Strength in Weakness

Failure, impotency and weakness: these are the themes of today’s readings. This may tempt pastors to use the homily time to do some fundraising. This would be a great mistake, for amid these themes we find extraordinary spiritual insight.

In the first reading, Ezekiel reports that God has sent him to his fellow exiles in Babylonia: “I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers...hard of face and obstinate of heart are they. The message he will receive is one of “lamentation and mourning” (2:10). Safe to say, Ezekiel will not have an easy prophetic life, and many who hear him will dismiss him. Our reading ends with a great insight: “And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house—they shall know that a prophet has been among them.”

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Ezekiel was not commissioned to succeed in purifying his people’s hearts, but to speak the truth and let go. This is really liberating: one follows God’s lead, one discerns responsibly, one acts in love and then lets go. If an endeavor fails, be assured that you did not, for you were faithful. God demands nothing other than this. What freedom!

The hardness of heart Ezekiel experienced was what Jesus encountered in his hometown of Nazareth. Thus far in the Gospel of Mark we have experienced Jesus’ presence as something that overwhelmed those around him. Demons are overcome, people experience the fear of the Lord, and Jesus’ power to heal is dramatically on display. In today’s reading we find that “he was not able to perform any mighty deed there.... He was amazed at their lack of faith.”

It was not that Jesus was literally unable to heal; Mark tells us he did cure a few people. Rather, he was utterly disheartened. Not only did his fellow Nazoreans have no faith, they seemed utterly dismissive. He is just the carpenter, they said to one another, and we know his family. “And they took offense at him.” Jesus’ miracles only make sense in the context of anticipating the kingdom and in some way already participating in it. Without faith, Jesus’ healings would make him more a magician than a messiah. Failing in his hometown, Jesus remained the perfect prophet, making clear that he was not a court jester to amuse or amaze. And in witnessing to the imperative of faith, he reminds us to scrutinize our own relationship with him.

Do we have the proper awe? Do we hang on his word? Do we seek merely the consolations of God; or do we, rather, pursue the God of consolations?

The second reading represents a virtual celebration of weakness. Paul’s authority had been challenged in Corinth, and he wanted to defend himself as worthy of their trust. He ended up passionately telling his detractors about what he has suffered for the Gospel, including whippings, beatings, stonings and imprisonments (2 Cor 11:23 ff). Paul was not boasting of his war wounds, but telling the Corinthians that he knows well the cost of discipleship and that his suffering is part of authentic Christian witness.

In today’s reading Paul describes how God kept his pride in check. “That I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me.” So painful was this thorn that Paul pleaded for release: “Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” The reading ends with Paul’s summary: “For when I am weak; then I am strong.”

These four things I know: My greatest burden is when I try to control what is out of my control. When I tell God to jump, God never does. My own witness is most compromised when I am most full of myself. And when I look at the experiences that deepen my faith, I quickly see that they tend to unfold in a context of great vulnerability. Failure, impotency and weakness: great themes.

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