Homily 4th Sunday of ordinary Time
Surely one of the saddest moments in the life of Jesus prior to His passion is the incident in today’s Gospel where Jesus is rejected by the people of his own village. The people of Nazareth react with confusion because they are scandalized by Jesus’ claim that He, a native son, fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah, which they obviously recognize as Messianic. They are quite shocked that this son of a local family dares to claim that he is in fact the longed for Messiah! They had clearly heard of his miracles, and perhaps they came to the Synagogue to see him do something marvelous, something that would dazzle and entertain them. But there is a world of difference between being a miracle worker and claiming to be the promised Messiah. In short, their minds and hearts were obviously closed in advance to the full truth, and thus they are unwilling even to consider the possibility that Jesus, the son of Mary, might actually be the Promised One.
So they immediately begin to murmur about his being but the son of Joseph, which indicates that they cannot believe that such a poor man could possibly be the chosen one of God. Their skepticism here even echoes the words of Nathaniel who when Philip announces Jesus to him sarcastically replies, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Their skepticism also mirrors that of the learned Pharisees who say, “ Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee.”
Responding, Jesus tries to warn them of the consequences of their scepticism and unbelief regarding Him, that it will lead them ultimately to their rejection by God. Indeed, He reminds them that at times in the past Israel was bypassed by God, who brought his mercy to certain pagans instead, but these words actually angered them. The people understand that he was suggesting that God might bypass them because of their unbelief in Jesus and that God’s promises will be fulfilled for others but not for them, and they are stung to the heart. However, rather than repent, they become furious, and so his neighbors rise up and actually try to hurl him over a cliff.
How ironic and how sad this is that the very people of his own village, his own long time neighbors, who should have been the first beneficiaries of His mission, become the first enemies who want to kill Him. How tragic that the role they choose to play here is not to be the first to accept him, but to prefigure what will happen down the road in Jerusalem, when the representatives of his whole nation and the foreign occupiers will conspire to put Him to death. All this happens because they did not want to believe, and were thus closed to His teaching and His mission of salvation.
The rejection of Jesus by his own people is a terrible example of the mystery of iniquity, and their self destructive behavior is a warning to us who have now become his people that wee too will self destruct should we end up rejecting Him the way his own neighbors did. Faith in Jesus is not a permanent given for anyone. It was not to be assumed that simply because He was the life-long companion of his native villagers – who could not but have previously recognized his extraordinary goodness and holiness of life or they would not have asked him to comment on the Scriptures in the first place – that they would readily believe in Him. Nor is it to be assumed that because we have been life-long Christians that we are absolutely secure in our faith in Him today.
Indeed, we live in a time when many nominal Christians have abandoned their faith quite openly, while many others seem quietly to have minimized their faith in Jesus directly, or indirectly in His Church, which is simply Jesus in another form, the form of his extended and Mystical Body. Recall that Jesus Himself posed a troubling question regarding faith just before his death: “But when the Son of Man comes again,” He said, “will he find faith on the earth?” So faith is not a final given, and any of us who believe today can fall away, and that is the issue in today’s Gospel, that our own privileged relation to Him as Christians, just like the people of Nazareth’s relationship to Jesus, is not a guarantee for our faith.
The Gospel also helps us understand part of the problem of losing faith, that is, why people stop believing, or refuse to believe in the first place. Jesus in fact does make extraordinary claims, which place heavy demands on us to believe that he is the sole Promised One from God, indeed that he is the Son of God in the flesh. We cannot accept these claims without the gift of faith, which is always a gift from God, and we cannot receive this gift, which God offers to all people, unless we have a humble openness to the truth as something which is not of our own determination, but something we always receive from without.
So, if our pride leads us to think that truth itself is something we subjectively determine for ourselves, something that we create rather than something we receive from outside, from God, then we will not be “open” to the ultimate Truth, the truth that is found in the Person and Mission of Jesus Christ. He is in reality God’s truth; and we can believe in Him only with God’s gift of faith, and we can receive this gift of faith, only if we are open to the truth as something we must humbly receive from God. Human pride is the killer of the very possibility of faith.
People reject Jesus because they are determinedly closed to truth, for whatever reason, and closed to Jesus who says things they do not want to hear. If people are open to the truth, then they will at least listen openly to what Jesus has to teach them. Unfortunately, like the people of Nazareth in Jesus’ day, many people today are simply closed to truth itself because their minds are mired in the scepticism and relativism of our secularized culture. Thus vast numbers of people refuse even to listen with openness, even to consider humbly what Jesus is saying, and so they end up wanting to drive Christ and His Church to the cliff because they condemn Christ and His Church as intolerant because they assert there is such a thing as absolute truth and that Jesus is that Truth.
Today more and more nominal Catholics are absorbing this cultural scepticism and relativism regarding truth, and so they also do not want to hear Jesus speaking through his Church, at least when the Church teaches a doctrinal or moral matter that contradicts an idea they have absorbed from their surroundings. They too have gradually become the source of truth for themselves, because the culture we live in has more influence on their minds than either Christ or His Church. And when these nominal Catholics actually do accept something the Church teaches, it is not from faith, but from the fact that they see the Church agrees with the culture and with their own self-determined view of truth.
However, when they hear the Church teaching something they already disagree with, along with the culture that shapes their minds, they too will often react with an anger toward the Church, an anger that reminds one of the anger of the people of Nazareth so long ago. They cannot literally do away with Jesus Himself, but they certainly can throw the Church over the cliff in relation to their own lives.
Nonetheless, this rejection of the Church ultimately will mean that many of these nominal Catholics will end up rejecting the Church’s Master as well, just like those earlier men and women of Nazareth, and they will end up abandoning Him with all the finality that we see in the Gospels.
In sum, faith is not something we should ever take for granted. Moreover, faith is not accepting what Jesus teaches simply because He agrees with our own view of reality and life. Rather faith is a surrender to absolute truth, to the Truth as it comes from God and not us, to the Truth, ultimately, that has quite literally come down from God and taken flesh in the Son of Mary, the son of Nazareth. He is quite literally God’s truth that has come among us to save us from our own truth, from our pride and deadly egoism.
When we recall this tragic scene in Nazareth each year, we know that we must pray daily for our faith to be strengthened by God’s grace. Nothing is more important in this life, except charity, and there is no real charity in us without faith. For as St. Paul teaches in today’s second reading, “charity always rejoices in the Truth” and the Truth Paul is speaking about is always Jesus the Lord. May we always believe in Him as our Truth, for then we will rejoice forever in the Truth.