Turning Away

Todays readings exemplify the diversity of Scripture. Jeremiah and Luke express the strong biblical motif of the prophet called by God, but opposed and rejected by those to whom he is sent. Each reading has overtones of violence. Jeremiah is told to gird up his loins, that he will be a pillar of iron and a wall of brass. The Gospel recounts not only the rejection of Jesus, but an unsuccessful attempt to kill him. Yet the reading from Paul is the great hymn to love (a wedding favorite), in which Paul subordinates prophecy to love, which endures all things.

The Gospel tells the rest of the story of the enthusiastic reception of Jesus inaugural sermon by his townsfolk (they were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth). Yet suddenly the mood changes. They seem surprised that the home town boy can speak so eloquently. Isnt this the son of Joseph? The rejection escalates as Jesus reads their real thoughts: the people want him to do for them the kind of mighty works he performed in Capernaum. Jesus counters by quoting a well-known proverb, No prophet is accepted in his own native place. In the Gospels Jesus is not accepted by his own family, except for Mary, and no disciple was a member of his family. The folks at Nazareth want a domesticated Jesus at their disposal.

Jesus then rubs salt into the wounds by telling two parallel stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Elijah was one of the most heralded Israelite prophets. He was powerful in word and deed. Sirach says that he arose like a fire, and his word burned like a torch (48:1). He was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot and was expected to return as precursor of the Messiah. Lukes Jesus calls attention to Elijahs gift of miraculous food to a widow from Zarephath (Sidon) during a famine and parallels this with a reference to the healing of a Syrian leper, Naaman, by Elijahs disciple Elisha. Hearing this, the townspeople try to kill Jesus.

Jesus here anticipates his mission in Luke. Later he will raise the son of a widow (7:11-17) and cleanse a leper (5:12-16). He himself will become the rejected prophet, a major theme of Lukes Gospel. Like John, who criticizes those who pride themselves on their descent from Abraham without bearing fruit, Jesus says that Gods grace and power will benefit outsiders, anticipating the welcome given to gentiles in Acts.

These readings challenge the church today. Prophets are rarely accepted among their own. The pacifism of Dorothy Day, for example, was long an embarrassment to the hierarchy. Archbishop Oscar Romero was hated not simply because of his commitment to liberation theology and his advocacy on behalf of the poor, but because he was seen as turning away from the upper classes, which felt the church was their own. Yet these two prophets were living embodiments of Pauls hymn to love, and have received (perhaps with a bit of heavenly embarrassment) that world-wide honor once denied them.

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