30 January 2022
Jeremiah1:4-5. 17-19 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13 Luke 4:21-30
Theme: O, that today you would listen to his voice
I’m sure many will remember Don McClean’s popular song, Vincent, about the famous Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh. It ends with these rather pessimistic if memorable lines: ‘They would not listen, they’re not listening still / Perhaps they never will’. Not being listened to was the fate of all the prophets, those who spoke God’s word to the people of their time. It was the fate of Jeremiah, appointed by God as ‘prophet to the nations’ (Jer 1:5), and it was the fate of Jesus, God’s beloved Son, who, in the words of St John ‘came to his own people and his own people did not accept him (Jn 1:11).
Our first reading recounts the call and commissioning of Jeremiah, one of the major prophets of Israel who lived at a time of great political turmoil. Jeremiah was charged with the unenviable task of challenging the Kings and princes, priests and people of Judah, exhorting them to be faithful to the covenant God had made with them. A peace-loving young man, Jeremiah never wanted to be a prophet. At times he felt overwhelmed by the sheer burden of it, but, like Jesus after him, ‘he learned to obey through suffering’ (Heb 5:8). In this reading, he is assured that he will not fail in his prophetic mission, for the Lord will be with him, making him into ‘a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of bronze’ (Jer 1:18). The assurance given to Jeremiah is still given today to all those speak truth to power, who stand up for justice and integrity.
The story of Jesus’ rejection by the townspeople of Nazareth, vividly told by Luke in today’s gospel, is sad and disturbing. In the Spring of 2008, while on a sabbatical programme in the Holy Land, I had the privilege of spending a few days in Nazareth (now a large town) situated in the hills of Galilee. A guide led us to ‘Mount of Precipitation’, the place, we are told, where the people attempted to murder Jesus by throwing him down a cliff-face. The people who rejected Jesus were no strangers to him. They were his neighbours and friends. He had probably attended their weddings and funerals, visited them when sick, and joined in their festivals. With Joseph, he may even have to build their houses or make furniture for their homes. They were people he knew and loved. This makes their rejection of him all the more poignant.
Jesus had just proclaimed a heart-warming passage from Isaiah in their Synagogue and presented himself as the promised Messiah. The people’s reaction to him at first seems to be one of amazement and approval. ‘He won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips’ (Lk 4: 22). It is shocking to see how quickly this mood of admiration and acclaim changed to one of questioning, hostility and, in the end, murderous rage. We wonder what could have made these people so angry? What was it in his message that they didn’t want to hear, that they couldn’t accept. We get an inkling of what annoyed them from the words of Jesus, reminding them that God was not just ‘their God’ but the God of all peoples, the God who showed mercy to the widow of Zarephath and the Syrian, Naaman, both gentiles. Like most of Jesus’ contemporaries, the people of Nazareth believed that they, and they alone, were ‘God’s chosen people’. Jesus challenges their narrow vision of God and his ways, and draws them towards a more inclusive vision. This was not what they wanted to hear.
The story of Jesus’ rejection by his townspeople should challenge us about our own prejudices and blind spots. How open are we to the message God wants to give us? Do we really listen to God’s Word with an attentive ear and receptive heart? We need to cultivate a listening heart, but how do we do this? The answer, I suggest, is to be found in our second reading today, in which St Paul speaks of the qualities of love. They are the same qualities that characterise the listening heart. The listening heart is ‘always patient and kind; it is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude;… it does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong but delights in the truth’ (1Cor 13: 4-6) Above all, the listening heart is a heart that capable of appreciating the goodness and beauty in others.
I end with a story that bring out very well this final quality of the listening heart:
‘Moved by the beauty around him, one of the disciples asked his old Master how he could help others to see and feel such beauty. ‘What you ask is difficult’ answered the old man. ‘To see and feel beauty outside ourselves, we must be and feel ourselves to be beautiful.’ ‘But Master’, asked the disciple, ‘how do we know if someone is beautiful?’ ‘Beauty is part of love’, the Master explained. It is being great enough to give, and humble enough to receive. To help another discover beauty is to open one’s spirit to noble and generous ideas. It is removing the blindfold that covers the mind and tearing off the bandages that shroud the heart.’ (Emilio Rojas).
To listen to an alternative Homily from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below.