Orbiting Dicta

4th Sunday of the Year: The Price of Prophecy

[The following is substantially a homily I preached in 2019; there isn’t much I felt needed changing — some things remain constant, despite massive shifts in the world around us…]

There are mysteries in today’s readings. The first and third readings reflect each other mysteriously enough. But there is a further mystery of sorts, the kind that usually intrigues me as I ponder why the Church selected these readings for today. In scripture, a “mystery” is a hidden plan of God, something that stumps us. It might even infuriate us.

Jer 1:4-5,17-19
1 Cor 12:31-13:13
Lk 4:21-30

The second reading and the gospel follow on from last week and the week before. The mystery begins with the first reading, which is often selected to illuminate themes in the other readings. If I were to give a title to the whole collection, I would name it “The Pains of Prophecy.”

Prophecy and prophets are mentioned in all three readings – Elijah, Elisha, and by his own word, Jesus. Each was marked from birth for the prophetic ministry. But it is Jeremiah who first attracts our attention. And the first mystery has to do with the call of Jeremiah himself, one of the most unlikely of prophets, but a model precisely in view of today’s gospel. In the Book itself, the author goes to some pains to indicate Jeremiah’s family background and the name of his home town, Anathoth, a little village not far from Jerusalem that provides the first of several keys to our prophetic mystery.

Anathoth was an ancient and sacred Phoenician town given to Levites from the tribe of Benjamin during the Hebrew conquest. During the reign of Solomon, it became the refuge of Abíathar the high priest, the last in the family of Eli, which had been under a curse stretching back to the days of the prophet Samuel. Jeremiah might have been an indirect descendent. In any event, it was in troubled Anathoth that Jeremiah reluctantly began his ministry. And there his prophecies quickly met disapproval from his neighbors and kindred, who silenced him and even threatened to kill him. Given the tone of most of Jeremiah’s preaching, it is no wonder.

A few years later Anathoth was sacked by both the Assyrians and the Babylonians and its citizens carted off into captivity. Jeremiah’s warnings to Jerusalem similarly went unheeded. He was arrested, imprisoned, threatened with death, and eventually deported to Egypt, where he presumably died in exile.

Part of the mystery in today’s readings turns on a similar rejection of Jesus. He frequently alluded to the pain of the prophetic career. In today’s gospel, he seems to go out of his way to incur it. Unlike Jeremiah’s message of defeat and destruction, his is one of hope. But like Jeremiah, Jesus is spurned and threatened by angry neighbors and even family members.

His message is clear in all the accounts, as we saw last week. God’s message of salvation is open to all, not merely to the respectable, the honorable, the wealthy, or the well connected, including Jesus’ own blood relatives. Worse, the promise is directed especially to outcasts, beggars, and debtors, even illegal immigrants, who the Bible calls “the resident alien in the land.” The wrong kind of people entirely. Jesus drives home the point by recalling the stories of Elijah and Elisha, both refugees from Israel but merciful toward foreigners, even their oppressors. Then, as my students might say, it gets even more worse. He cites a familiar proverb, “physician heal yourself,” which they were evidently thinking about him.

Moved to fury, they run him out of town and try to shove him over a convenient cliff, a grim foreshadowing of what he will suffer at the hands of the authorities in Jerusalem. But Jesus slips by and goes on to Capernaum. Nazareth itself was undoubtedly overrun by the Roman legions of Vespasian during the suppression of the Galilean Revolt in 67 CE, although like many small towns and villages it may well have surrendered without resistance.

Like Jeremiah, Jesus fulfils the pattern of prophecy by inciting those who should have shown him the greatest love to murderous fury, not by rejecting them, but by reminding them that God’s mercy is complete, impartial, inclusive, and particularly directed at the outcast, the oppressed, the poor, and rejected.

The link between the prophetic pain in the story of Jeremiah and that of Jesus is found in the second reading, which recalls the place of prophecy in the early Christian community, and, I believe, in our own.

Last week we learned that for pastoral reasons Paul ranked the charismatic gifts about which the Corinthians were quarreling, beginning with apostleship and ending with tongues and interpretation. Prophecy stood second, next only to apostleship. He has other lists, and it is not important how consistent he was, even when he introduces other items, such as the understanding of mysteries. For the one thing he is concerned about is love, greater even than faith and hope, and even prophecy.

Paul reminds us that envy, jealousy, and suspicion create the dissension that leads to a breakdown in the community of Love that must seal God’s people. Envy, jealousy, and suspicion inspired the townspeople of Anathoth and Nazareth to reject and even try to kill their own, home-grown prophets. Our normal vision, Paul tells us, is too narrow, too limited, too partial. Even the gifts may fail to overcome this partiality if they are not guided by and eventually superseded by love. Love is the solution of the mystery, of all God’s mysteries.

Now, as Paul says, we see things like a reflection in a bad mirror, partial and distorted, or in his Greek, ainigmatiki, which can also be rendered “mysteriously.” But ultimately, our vision will be clear as well as whole.

The call of prophets takes them on a journey that is difficult and sometimes fatal. I am reminded of so many who not only spoke truth to a hostile power, but sometimes paid for it with their lives, such men as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Oscar Romero, and in my own tradition St. Catherine of Siena. She was not killed for her prophetic preaching, but came very close to it. Unlike many religious leaders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu narrowly escaped assassination by the South African security police only because of his public visibility.

St. Paul, himself a martyr for preaching the gospel, had it right: only faith and hope can sustain a prophet who opposes the evil and treachery of mighty powers. But it is love, perhaps only love, that makes it possible.