Holy Spirit

ACTA LECTIONARY COMMENTARY

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Year of Luke

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READINGS

A reading from the prophet Jeremiah 1:4-5. 17-19

Responsorial Psalm Psalm 71:1-6. 15. 17. R/. v. 15

A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians
12:31-13:13

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 4:21-30

 

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The first thing to do when God calls you to do something is to refuse. This is what Moses did when God called him to go into the court of Pharaoh and demand that God’s people be set free. Moses listened carefully to God’s proposals and raised objections that God easily dismissed. But the final objection was the clincher:

 

But Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.
Exodus 4:10

Moses declares: “I have a stammer and your job requires eloquence. Count me out.” But God counters that excuse by pointing out that Moses’ brother, the silver-tongued Aaron, can do the talking bit.

Mary did the same. She listens carefully but then turns down the proposed pregnancy on the grounds of an insurmountable obstacle to any pregnancy: How can this be, since I do not know a man? The angel has to explain that the matter is in the hands of the Holy Spirit.

Gideon, a valiant warrior, is given a clear call from the Lord:

Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?
Judges 6:14

Gideon refuses the calling point blank with an appeal to the realities of the situation:

Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house.
Judges 6:15

Practically everyone who gets called by God in the Old Testament refuses straight off. God has one answer that changes everything: I will be with you. And nearly everybody gets a sign to guarantee that all will be well.

The lesson for us all is that when God calls you, get your objection in first. Run a mile. The least you must do is force God to spell out the terms.

The Gospel of today, however, presents an exception. Jesus does not hesitate. He embraces his calling to fulfil what Isaiah declared to be the job description of the one to be anointed, to gospel the poor and proclaim liberty to captives. Even in the face of rejection and threats to his life he fully embraces his vocation: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears. This is the Jesus we will come to know more deeply and more intimately as the pages of Luke unfold. There is one indelible certainty every step of the way to the place that is called The Skull: not my will, but yours, be done (Luke 23:33). What happens in the synagogue in Nazareth is a prelude, an overture, to all that will happen every step of the way to his burial.

 

A reading from the prophet Jeremiah 1:4-5. 17-19

The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.
Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying,

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you
appointed you a prophet to the nations.

But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.
The word of the Lord.

Unfortunately today the Lectionary indulges in one of its most frequent sins: it leaves stuff out. It edits God’s holy words and offers abbreviated readings. Consequently the meaning is distorted and God’s word is twisted.

The first five verses that open the Book of Jeremiah identify who the man is. He is a priest. He lives in very dangerous times. In his lifetime a weak monarchy is disintegrating in the face of incompetence and Babylonian aggression. The horrors of the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem were imminent. Above all, their conquerors deported most of the people into exile “by the waters of Babylon”. In this time of terror “the word of the Lord” came to Jeremiah and sought to appoint him a prophet “to speak whatever I command you” (Jeremiah 1:7). Jeremiah’s instant reply is an objection to the whole project:

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth”.
Jeremiah 1:6

But God’s reply is beyond argument, beyond refusal:

“Do not say, ‘I am only a youth”
for to all to whom I send you, you shall go,
and whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you”,
declares the Lord.
Jeremiah 1:7-8.

According to God’s call, Jeremiah was appointed “a prophet to the nations”, not only to his own people, but to a world torn by strife and the evils of war.

Jeremiah

Our Lectionary, over the three-year cycle, has 154 readings for the Book of Isaiah, 56 readings from the Book of Jeremiah, and 51 readings from the Book of Ezekiel. It is important for Christians to know at least something about what these books are about. For the writers of our New Testament not only quote from these works of prophecy but they are imbued with images of God and God’s doings to be found in the poetry of some of the Bible’s most remarkable visionaries and most profound theologians.

Briefly, the Book of Jeremiah is partly the work of Jeremiah the priest and prophet, and partly the work of others who were steeped in the teaching of the great prophet. Those who inherited his perspective on God and God’s ways, continued to interpret the signs of the times long after Jeremiah died in exile in Egypt. More than that, Jeremiah and his successors were indebted to the kind of thinking that came to be enshrined in the Book of Deuteronomy. The Book of Exodus and the later Book of Deuteronomy emphasised that the covenant that God made with the people of Israel on Mount Sinai was at the heart of their faith. God’s covenant (“I will be your God and you will be My people”) is the defining basis of faith. Disobedience is the greatest sin for it throws God’s Torah, God’s teaching, back in God’s face. A chilling portrait of an unfaithful people is presented by the eight-century B.C. prophet Hosea, a prophet whose influence on Jeremiah is profound. Hosea sets out a stark reality and a passionate hope. Whereas the ancient slogan had been the comfortable certainty that “I will be your God and you will be my people”, Hosea proclaims that the lack of true faith in God has placed Israel outside God’s mercy. An imaginary woman (that is, Israel) conceived a daughter symbolically called “No Mercy”, for, says God, “I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them”. But God’s rejection will not last forever and a day of forgiveness will dawn:

… in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God”. And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together.
Hosea 1:10-11

The vision of infidelity bringing God’s rejection is replaced by the mercy of God restoring faith and rebuilding reliance on the God whose steadfast love endures forever. There is a vocabulary that runs through the Book of Jeremiah that echoes the teaching of Hosea. First, there is “plucking up and breaking down, destroying and overthrowing” (Jeremiah 1:10). Whatever the political ambitions and the military expansionism of powerful nations, God’s people will be conquered and go into exile “for all their evil in forsaking me” (Jeremiah 1:16). But there are other words: “to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). Exile from God is mirrored in the realities of exile by the waters of Babylon where no songs of Zion can be sung. Faith can be rebuilt and all that had been lost can be restored. The people will be replanted back home and they will rebuild their city and God’s temple. The old faith, so carefully presented in Deuteronomy, will flourish once again.

It is essential to notice the evidence Jeremiah presents to expose the death of faith in God, the very cause of every disaster:

“For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.
Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
No, they were not at all ashamed;
they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;
at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,”
says the Lord.
Jeremiah 6:13-15

Once again, we see that what determines true faith and lasting peace is justice and that means concern for the poor. There can be no “building and planting” where greed and avarice prevail. There will be “plucking and overthrowing”.

What we must understand that the programme outlined by Jesus is an ancient one. The “building and planting” he proposes to his villagers in Nazareth is what Jeremiah and those of like mind knew to be at the heart of God’s enterprise: justice and righteousness. Jesus does not merely proclaim justice and righteousness. He embodies them and seeks to create a community that will “join in the dance of the merrymakers” (Jeremiah 31:4).

 

Responsorial Psalm Psalm 71:1-6. 15. 17. R/. v. 15

R/. My mouth will tell of your righteous acts,
of your deeds of salvation all the day.

In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame!
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
incline your ear to me, and save me! R/.

Be to me a rock of refuge,
to which I may continually come;
you have given the command to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.
Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked. R/.

My mouth will tell of your righteous acts,
of your deeds of salvation all the day,
for their number is past my knowledge.
With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come;
I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.
R/. My mouth will tell of your righteous acts,
of your deeds of salvation all the day.

To offer praise to God is the very heart of faith. The purpose of life is to tell of God’s salvation, to remind the world of God’s goodness. Life must be a life of remembrance, remembering that “God is my salvation”, and that God’s righteousness is with me day by day.

The prayer of this psalm is a prayer from the heart of the elderly; a prayer that the days of our praying may be prolonged for our joy is, day by day, to remember that God is our hope, our rock from the days of our youth. In my old age my hope is that I yet may add to the many praises that my mouth has uttered all my days.

A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians
12:31-13:13

Earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
The word of the Lord.

 

This is the third week of listening to St Paul. The apostle explains in great detail how little churches scattered hither and yon are gifted by the Holy Spirit to ensure that their purpose in the world is effectively accomplished. There is one God, one Spirit, one Lord, a unity of divine oversight that inspires a diversity of essential gifts. There are, indeed, many gifts but there is but one body, the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Yes, it is important to appreciate and celebrate the profusion of gifts lavished on each little house church. But what binds them together? What higher gift, what more excellent gift, solders all together in a unity of purpose to be what God intends each church to be. The answer, of course, is love.

It is a liberty to dissect this glorious love song. Read it quietly. Read it loudly. Read it with passion. Pray it with joy. Whisper it to your heart. Above all, pray that what Paul’s has to say about love speaks to your experience, inspires your hopes, and gives depth to your faith.

But some comment there must be. The word “love” (agapē) occurs ten times in this chapter, making it the most important reflection on love in the whole of the New Testament, indeed, in the whole of the Bible.

The first movement of this concerto of love (13:1-3) insists that no matter how many or how wonderful the gifts given to each little church are, without love they are of no account. Unless the amazing variety of gifts poured out by Spirit are infused with love, they are as nothing. Paul presents himself as the hypothetical possessor of every gift except love. He is, therefore, a brass pot, or a clanging cymbal. Indeed, he is nothing without love, even were he to offer himself in sacrifice to God.

The second movement of Paul’s concerto (13:4-7) is, as often the case, a slow meditation, leaving behind the noise of the first movement. Paul begins with two simple statements about love’s essence. Love is patient. Love is kind. Not soaring with romance and emotion, and heart-stopping cadences. Surprisingly, love begins with patience, slowness to anger, an acceptance that love is agapē, not eros. That is, love is not primarily a sudden emotion, a sexual urge, a rush to ecstasy, where the other is an object. Paul uses agapē, a word somewhat rare in Greek literature of the time. Indeed, it is word that New Testament writers and other early Christian writings collared as if their own. Agapē suggests that love takes time to know the other, to grow, to develop and deepen before it comes to the embrace of truth.

The noun agapē (love) occurs 117 times in the New Testament and the verb agapaō (to love) occurs 144 times. What is distinctive in Paul’s usage is not that love is robbed of its human dimensions. Rather Paul stresses that all love has a divine dimension. God’s love is everywhere described as “steadfast love” and it is that “steadfastness” that Paul hopes to be mirrored in human love. That is why Paul can list what love must not be in the little Christian communities to which he is writing. Love is not envious, boastful, arrogant, ill-mannered, selfish, irritable, resentful, or taking pleasure in the failure of others. What love joyfully celebrates is the truth. This is a very profound vision of love for Paul means that love is never self-centred. It is always centred on the other and the other is always a gift of God, a human embodiment of divine spark, a creature that comes trailing clouds of glory. That is the truth of the matter. That is why Paul insists that true love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things — and, with a profound insight, says Paul, endures all things.

So the concerto comes to its final rhapsodic third movement as Paul soars into the heavens: love never ends. Unlike all the gifts of the Spirit that enervate little churches, love is not transitory. Prophecy, speaking in tongues, knowledge—these will pass away. Human beings, even prophets and seers, cannot grasp the fullness of God. Of course we grow from infancy to adulthood but even grown-ups see but in a glass darkly. It is only when we come to the fullness of God and enter into glory that we will know fully what love is, the love that made me, the love that sustains me, and the love I am called to come to at the end. For now I live in faith, in hope, in love. But, for sure, the greatest of these is love.

 

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 4:21-30

And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him and marvelled at the gracious words that were coming from 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 Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” And he said, “Amen I say to you, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.
The Gospel of the Lord.

 

The quotation Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth (last Sunday’s Gospel) is very short when compared with the original. The passage in Isaiah runs to two chapters while Jesus read scarcely two verses of the original and even those have been carefully edited. In other words, Luke has Jesus proclaim a severely edited version of the original text. One effect of this is to emphasise the person of Jesus. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives. The emphasis on Jesus in such a short quotation is intended to underline that the Lord has anointed Jesus as the one to proclaim and to establish all that must be done in “the year of the Lord’s favour”. No wonder “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” as he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. Notice the deliberate dramatic atmosphere that Luke has so effectively created. Sitting down in the formal position of a teacher, Jesus begins by insisting on the meaning of what has happened:

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your ears.”

The meaning of ‘Today’ throughout Luke’s Gospel often has a technical meaning. The word ‘today’ is used by Luke’s Jesus as shorthand for his mission from God. Now is the time of salvation. What Jesus is proclaiming and doing is bringing to earth God’s salvation. ‘Today’, the time of Jesus, is the manifestation of salvation, the age when the words of Isaiah cease to be words and become realities in our world.

The people in the synagogue, (in a very literal translation),

….were giving witness to him and they were marvelling at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth, and they were saying, “Is not this man the son of Joseph?” Luke 4:22

Notice the ambiguity. On the one hand the people “were giving witness”, were giving approval to what Jesus has read from the ancient prophet. On the other hand, they were trying to square what Jesus claimed (“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your ears”) with the astonishing, not to say, shocking fact that the words of Isaiah were being fulfilled by one as insignificant as Joseph’s son.

What we have here is a failure to recognise who Jesus is. The people in the congregation in Nazareth do not know who Jesus truly is. But Luke’s readers and hearers do. Thus from the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus we have to be aware that there are two perspectives. First, there are the people who are participators in every incident. Then there are Luke’s readers and hearers. We must be aware of the two perspectives as the story unfolds. The people are impressed by the gracious words of Jesus but are sceptical of the source: merely a son of Joseph. Luke’s readers must be aware of the perspectives of everyone who crops up in Luke’s story. Readers and hearers must evaluate these perspectives in the light of what they know, and what they believe.

We can understand the thrust of Jesus’ reply to what is implied by “Is not this man the son of Joseph?” “Physician, heal yourself!” he reads in the faces of the good folk of Nazareth. While the words of Isaiah may be trusted, the son of a mere villager is not to be regarded as one to interpret the prophet. Though what happened in Capernaum is not related by Luke (see Mark 1:21-34), Jesus implies that the Nazareth people want a repetition in their village of what was done there. The obvious truth of the matter is in what Jesus says: “Amen I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his native place”.

The two Old Testament incidents to which Jesus refers illustrate an unwelcome lesson for the devout Jewish people of Nazareth. For, in a time of severe drought, God instructed Elijah to go to the aid of a widow woman of Zarephath in the territory of Sidon (1 Kings 17:8-24). To a woman! To a pagan! In pagan territory! And Elisha the prophet was commanded by God to heal Naaman the leper, “though there were many lepers in Israel” (2 Kings 5:1-14). A Syrian! A general in the Syrian army! A deadly foe and a pagan! What Jesus is proclaiming is that God cannot be managed and commanded to act in keeping with human prejudices. Nor can Jesus be manipulated by the good folk of Nazareth. What is at stake is the freedom of God to fulfil the programme outlined by Isaiah. Nor can Jesus be deflected from doing God’s will.

The conflict in Nazareth will in fact run throughout the whole of Luke’s Gospel and come to its end on a cross. At stake is the fact that what was read from Isaiah in Nazareth is to be realised in the whole world. After all, as the angel said to Mary, “of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33).

The incident in Nazareth is an overture to the whole story Luke tells, not only in his Gospel but in his second work, the Acts of the Apostles. For his story starts in Nazareth but it ends in Rome (Acts 28:11-31).
Joseph O’Hanlon

 

 

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