We had a rare weekend yesterday in the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord that wonderfully complemented our gospel on this Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Recall that last Sunday we were told how Jesus went home to Nazareth, entering the synagogue on a day of rest. Everybody was amazed with His “gracious words” in proclaiming the word of God that we ended the gospel with a very positive note when Jesus declared “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk.4:22). Our gospel today repeated this line as its take off point to continue the story of Jesus at the synagogue but, this time Luke tells us of a twist from the very positive “all spoke highly of him” to their skeptical “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” (Lk.4:22). The mood deteriorated further after Jesus had spoken so that “the people at the synagogue were filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong” (Lk.4:28-29)!
What and how did this sudden turn of events happen? Here we find the complementing Feast of the Presentation yesterday based on the infancy narratives of Christmas by St. Luke when Simeon told Mary the mother of Jesus, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce you – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk.2:34-35). See how Jesus at the inauguration of His ministry at their Nazareth synagogue last week proclaiming the word of God would now start to be seen as a sign of contradiction among His people as prophesied by Simeon to His mother yesterday. That would reach its highest point 33 years later in Jerusalem where He was presented to the Temple 40 days after Epiphany after resolutely going there to offer or present Himself to the Father on the Cross. This explains why Jesus merely “passed through the midst of them and went away” when the people at the synagogue tried to hurl Him down headlong because His time of final offering had not yet come. But very clearly here at the synagogue of Nazareth, Christ is indeed the sign of contradiction not only to His people but also to us in this generation when we would also speak highly of Jesus, shouting Amen with clapping of hands and suddenly hit people near us with harsh and nasty words or even brutal force. Most of all, like the Lord, we too have experienced being a sign of contradiction when people would speak highly of us then suddenly or over time, turn against us and speak ill of us, betraying us like what Judas did to Jesus on Holy Thursday.
My dear friends in Christ, it is our calling and our life too in living out the word of God through our life of witnessing His immense love in service and mercy for those in the margins. Every time we gather for the Sunday Mass like when Jesus entered the synagogue of Nazareth on a day of rest, He invites us to follow Him to be a prophet by entering Him more than merely the church building. Being a sign of contradiction like Jesus is our prophetic mission in Him. So unlike what most people think, a prophet is not a fortune teller or a seer of the future. As the spokesperson of God, a prophet is one who makes God’s word happen or fulfilled in every here and now. Keep in mind that one feature of Luke’s gospel is the pre-eminence of “listening and doing” the word of God like when he reported how Jesus declared Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled in their hearing that led into the sharp and sudden shifting in the reaction of people against the Lord, from approval to rejection.
First of all, those reactions were most evidently from His claiming to be the Messiah referred to in Isaiah’s prophecy on whom the “Spirit of the Lord rests upon.” He was the one who proclaimed the word and if we have truly immersed ourselves into this beautiful scene in the synagogue on that Sabbath day, we would really feel Jesus is in fact the one Isaiah is speaking of as being “anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to those oppressed, and to usher in a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk.4: 18-19). Salvation decisively begins in Christ and through Christ whenever we enter Him in His words. That “today” in Nazareth synagogue is also the today of our own time that continues to provoke astonishment among others when we try to be Christ’s witnesses of authentic love for others. That is perhaps the sad reality of these days when it becomes big news when people do something genuinely good and beautiful like the woman who impulsively rented 20 hotel rooms in Chicago so the homeless could escape the deep freeze this week in the US Midwest; her deed snowballed into other strangers doing the same! That is essentially the meaning of Paul’s lofty words on love being the greatest of all gifts because it makes God most present in our midst. To truly love like Christ is essentially being a sign of contradiction in this world where the norm is selfishness and self-centeredness often masked in different in lofty terms and ideals bereft of any love at all.
Along this line of self-centeredness we find Luke reminding us in this scene at the Nazareth synagogue of the persisting problem self-entitlement among people then and now when we prophetically live out our mission of making Christ present. People always look down and frown upon those who try to be good and holy by striving to do what is right and just while the holier-than-thou sanctimoniously feel they are the only ones anointed to do such things because they are entitled. They are the modern Gnostics according to Pope Francis in his latest encyclical about holiness in our modern time (Gaudete et Exsulatate)” who feel as the only ones gifted in knowing what is right or wrong, true and good as if they are God. Like those people at the synagogue in Nazareth, they refused to accept Jesus of being more knowledgeable because He is the son of Joseph who was a carpenter. Jesus would strike at the very core of their self- entitlement when He told them “Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his native place” (Lk.4:24), citing how Elijah and Elisha of the Old Testament days were both sent by God to help pagan peoples and not the Jews who have turned away from Him exactly like them. That filled them with fury against Jesus, wanting to hurl Him down the hill headlong. It is the same feeling those people around us experience like our relatives and friends who could not accept we are better than them that they start spreading all kinds of lies and nasty talks against us as they see their self-entitlement slowly eroding. Such is our life as a prophet like Jeremiah, always going against the flow of the people, choosing Christ to be a sign of contradiction and give way to the fulfilment of God’s word among us. Amen. Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, Parokya ng San Juan Apostol at Ebanghelista, Gov. F. Halili Ave., Bagbaguin, Sta. Maria, Bulacan.
The Cross of Christ atop the church of our Lady of Lourdes in France. Photo by my former student Philip Santiago during his pilgrimage, September 2018.