Fr. Charles Irvin
Jeremiah 1:4-5,17-19; 1 Corinthians 13:4-13; Luke 4:21-30
How would you feel if you had cancer and your doctor did not tell you? You would be upset. We want the truth to be told, even the unpleasant and painful truth. Isn’t that one of the root causes of popular discontent with the way politics is being handled in Washington? It’s far better for us to be told the truth than to be consoled with a pleasant cover-up. If your child’s teacher calls you and tells you that your child is failing in school you would, of course, be upset, but if your child were failing how would you feel if the teacher simply allowed you to feel good without knowing the truth?
Now, while we may agree in principle with wanting to be told the truth, there are in fact things that we don’t want to hear. We don’t even want to discuss them. We would rather that they were buried, or that somehow they would go away where we didn’t have to pay attention to them. Many families have their dirty little family secrets that they don’t want to talk about.
Today’s gospel presents us with an example of not wanting to be told a truth, an upsetting truth. In it we find Jesus in His own hometown of Nazareth having just given His “Inaugural Address” in the town synagogue, there among all of His family and friends. He was the toast of the town – well received, holding their rapt attention. The gospel reading tells us “All who were present spoke favorably of him. They marveled at the appealing discourse that came from His lips.” But suddenly things changed, changed into a violent rejection of Him. Soon after He finished speaking His hometown folks took Him to the brow of a nearby cliff and attempted to throw Him over the cliff’s edge to His death. They had suddenly changed and turned on Him when Jesus told them a truth they did not want to hear.
What had He said to them? Well, He reminded them of two events in Jewish history. One was during the life of Elijah, the prophet. The Hebrews in Elijah’s time were suffering from a horrible drought; people were dying of starvation. A prophet had come from God to a widow and because of her faith God had saved her. The problem was that she was not a Jew… she was a Gentile. The same was true in the story of Elisha. Leprosy was a plague spreading throughout Israel but God used a prophet to save only one leper, and he, too, was not a Jew… he was a Gentile.
This was all terribly painful for the Jews of the time of Jesus because they had come to believe that they were God’s Chosen, that non-Jews were damned, and that God’s love and favor were manifest only in and among Jews. The people of Nazareth, as well as those in other Jewish settlements, and especially in Jerusalem, thought they had a monopoly on God. It was axiomatic in their thinking. In times of conflict they believed that God would come to their aid. When all else failed God could be counted on and non- Jews would suffer and die outside of God’s favor and love. Jesus’ words there in Nazareth deeply offended them because He was reminding them that what they believed about God’s exclusive favor was not necessarily true.
Centuries later in Italy, in the year 1633, it was commonly believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Everyone believed that the sun revolved around the earth and that the earth was the center of the solar system. A Polish scientist by the name of Copernicus had argued otherwise a century earlier, but nobody took him seriously. Then an Italian scientist by the name of Galileo came along and showed them through a telescope that they were all wrong. Italians, including distinguished Cardinals in Rome, were shocked and horrified. They had Galileo arrested and silenced because he upset their ways of seeing reality and their self-inflated attitudes about humans being the center of God’s universe. Their minds were up and they didn’t want to be confused by the facts, even facts that came to them through a telescope. They didn’t want to see the truth.
The problem comes when we are confronted with a truth that requires us to change, to change our attitudes toward people of other races, to change the way we behave, to change our patterns of living. This is what Jesus was about. He wasn’t interested in simply having nice intellectual discussions about interesting ideas. He wasn’t simply talking about tidbits of history. He was calling for a thoroughgoing change in the way they understood themselves, understood God, and what they should be about in their ways of living and relating to other people.
The people of Nazareth realized what they were facing, namely a prophet of God who was confronting them not with a mere debating subject but with a radical change in living. You see, if it was true that God cared for non-Jews, for Gentiles, then it was likewise true that they had to do the same. Well, they had no intention of doing THAT! They probably told their racial jokes about “those Gentile people”; they certainly discriminated against Samaritans much like we discriminated against Blacks in our own American history. They were not about to change their pre-judgments.
So how do we humans often react in the face of such confrontations, when we are challenged much like the hometown folks of Nazareth were challenged? We kill the messenger. “If you don’t like the message, well, then, get rid of the messenger.” If you are in a court trial, make the prosecuting attorneys and the police look like either bullies or fools. Destroy the witnesses by discrediting them or by ruining their reputations. If the message you are hearing upsets you, destroy either the content of the message or else destroy the messenger. The problem is, however, that the truth won’t go away.
We like to pride ourselves in thinking that we want to hear the truth. We even tell our wives, our husbands, and our children that we want to hear the truth from them. But if they present us with a truth that requires radical change, how do we react?
We tell God we want Him to reveal His will to us. In our piety and in our prayers we tell God we will do anything for Him. We had better be prepared, however, for what He will tell us. Be careful about what you pray for, you may get it.
And so if the truth hurts, well perhaps it should! Too many of us want to shape God to be just like us. We want Him to be an American, a capitalist, a liberal, a conservative, or whatever. We fancy Him as seeing things just as we see them. All such ideas about God need to be challenged, and then we, not God, need to change. What hope do we have to grow and be saved if we only worship a God who is just a small, just as mean, and just as petty as we are?
The people of Nazareth were a lot like us and we, too often, are very much like them. And so when the truth hurts, when it confronts and challenges us, we ought to ask ourselves “Why am I so upset?” We ought to take a second look and see if it is God who is causing us growing pains. We will never be saved if we worship only a God who suits us because we’ve made over into our own image and likeness.
When we pray we should expect change, for prayer changes us, not God.