and understood them to be prophets; we still hear from them to this day in our Scriptures. Death did not keep the people from the promise of salvation.
In Jesus Christ, we see the greatest example of this. He came to call everyone to repentance through Him in a backwater of a sprawling empire, the mightiest the world had seen at that time. His own people betrayed Him and gave Him up to their oppressors to be put to death. Jesus conquered death as the clearest sign of God’s love, better expressed in the Latin caritas or the Greek agape. The Lord wishes to redeem His spouse, the Body of Christ, in the marital covenant promised since the exile from the Garden of Eden — and to which the prophets attest repeatedly.
Consider this in light of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in a passage most often heard at weddings. Paul writes this as guidance to the church in Corinth, which were undergoing a number of trials, but this best describes the Lord’s eternal relationship with us:
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.
Love never fails. This is the message of the prophets; it is the message of the Gospels. Even in Nazareth, where repentance and introspection get discarded for anger and retribution, the light of Christ will lead people back to their faithful union with the Lord. God does not brood over injury or rejoice over wrongdoing but eternally hopes in our return to Him through our own free will, for our sake. That is the love, or caritas or agape, to which we are called, and which brings us closest to God.