Frances writes on the Readings for this coming weekend : These seem to me to be a reflection on the life of the believer and what that entails. Many brought up under the Catholic ancient regime may think that this meant unwavering submission, unquestioning obedience to the Magisterium – though whether those at the local level ever stretched themselves to find out what that was is open to question, as I know to my cost as an auditor on the matrimonial tribunal of our diocese. Quite clearly this was neither the thinking of Jesus in our Gospel or the way of Jeremiah. If we follow their way, true loyalty to God may involve questioning and upsetting the rich and powerful in the community and the church; deliberately treading on toes and being prepared for the consequences. The attitude of Pope Francis suggests that even someone at the very top may be called to this uncomfortable and risky way of life, but that the one so called must follow the truth unflinchingly.
The Prophet Jeremiah (Jer 1:4-5. 17-19), prophet of times of national upheaval and religious reform, and the Babylonian exile in the early 6th century BC, took on this role in opposition to what seems to have been much of the nation; seeing his God-given task as one in which he had “To confront all this land: the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests and the country people.” He was warned by God that this task would bring him into grave danger, and yet he persisted against kings and court officials who were intemperate and foolhardy guardians of the state. People who would not accept that Babylon was just too powerful, and that vassal status would guard and save them. Instead, their kings allied with a faithless Egypt, and rebelled against Babylon to the immense cost of the people. Prophets like Jeremiah, who could accurately read the signs of the time, were punished, and Jeremiah himself narrowly escaped execution. The job of the genuine prophet may be very uncomfortable indeed.
In our Gospel (Luke 4:21-30) we witness the start of Jesus’ ministry with his first synagogue sermon at Nazareth. At first, as he expounded the text of Isaiah all went well, and he was universally applauded but there was surprise that this young man, the son of the local carpenter should be so able. But when Jesus went on to develop the exegesis of the text in more detail, we see that very quickly he rubbed the crowd up the wrong way. It seems that while he appealed to their narrow nationalism all was fine, but when, using the very scriptures they placed so much reliance upon, he extended his ministry to first a pagan Sidonian and then Naaman the Syrian as worthy of God’s grace and healing as found in the time of Elijah and Elisha, there was uproar. People, it appears, like to think that they are not simply possessors of God’s truth and grace, the gift of the divine, but can be the arbitrators of precisely who should or should not receive it. At Nazareth, it appeared, the crowd were guilty of a very careful ‘cleansing’ of those awkward and uncomfortable bits in their past, and given to excluding what they did not like to hear. Even worse, it appears that they were even prepared to kill the bringer or reminder of such ill tidings, even when they were firmly lodged in the very story of their faith and their nation. Jesus, it is made clear from the start of his ministry, was due for a very rocky ride. Yet he clearly saw his mission to Israel in precisely these terms. His job was to jolt a complacent people from their limited and secure interpretations of their relationship with God into something altogether deeper and more demanding and exciting. And if that risked his being killed, then so be it. It seems we too, must be aware of this tendency in ourselves, and be prepared to face painful and demanding reinterpretations of our faith when the need arises.
Paul (1 Cor 12:31-13:4-13) was also at pains to teach, exhort and reform the lives of the Christians of Corinth, as we have seen over the last three weeks. This work required him to challenge accepted norms in society, as the small group espoused Christianity. Quite clearly the new believers took to the faith with vigour, just as did others who adopted other Eastern cults like Mithras and Isis. The problem was that the Christians easily squabbled and fought for the top jobs in the new community, viewing it rather as they did everything else in this up and coming city. Paul had to remind them of the communal and supportive nature of their Christian life together, and the different ministries God gave – for the good of the whole. Here he goes on to lay down the most important criteria of all – Love. Without that real love and concern for each other even their different ministries were doomed to failure. All of us can think of brilliant preachers and educated men whose coldness and lack of charity to the congregation has proved fatal, or of those who work by control and stifle the gifts of others due to their own needs and lack of real care. In the same way that the Pope has insisted that we ‘love’ the scriptures, so the Pauline teaching that everything we do be rooted in love is vital for the real working of the Christian community. Perhaps this is the most important and most neglected part of Catholic teaching and we, who like to have everything ship-shape, would do well to remember it.