Today’s gospel continues the story of Jesus’s return to Nazareth. As a devout man he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as a learned one he was asked to read a lesson from a prophet and comment on it. The reading was from Isaiah. It spoke of anointing by the spirit of the Lord which would bring glad tidings to the poor, proclaim, and produce liberty and give sight to the blind. By Jesus’ time this passage was held to refer to the Messiah. Jesus ends with “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” Essentially, I am he. The people all spoke highly of him and seemed to agree, but by the end of the passage they wished to kill him. Far from incidental this is essential to Luke’s message, but we can only understand it if we find ourselves with his townspeople ready to hurl him off the cliff.
It is important to feel sympathy for the Nazoreans. It is easy to believe that all Jews awaited the Messiah with the same expectations. There were a few common ideas such as being of the line of David and reuniting the tribes of Israel but there were many thoughts on how this could be accomplished. For the sake of convenience let us reduce them to two: prophet or King.
Jesus clearly saw himself as a prophet. He compares himself to the prophets Elijah and Elisha. His examples from their lives are very selective. He speaks only when the prophets brought God’s mercy to non jews. From the beginning the Jewish people sensed that they were chosen not for themselves but to be God’s missionaries to the world. Let us look at just the book of the prophet Isaiah. The first person to use that name, around 700 BC wrote:
In days to come LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
all the nations shall stream to it. (Is 2:2)
The second one to use the name around 500BC wrote:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Is 49:6)
We could find many more examples throughout the prophets. The Jews were given a great and important mission and the messiah would be the means of its fulfillment. This mission will be complicated by a commitment to non-violence.
This was, however, not universally accepted and indeed often forgotten. Jesus read from the 3rd person to use the name Isaiah around 450BC. He speaks of freeing the captives and bringing sight to the blind, but Jesus removes one line from this passage:
and the day of vengeance of our God to comfort all who mourn; (Is 61:2)
Many, perhaps most, Jews wanted the messiah to be a king who would lead them in a war of liberation against their oppressors. We must never forget that they were truly oppressed. With only a brief exception they have been under foreign domination since 587 BC. This varied in intensity, but they were never free and independent. Jesus is not making a neutral theological comment with his examples but is intentionally touching a nerve.
Salvation would not be only for the Jews it would be from them for all, including people they hated and there would be no vengeance.
They did not like that, and we must ask ourselves, do we? Do we want a Messiah who is truly a prophet, or do we want a king?
Our society and church are deeply divided. It has become personal in so many situations.
If Jesus were to return today and preach what has come to be called Catholic social teaching, he would be accused of being a right-wing zealot by the left and a socialist agitator by the right. Messiahs are only warmly accepted when they reflect previously formed opinions and confirm underlying biases. For all our protestations of Christianity we might very well find ourselves allied with people with whom we share no other opinion except that Jesus must go. We either accept Jesus or kill him if only in our hearts. In his own day, the Pharisees and followers of Herod despised each other but hated Jesus more and conspired against him.
This is true in the Church as well. Media outlets which call themselves Catholic can sound so different that it is hard to believe that they are part of the same religion. For people of my age the disrespect shown to Pope Francis is upsetting and unnerving but very revealing. We are barely talking at each other much less preaching to the world with the same voice.
Therefore, the Pope has called the synod on moving together. The present situation is not where the Lord wants us to be, and Pope Francis does not think that the answer will come from the head down. We will not find where God want us to be from learned seminars and academic conferences nor even retreats and spiritual gatherings as important as they are. It will be found by the people of God, you, and me, coming together and asking the Holy Spirit to guide us.
I ask you again to participate in the synod. The final group meeting will be after this Mass today, and you can also participate through our parish zoom. The only prerequisite is believing that the Holy Spirit has something to say through you. It will not be the total truth and may indeed be different from what someone else has said. Canonized Saints have disagreed so can we. This is the way the Church is moved and move we must.
Christians throughout the centuries have learned what St Luke taught today: the love of the spirit will rarely bring us where we want to go, but always put us where we need to be.