The fierce non-urgency of now: Sunday reflection

Wikimedia Commons.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 1:1–4; 4:14–21:

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.

He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: 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. Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

A few years ago, I wrote about today’s Gospel reading in the context of being trapped in a cultural moment. We see through the glass darkly at everything else but the now, even with as much access to the past as we have at this very moment. Part of that comes from a human limitation of living within one’s own skin, while some of it comes from an insistent rejection of what preceded us as definitionally deficient. After all, if we believe in evolution and progress, then everything new has to be better than what is older.

Unfortunately, this is a fallacy, and both our first reading from Nehemiah and our Gospel reading from Luke allude to this. The fallacy relates to humans believing that we are moving in an inexorably positive direction toward growth, both collectively and individually. We’d love for that to be true, but outside of scientific progress — which is no small area, of course, especially in these times — it’s simply not the case. All we need to do to understand that is to look at the last century in the context of the whole of human history, especially in terms of sheer body count.

We have mistaken two narrow forms of progress — the scientific method and biological evolution — for a guarantee of spiritual and virtuous growth. And that has consequences, as our first reading demonstrates.

Ezra’s address to the Israelites came after the restoration of Jerusalem and Judea after the Babylonian captivity. The northern kingdom of Israel had earlier been destroyed by the Assyrians, never to return. How did Israel and Judea fall in the first place? By abandoning their mission from the Lord to remain faithful to His Word, and to teach the Law to all the nations. Instead, they chose to ignore His prophets and seek “progress” as a worldly nation, adopting the idolatry of others rather than teach against it as commanded. Not even the fall of Israel served to change the ways of Judea, and not even the warnings of Jeremiah awoke the Judeans to their doom.

The Lord called His people back to Jerusalem in large part through Nehemiah, who served as a cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes in Babylon. Nehemiah convinced Artaxerxes to allow the Judeans to rebuild Jerusalem and to invest in the effort. Nehemiah served as governor of Judea under Artaxerxes, and worked with Ezra to re-impose Mosaic law in Judea. Much of the latter half of Nehemiah concerns the enforcement of Sabbath laws and bans on outside marriage, for instance.

In our reading today about the moment of their victory over exile, the Israelites cheer Ezra’s reading of the Law. All of the houses of Judea that had returned sign the covenant that Nehemiah required to obey the Lord and live as priests and prophets to the world. Yet not long after, Nehemiah would discover that the restored Judeans had returned to their worldly ways, concerned much more about the present rather than the past or the future.

The same issue comes up in Jesus’ time, as we read in today’s Gospel, although the denouement comes past the end of our reading today. The entire orientation of Judea was supposed to have been in hope of the Messiah, but only a Messiah of their own construct and on their own terms. When Jesus proclaims that the prophecy of Isaiah has come to pass “in your hearing,” they are at first happy — until Jesus begins to explain what consequences will necessarily follow (Luke 4:22-30):

And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Caper’na-um, do here also in your own country.’ ” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Eli’jah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Eli’jah was sent to none of them but only to Zar’ephath, in the land of Si’don, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Eli’sha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Na’aman the Syrian.”

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. But passing through the midst of them he went away.

This does certainly demonstrate that “no prophet is acceptable in his own country,” but it also shows that prophecy is only appreciated in retrospect, too. Jesus preaches here that the consequences of the Messiah will require a purification not unlike what Nehemiah imposed at the restoration of Judea (although not identical to it either), or for that matter as the Maccabees imposed in their restoration. The arrival of the Messiah is indeed a complete restoration of the path to the Lord, but it will require a return to His Law as He intended it. The consequences of human-oriented “progress” would be as dire as it had repeatedly been in the past.

It’s at this point that the congregants decided that they’d heard enough about the Messiah and the victory of God.

Salvation history is filled with these rejections and the cultural weight of secular progress pushing humanity from the call of the Lord. We are called to a very simple mission: to love the Lord above all other things, to serve Him and each other, and to preach His Word to all those who have not yet heard it. Everything else is only relevant to the extent that it hinders or promotes that mission. Ignatian spirituality focuses on that concept of indifference, which keeps us from becoming too attached to cultural “progress” and humanity’s ever-doomed efforts to create its own redemption and salvation. As it was in the time of Jeremiah, Nehemiah, the Maccabees, and Jesus, it is mainly a rebellion against God’s authority — a repeat of what happened in the Garden of Eden.

It’s not called “original sin” for nothing, after all. It’s the basis of our separation from the Lord, and it is a pattern that repeats throughout the scriptures. Our refusal to recognize it creates dire consequences for us, whether we want to hear it in prophecy or not.

This is why our readings today call us from the now to the past and future. The Lord has given us prophecies and miracles to explain His love and His Word; Christ has sacrificed Himself once and for all to provide us the redemption we seek. We will not find that on our own as individuals, and we will certainly not create it ourselves in novel cultural/political projects. Our eyes should be on our salvation at all times, with our minds grounded in the Gospels, the Law and the prophets, and our hearts open to the Holy Spirit. There is no fierce urgency of “now” except in preparation for the Lord and our mission to lift each other up in the pursuit of true salvation.

The front-page image is a detail from “Christus heilt einen Besessenen” (Christ at the Synagogue in Capernaum), artist unknown, c. 11th century. 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.