4th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C – 3rd February 2019
Fr Bill Edebohls
When Jesus began to speak in his hometown synagogue he astonished everyone with his gracious words. His ratings were sky high because he taught them with authority and conviction.
But then the word goes round, “This is Joseph’s son, surely?” and admiration starts to give way to a “who does he think he is!” attitude, and Jesus pre-empts the way their thinking is leading them.
He refuses to back down and confronts their unbelief. “I tell you solemnly, no prophet is ever accepted in his own country.” That said, it is hard to imagine anything more calculated to anger the synagogue congregation than the sorts of examples Jesus then recites.
He takes two major prophets - Elijah and Elisha - and says the first was sent to lodge with a non Jewish widow in Zarephath and the latter was instrumental in healing the Syrian military commander, of leprosy.
To the orthodox Jew this was absolute heresy - that God’s prophets should favour foreigners, outsiders, over the chosen race.
But of course the barriers that they perceived to be self evident truths, were being broken down, even as they listened that day in Nazareth.
It would happen over and over again as Jesus proceeded to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy; bring in the good news and proclaim the Lord’s year of acceptance and favour – break down the barriers that divide.
It resonates throughout the gospel of Luke from beginning to end. There is no apartheid in the kingdom of God, all are invited, Jew and Gentile alike. The first to hear the news of the Saviour’s birth in Luke’s gospel are shepherds – outsiders – ritually unclean. And Luke alone tells us that the last person on earth that Jesus spoke to before he died was another outsider, the ‘thief’ crucified alongside him: “This day you will be with me in paradise.”
But the mood in the synagogue has run the full gamut of emotions, from the hushed awe and wonder of the introduction, to the murmuring and questioning as they tried to weigh Jesus’ credentials for such a claim to fame; and then the blind fury as they are stung by his comments that the favour or preference of God could possibly be given to those outside the people of Israel.
There could hardly have been more dramatic proof of Jesus’ words that “no prophet is ever accepted in his own country.” The howls of rage, combined with the mindlessness of the mob, saw them given over to uproar as they jostled and shoved to eject Jesus, not only from the synagogue, but out of town, clearly with intent to injure him if not to kill him.
And the mob probably did all this wrapped in their national flag – for religious narrow-mindedness and spiritual blindness is usually twinned with zealous nationalism and patriotism.
Those who stretch the boundaries of accepted wisdom will always encounter opposition if not hostility. The long line of prophetic voices in every age, including our own, bears bloody testimony to the blinkered vision of those who concede no truth other than what they know, or accept without question, what they are told to believe.
The call to dismantle barriers of separation is as threatening and challenging today as in first century Palestine. Netanyahu’s wall dividing Israelis from Palestinians; Trump’s wall to keep out the great unwashed from Latin and South America and dividing his own nation in the process; the invisible walls of our own nation that divide our indigenous peoples from we interlopers whose families have arrived by boat or plane over the past 231 years; or more recent boat arrivals hidden from us in offshore prison camps and divided from us by barriers of sea, fear, intolerance and shameless gutter politics.
Even last week’s commemoration of Australia Day (or to be more historically correct – New South Wales Foundation Day) is a barrier within our community because we are more content with fake history, spurious traditions and deceitful politics that plays to the masses, than having the respectful good grace - (as a people who have inherited the extraordinary blessings of this land from a people forcibly dispossessed) - to listen, to understand, to mourn with, our first peoples.
Would it cost us anything as a nation to simply ask our indigenous peoples - those whose bloodline goes back 60,000 years in this land – what date would you like all of us to celebrate a national day of thanksgiving for the blessings we share? What have we got to lose by being gracious, respectful and humble towards the first peoples of this land?
But sadly leaders and prophets who might lead us to that moment of grace and reconciliation are thin on the ground.
For even within the Church prophets are rarely accepted among their own – as Pope Francis has discovered – with many senior figures within the Church prepared to openly oppose him and criticise his efforts as a prophet to speak the truth plainly and call us to reform the Church and open afresh the good news of the gospel for today’s generation.
Jesus suffered the fate of all prophets – rejection by his own people – and in following Jesus we may also suffer rejection: For speaking the truth plainly, for speaking out and sharing the gospel news of mercy, justice and compassion, for putting Gospel values before the values of this world.
Prophecy is not about pleasing people. It’s not about hiding our faith for fear of ridicule, or preachers avoiding controversy, or leaders only saying whatever will win votes. It’s about speaking the truth that no one wants to hear, the truth that is often covered up.
But where truth or prophecy is stifled or silenced, it can only be for a time, for the Son of God will just slip through the crowd and walk away. He will find those who will listen and live the truth that he is. He lays down his life only when he chooses and does that still in those who live his good news.