Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

January 24, 2010

St. Martin dePorres, Cincinnati.

(Based on Nehemiah 8:2-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-20; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21)

By bringing together the story of the great assembly in the book of Nehemiah and the account of Jesus’ appearance in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, the church clearly wants us to compare and reflect on two great turning-points in the life of God’s people. They are both new beginnings: the inauguration of a new stage. Each one evokes powerful feelings in its audience.

The gathering in the book of Nehemiah takes place after the Israelites have finally returned to their land after 50 years of exile in Babylon. They are finally liberated. They are free once again to practice their faith openly. It’s a momentous occasion so the leaders gather the whole nation for a solemn ritual of re-commitment. The writer makes sure to tell us everyone is there, even repeating twice the fact that even all the children are called to hear the proclamation of the Torah. Everything declares the significance of the moment: the podium lifting Ezra high above the people; the book of the law raised as we raise the book of the Gospel every Sunday; the fact that the reading takes several hours.

The people are so moved that there are tears on their faces. Some interpreters suggest that the tears come from their misguided sense that the law is a heavy burden. It seems clear to me that they are shedding tears of joy that they are once more a people. They have an identity and a clear sense of who they are and how they are expected to act. They are told to share their food with one another. It’s really a form of communion, a pre-Christian Eucharist.

The scene might remind us of a contemporary presidential inauguration, with all its excitement and energy..

Then Luke’s gospel presents another inauguration. The church has spliced together the beginning of Luke’s text, where he explains his rationale for writing, and the formal beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Before he arrives at Nazareth he has already been traveling from place to place so that great crowds of people have begun to follow him, from areas quite far from Nazareth. But none of those gatherings are named. Now he arrives at the place where he grew up. It all becomes highly visible and symbolic. This is really the beginning of his campaign. Can this be the long-awaited messiah?

There is great anticipation in the air. What is he all about? What does he stand for? What is his vision?

And he inaugurates his ministry by turning to one of their most treasured sacred writings, the vision of the great prophet Isaiah. He has everyone’s attention. As Luke says, “The eyes of all looked intently at him.” A dramatic moment.

And he tells them he is the one foretold: the prophecy is now fulfilled. Here. In their midst. Right now. The wait is over.

It seems to be a wonderful success story. Except for one thing. A strange thing happened in the process of the church’s selection of this passage: it has been cut in half!

If we are to appreciate the meaning of the event, we need to hear what Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story. You are going to hear it in next Sunday’s gospel but we need to hear it today to get the point of the event. Besides, it’s well worth hearing and praying over many times.

Why were they there in the first place? What were they looking for? He lets them know: their presence is saying “Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.” They’re looking for miracles! Put on a show for us they way you did for those other guys in the big city.

It’s the first example of a phenomenon which would plague him all throughout his public life. People came to him because they wanted miracles. They wanted signs and wonders. And he had to let them know that they had him all wrong. “No sign will be given to you except the sign of Jonah.” Jonah, who had been swallowed up in the belly of a whale for three days before returning to life. This is his program, his platform. Eventually he will spell it out on three different occasions: The son of man will suffer at the hands of men and will be put to death, and then rise.

Here at Nazareth he tells them that no prophet is accepted in his own native place. The energy of anticipation begins to turn sour and ugly: He would not satisfy their need for the spectacular so “they rose up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through their midst of them and went away.” It’s a violent story, really.

And it’s the story of our spiritual life, of the challenge to grow. Miracles are the stuff of a child’s young faith. Miracles take our breath away, but they also take away our freedom. They absolve us of responsibility. St. Paul reflected on his life of faith and said, “when I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”

It turns out that they were scandalized by his ordinariness. Could he really be the messiah? He’s just like us! They said, “Isn’t he the carpenter?” They might have added, “I know him! I used to play hoops with his cousins.” He is like us in all things but sin.

That can’t be the way.

It’s our eternal story. Again and again we search for someone who will work miracles and do the work for us. Isn’t that what many of Obama’s supporters have tried to make of him – Superman? And then quickly reject him when he doesn’t measure up to the unreal expectations?

Just look at the people who go around inour church today, always on the lookout for the latest religious sensation. ‘They’re going to open the shroud of Turin!’ Wow! ‘They’ve just found the coffin of James the brother of Jesus!” “The Blessed Mother has appeared on the side of a bank in Florida!” There’s nothing wrong with miracles by themselves – childhood is not a sin – but it all gets distorted when people turn Jesus into a celebrity. The latest fad. Like this week’s winner on American Idol. (I was going to say ’Houdini’ but many of our kids wouldn’t recognize that name, it dates me. And maybe even a reference to American Idol is so yesterday. Maybe only Lady Gaga captures the point.)

The fact is that Jesus is a scandal: an obstacle. A barrier. His way involves dying to ourselves. It involves attending to people society looks down on. It involves putting aside our ego – every day. His platform reads “Life – but Out of Death.” Jesus the Celebrity makes no claim on us. We even have so-called Christian preachers proclaiming a gospel of Prosperity: just believe, God wants to make you rich! This is “good news to the poor”?

The way of Jesus is not a call to masochism, to suffering for its own sake. We must never forget that what he comes to give us is joy, and life. “I have come so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.” “That they may life and have it more abundantly.” The vision is enormously attractive, it’s the way to it that costs, the way that we always want to bypass. He told us it’s a narrow way – but it leads to life.

So let’s be like the people in that assembly and the people in the synagogue at Nazareth. Let our eyes be focused intently on Jesus. But let them be focused in Jesus as he really proclaimed himself/ As he really is, not the wonder-worker who blinds his followers with the pixie dust of magic and sensation. We follow one who invites us to share his own lot, who dies to shape us into his one body. Where each one’s small gift is put at the service of the whole body. Where we are totally interdependent on each other. Where we find beatitude in standing with the outcasts of this world. And so are free and full of life. And joy.