Mass readings for the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Jeremiah 1.4-5, 17-19 Psalm 71.1-3,5-6, 15, 17 I Corinthians 12.31-13.13 Luke 4.21-30
Today’s gospel passage is a curiousity: we’re back in the synagogue in Nazareth, we’ve “rewound” the tape, so to speak, to something we’ve heard, and then go on. We’ve gone back because last week we were focused on Jesus’ message, this week we’re looking at the reaction. And it’s not a good one.
We don’t have a transcript of the conversation, we’ve just a fragment, some quotes preserved by Luke. These are clues as to why a genial discussion ended up in murderous rage against our Lord.
We should investigate this because of the rage we see around us today and so, learn to resist rage, especially when we’re angry. What sets people off so? Why does it happen in our supposedly modern, enlightened society?
Anger is an understandable reaction to insult and injury – both in the physical and psychological senses. It provides energy to our mental and physical defenses. Threaten us physically, and anger accesses energy to fend off attack; lie to us or insult us, and anger sparks a quick assessment of the threat that is posed.
However, we can also become angry if someone resists our aggression; how dare they defy us?
Confront us with uncomfortable truths and we grow angry at the embarrassment of being deceived, or the scandal at having knowingly gone along with a lie; we grow angry at the loss of face which is also a threat as we are diminished in the eyes of others, in our own eyes.
Rage is something even more than that – it is anger out of control; it is anger wed to panic; it can lead to frantic violence, and other kinds of over reaction that can damage relationships, sometimes beyond repair. It is a tantrum; disturbing enough in a child; frightening when adults act this way whether in verbal or physical assault.
So, what happened at the synagogue in Nazareth?
Jesus proclaims the Jubilee. As I explained last week, the Jubilee was a provision of the law of Moses for a reset of Israelite society. Those sold into slavery for debt were to be freed, debts were forgiven, and so on.
I noted that Jesus likely came across as presumptive in proclaiming the Jubilee, “who is he to do this?”
I also spoke of the deeper meaning of this episode: Jesus not only proclaims the Jubilee, but asserts he is the Jubilee. Through him the captives are set free, etc. In him the great reset is made possible!
Now to set the scene a little more precisely, we need to understand how the synagogue functioned. Most think of synagogues today as like our churches; they are places of worship. In Jesus’ day that would not have been their principal function. Yes, scripture was read and prayer offered, but it was the Temple where worship as ancient people would understand it happened – sacrificial offering is what made it proper worship.
Synagogues were a “lay” institution as distinct from the Temple as a priestly institution. They were places of study and discussion.
In my student days I had a summer internship in Montreal where there is a large Jewish community. A Hasidic orthodox community held an “open house” in celebration of a significant anniversary, and I went.
A synagogue service is very similar to the first half of the Mass: there is prayer, the reading of scripture, and the rabbi delivers a sermon. Now we here then go onto celebrate the Eucharist. At the Montreal synagogue, the men adjourned to the hall where they launched into further intense discussion of the scriptures with the rabbi.
I think this gives us a picture of what happens after Jesus sits down and declares that the scripture has been fulfilled. He does not offer a sermon, but opens the floor for discussion and those present begin to question him and discuss; it would be as if I began a bible study after the homily instead of celebrating the Eucharist.
We know from Luke that at the outset people were “amazed at his gracious words.” Jesus was doing well talking about the Jubilee, and probably relating it to his great theme of the Kingdom of God. At some point the conversation addresses how this Jubilee is to actually come about; how do we enter the Kingdom of God?
Most of us here, as baptized Christians, know the answer, Jesus teaches that it is not easy for us: it’s the narrow gate we have to go through, the eye of the needle. Our lives need to change; assumptions need to be challenged, and attachments let go of; there must be an end to hypocrisy, and a consistency between what we claim to believe and how we live as people who confess that God is love. Or else, as Saint Paul says, we just add to the noise and chaos of the world.
And that kind of talk surely led to defensiveness from the men in the synagogue. To be told in so many words, “you’re not doing it right” likely gave rise to accusations toward Jesus that maybe he should look to himself before criticizing others: “physician heal thyself.” And as the conversation grew heated, the call for his credentials comes: who are you to say these things? If you are a prophet then prove it. Do a miracle, give us a sign!
That’s when Jesus shuts them up by pointing out that Elijah only saved one widow, and they he was a prophet; Elisha cured only one man of leprosy, a foreigner at that, and yet all agree he was a prophet – Jesus’ reputation precedes him; he knows why they are there: they’ve heard about the miracles he’s done.
And in that, Jesus compares himself to Elijah and Elisha and so claims the mantle of prophet with all the authority that goes with it.
He’s not only touched a nerve, likely spoken some uncomfortable truths, pointed out things like their awful attitude toward Gentiles and Samaritans, for example; he’s also threatened their sense of what we might call “religious security” by telling them the law cannot save them; that Temple sacrifices can’t buy God’s love.
He radically reframes the proper relationship between God and humanity and much of what they have believed and lived, inherited from their ancestors and looked to pass down to their children is now called profoundly into question.
But instead of taking up that challenge, doing the hard work of thinking and praying through what Jesus has said so as to continue the discussion and come to new understanding, perhaps enlightenment, they fly into a collective rage and try to kill him.
I see a lot of that evil instinct today. The great law of love that Saint Paul celebrates with its call to patience and kindness, forbearance and seeking after the truth in which it rejoices, this seems to be suspended. People who say uncomfortable things are to be silenced, de-platformed, censored and punished.
For example, the internet personality Joe Rogan is under attack for the discussions he has on his program.
I’ve watched Rogan from time to time. I can’t say I’m a huge fan, but what I do appreciate is his openness — he’s curious, and willing to suspend judgement and disbelief and he asks questions and elicits information.
I am an able-minded and rational adult and I should be allowed to know the opinions and thought of others, especially as they challenge my thinking, and to decide for myself the validity of what I’ve heard, read and seen.
The catechism of the Church makes our freedom essential to the working out of our salvation by grace. It warns, “… the economic, social, political and cultural conditions that are needed for a just exercise of freedom are too often disregarded or violated.” (CCC1740). Such disregard, the catechism tells us, “involve(s) the strong as well as the weak in the temptation to sin against charity,” to violate the law of love.
Insofar as I am making a comparison of Rogan to our Lord, it is only in gauging what I would hope my reaction would have been to our Lord on the day in question. I hope that as confused or put off as I might have been that I would nonetheless continue to listen, ask questions, discuss and then contemplate further. Such is what we’re called to do as disciples of our Lord. We are to keep our heads when all around us are losing theirs, actively discerning truth, listening in love and being open to the fact that truth can come from the most unlikely of persons. Having studied logic at school I recall one of the dictums of the course material: a true statement is not falsified by the poor reputation of the one who makes it. Yet, I confess, I might have been dismissive of the carpenter who proclaimed the year of the Jubilee.
We today are ostensibly civilized. We enjoy a democratic heritage, we have a legacy of law; we have enshrined inviolable rights, we are heirs to a civilization that should have learned lessons from civil wars and wars between nations over religion, ideology and empire.
We know that it isn’t simply the stress of our current situation that is giving rise to the angst and rage we are seeing. We have been through worse, and yet we seemed able to find our way through all the difficulties of reconciling French and English, urban and rural, industry and agriculture, and so on.
But now? Where is that society? Where are the institutions that are to facilitate discussion, diffuse tension by allowing difficult conversations and challenging debates?
People are drawn to folks like Rogan, not because they agree with them, but because they want to hear discourse and discussions without the filter of the legacy media, free of political spin, absent manipulation. Shutting down free discussion and debate denies the sovereignty of the individual and dissolves community.
Some of the anger we see is a good sign provided it resists rage. People want to hear, even as it might challenge their assumptions; they want to listen, even if what is said might upset their understanding of the world.
We want love to be at the heart of who we are as a society: without resentment, and ever hopeful. That is, for many, an unconscious desire that we disciples know as the desire to be one with Christ. That is something we don’t want to throw away, over a cliff, but to hang onto because in that is life, in that is love that is the source of life; in that is God.