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.

How do we recognize the Word of God, and how are we called to embrace it? Today’s Gospel reading continues from last week’s passage, this time showing us the aftermath of Jesus’ declaration in the synagogue. To say that the men of Nazareth reacted poorly to Jesus would be a study in understatement. A disputation over scripture would have been nothing out of the ordinary in any synagogue, both then and now, but this went much farther than a theological debate. It may have started as one, but Jesus’ rebuke of their skepticism and reminder of rejections of prophets past infuriated them into a murderous rage, which Jesus avoids.

On one hand, we can understand the skepticism that would be generated if any man declared himself a messiah, let alone a local who was well known by the people of the town. Who wouldn’t be asking, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” after this declaration. On the other hand, the men who attended the synagogue were the learned of their community. They came together regularly to read and then discuss the Torah, the Word of God handed down by Moses to the Israelites. They may not have been as learned as the men who ran the temple in Jerusalem, but they had dedicated their lives to the Torah to a similar extent. And when the time came, the temple authorities had just as much trouble discerning the truth of Jesus as did those in the Nazareth synagogue.

How did men of such gifts miss this so badly? In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul rebukes the church there over their envy and infighting over spiritual gifts. (That was among several issues in Corinth for which Paul felt the need to write a serious corrective.) In chapters 11 and 12, Paul reminds them that all spiritual gifts come from the Holy Spirit, and all are equal in status. One gift does not have a greater nobility than another, Paul writes, for “all these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”

But then Paul prefaces one of his most famous passages with this instruction: “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.

We often hear this passage at weddings, where it provides a beautiful reflection on the way to build a strong foundation in marriage. In this instance, however, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the point of the faith is not to acquire spiritual gifts. Those of themselves are useless without embracing the full Word of God in scripture and in Jesus’ teachings. The gifts are in service to the self-sacrificing love God has for us, not to usurp God’s role as judge, nor to set up hierarchies among God’s children when all fall short of His glory. Jesus brought this truth to us in his mission years, starting at the wedding feast at Cana and launching more explicitly in the Nazareth synagogue.

This lesson applies to us today as well. We may know that Jesus is the Messiah and have studied the Word just as carefully as the men in the synagogue at Nazareth. However, do we use it in service to caritas, or do we use it in service to our own selfish purposes? Do we usurp the Lord in judgment through our gifts, or do we welcome the stranger, the sick, the poor, and the defenseless equally? Are we exclusionary when we sing of His salvation, as our responsorial from Psalm 71 proclaims? Or do we sing of salvation not just for our family, friends, and those of like mind, but also for our enemies, our betrayers, and those whose hearts are hardened against the Word?

Strive eagerly for spiritual gifts, but do so in service to caritas, the love of the Lord for all of us. The point of those gifts isn’t to throw people off the cliff, but to pull them back from it. The Lord’s ways are not our ways, and we have to recognize the need for humility, lest we be surprised at who ends up falling from the brow of the nearby hill.

The front-page image is a detail from “Exorcism at the Synagogue in Capernaum,'” an eleventh-century fresco. Via Wikimedia Commons

“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.