Ordinary Time 04, Year C

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If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? (1 Jn. 3:17)

What effect God’s word will have on the listener, it all depends—I said last week—on God, on what he wants to realize in the hearers or on the end for which he sends his word. Now, to acknowledge that the efficacy of the divine word depends on God is to acknowledge as well the autonomy of God and of his word.

But it is not easy, it seems to me, to get to respect divine autonomy genuinely and let God tell us what he wants to tell us. As was the case with the listeners in the synagogue at Nazareth, those who at first spoke highly of Jesus and were amazed at his gracious words but soon enough became furious and turned violent, today also assent is shown first and then comes opposition. If God’s word corroborates one’s beliefs, then it is gladly accepted and read and quoted to no end. But if one suspects that God’s word puts into question one’s all too-settled ways of thinking and acting, the word is resisted and not paid attention to. Taking themselves, and not God’s word, to be the measure, hearers and readers today would appear to want to tailor God’s word to fit their likes and dislikes, their caprices and pet-peeves. Certain evangelizers of the poor were called “saints” first (that was when they fed the poor) and “communists” later on (when they inquired seriously about the causes of poverty), all because of the same likes and dislike, caprices and pet-peeves.

Not a few would perhaps like to spiritualize the passage from the prophet Isaiah that Jesus—according to Luke’s gospel—read and explained in the synagogue at Nazareth and take it as indicating that to evangelize the poor requires only that their spiritual needs, not their temporal necessities, are taken care of. But the commentator on the Gospel of Luke in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary points out precisely that the evangelist omits certain elements of Isaiah 61, namely, verses 1c, 2b-3a, and interpolates 58:6, so that the text from Isaiah cited by Jesus would not be given a spiritual reading and such narrow reference that focuses on “true” Israel.

One danger of a narrow viewpoint, mainly focused on ourselves, is the danger that self-absorption poses. I think St. Vincent de Paul referred to this danger when he spoke of those “people who have only a narrow outlook, who confine their views and plans to a fixed circumference within which they shut themselves up as in one spot; they are unwilling to leave it, and if they are shown something outside it and they go out to take a look, at once they retreat to their center, like snails into their shells.” To settle for my point of view, convinced of my superior knowledge and righteousness and forgetting that God’s thoughts are not my thoughts nor his ways my ways, is to be like those who were filled with fury in the synagogue at Nazareth (cf. Is. 55:7-10).

And a risk there is in giving a spiritual reading is that to spiritualize could connote to water down, and it is not uncommon for such a connotation to become the real meaning. This happened, I believe, in the early Christian community at Corinth, which prompted the apostle Paul to issue his warning pertinent to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-33). If the Supper of the Lord does not permit either gluttony or drunkenness, neither is it worthy of the Lord’s Supper that a partaker in it should go corporally hungry or thirsty. That there is corporal hunger or thirst, this could only mean that there is spiritual hunger or thirst as well that contributes to weakness, sickness and death, and which leads to the eating and drinking of judgment.

The love that is celebrated in the Lord’s Supper, the same love whose praises St. Paul sings, impels us then to set aside our likes and dislikes, our caprices and pet-peeves, our preconceived ideas and beliefs, and respect the autonomy of God’s word genuinely. Listening thus or reading wholly and in its full context both God’s word and the preaching of it by those sent by God, we will learn that ours is the obligation not to neglect our duties as citizens in this world and that we all—clergy and laity alike, each in his or her own proper way—have “the task of contributing with the light of the Gospel to the building of a more human world, a world fully in harmony with God’s plan” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 20; Deus Caritas Est 26-29; cf. Dennis Hamm’s “Faith’s Call to Justice” in the July 31, 2006 issue of America). And we will not be accomplices either to the all too-frequent rejecting of God’s prophets.