You Can't Go Home Again, Yeshua

The prophetic life is a strong theme in the readings for the next two weeks. God’s spirit enters Ezekiel, and he is summoned to preach to rebellious people. Jesus returns to his home town, is rejected by his family and proclaims, A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house. Today when prophecy is more associated with sectarian and often destructive religious visionaries, its biblical meaning must be recovered. The term comes from the Greek, pro + ph-e t -e sliterally, one who speaks on behalf of. A prophet speaks on behalf of God, as God’s messenger and on behalf of those who have no one to speak for them, giving a voice to the voiceless (for example, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the stranger in the land). A prophet is not primarily a fore-teller, but a forth-teller, who proclaims with insight the evils that afflict society and can ultimately spell its downfall, as Jeremiah warned against political entanglements that led to the Babylonian exile. Prophets are radical in the sense that they reach back into the deepest roots of a religious tradition and summon people to be faithful to them, as the Hebrew prophets evoke the Exile from Egypt and the Sinai covenant.

Today’s Gospel provides a window into the life of the pre-Easter Jesus. He was a prophet who proclaimed the nearness of God’s reign, urged people to take a second look at their lives (Mk. 1:14-15) and embodied God’s mercy by associating with the marginal and suspect people of his day. Jesus’ rejection by his family, recounted earlier in Mark (3:20-21; 31-35), is mentioned by all the Gospels. None of the named relatives of Jesus were among his first disciples, and only John reports his mother at the cross. Why did Jesus’ relatives and townsfolk reject him? He is called a carpenter, a somewhat derogatory term for one who claims to teach God’s word. The names of his brothers, James, Joses (shortened form of Joseph), Judas and Simon recall leading figures of Israel’s history. Jesus probably did not fulfill their hopes for a nationalistic messiah (see Lk. 24:21; Acts 1:6), but proclaimed instead forgiveness of enemies and acceptance of the Gentiles. He teaches in the synagogue, but his teaching shocks his hearers; they cannot figure him out. His understanding of God and God’s action does not fit into their categories. Because of their closed minds, he was not able to perform any mighty deed there.

Today’s readings remind the church of the risk of silencing the voice of prophecy. In the 1940’s Jesuits were forced to leave some university communities because of their outspoken criticism of racism. As I write these lines, television is filled with stories of the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war. There were no stories of David Miller, who burned his draft card in protest in 1966, or of the opposition of Dorothy Day and others who spoke out when the U.S. bishops issued their 1966 statement, Peace and Vietnam, saying that U.S. action in Vietnam was justified, a position adamantly supported by Francis Cardinal Spellmann until the bitter end. Today the church must ask what prophetic voices are not held in honor as people often ask what kind of wisdom has been given them? (cf. Mk. 6:2). As the church summons us to repentance for sins of the past, who, like Ezekiel, will call us to task for our present sins?

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