THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Neh 8:2-4, 5f.,8-10 1, Cor 12:12-30 (or 12-14, 27), Lk 14; 4:14-21
Christ, the Principle of Life and of Unity. Jesus, the Fulﬁlment of Joy; Witnessing to the Son of God; Religious Unity; Where to Go for Spirit and Life.
St Luke’s Gospel, our major Gospel for this liturgical year, has been called “the loveliest book in the world”. Today’s excerpt contains two introductions: one to Luke’s Gospel, the other to Jesus. Both introductions are solemn, both speak of what has been “fulﬁlled”, and both represent a beginning. Luke writes his introduction as though he thought that he was going to write the greatest story ever told, and nothing but the best was good enough for it. ‘
He acknowledges that many had undertaken before to write the facts of Jesus’ life and indicates that his eye-witness sources (v. 2) would help a third-generation Christian, “Theophilus”, arrange accounts in order. “Theophilus” means “Lover of God”, and stands for each of us.
Today’s Gospel excerpt then skips to Luke’s introduction of the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. He is careful to begin with Judaism. Jesus was in the habit of teaching in the synagogues (v, 15). The synagogue was an institution begun during the exile as a place to help the Jews retain their identity as Jews. Now the central age of history was beginning, the prophets, fulﬁlled, all eyes ﬁxed on Jesus. Jesus, the hometown boy who had become a rabbi, who was now prompted by the Holy Spirit to return to Galilee (4:14). Galilee, the little agricultural garden province in the north of Palestine, had many towns and villages, a wonderful climate, and a great water supply. It was the least conservative province of the nation.
From the tops of some of the hills into which Nazareth was built, which Jesus had probably climbed as a boy, there stretched a panorama of important reminders of the history of Israel — the plain of Esdraelon to the south, which had been a constant battlefield and had many other scriptural memories; Carmel to the west, where Elijah had fought and won his epic battle with the priests of the pagan god Baal; and the blue Mediterranean in the distance. Three great roads skirted Nazareth: the road from Jerusalem in the south, the Way of the Sea between Egypt and Damascus with its many caravans, and the great road to the east, with convoys from Arabia and the Roman legions marching to and from the Empire’s eastern frontiers.
The synagogue at Nazareth would have been the same as all others in essential respects, but this town of perhaps as many as 2,000 inhabitants might have been more cosmopolitan than most. The Sabbath synagogue services in Jesus’ time consisted at least of prayers, reading, a homily, and the priestly blessing. It had its origins in the long history of the Jews, not least of which was the book from which today’s First Reading comes — Nehemiah.
Nehemiah lived in those sad days after the Exile when the Jews had returned home — or what was left of home. They before them the enormous task of rebuilding — not only physically rebuilding the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, but also the far more difﬁcult task of rebuilding the nation. Nothing seemed to go right.
A good layman, Nehemiah worked with the priest Ezra to restore both the government and the religion. Society and religion were considered inseparable, as in truth they are — no matter what position one takes on the separation of Church and State, which is an entirely different matter. Together, Nehemiah and Ezra laid the foundations of Judaism.
The ceremony in today’s section was basically a Fourth-of-July kind of “Declaration of Dependence” on God. The ceremony, with special rostrums set up so that all could see and hear, was a Liturgy of the Word, which became the ﬁrst half of the Christian Mass. We like those people of 2500 years ago, stand when the Gospel is read. Then their assembly, hands raised high (v. 6), answered “Amen, amen!”— an exclamation, then as now, of total commitment. At that time the people came to listen to God’s Word, tried to understand it, internalized it, and left in joy. So should we.
In Jesus’ time, the ruler of the synagogue could invite any adult Jewish man to read the Scripture of the day and deliver a homily on it. He often called upon visitors for this, and Jesus and the Apostles made frequent use of this opportunity to preach the Good News. The book to be read and commented upon was determined by the Season, the particular passage left to the choice of the preacher. Today the book was Isaiah, and Jesus combined passages (61:1f. and 58:6) that were originally addressed to Jews looking forward to a nation rebuilt and restored. For Luke, the words were prophetic, because Jesus was about to usher in the true restoration.
As was the custom, Jesus stood to do the reading (v. 16), and sat down to deliver the homily (v. 20). His homily began with his simple but dramatic statement, delivered with quiet authority, that this Scripture passage was now being fulﬁlled (v. 21). He said that he had arrived as the special one sent by God to bring God’s Good News to the poor. Although Jesus intended this to be nothing less than the beginning of a revolutionary new social order, the people promptly misunderstood it to mean that the Jews would now be masters and not slaves in their country. When he spoke of the release of prisoners, they misunderstood him to mean release from the Roman yoke. But Jesus’ mission in life was solely to do the will of his heavenly Father.
That mission was what also motivated St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, from which today’s passage continues from last week. Among the many problems of the Corinthian Church — not too different from ours -— were immorality, irreverent behaviour in church, drinking, discrimination, denial of authority, and doubts about the Resurrection. Despite all that, today’s reading gives one of the most famous pictures of the unity of the Church ever written.
In using the cooperating members of the human body to teach the need for unity and communal effort (v. 12), Paul was possibly adapting a common story of classical antiquity. The metaphor of a group as a body isn’t strange to us, either. We speak of “the body politic”, “a legislative body”, and our own physical body. As with the physical body, diversity among people doesn’t imply disunity. Paul speaks not only metaphor, but reality. The Church is Christ’s body. Lest anyone draw a wrong conclusion, such as the members of the Church being equal to Christ, Paul makes the basic point that the members are always subordinate to Christ. As members of Christ’s body in the Church, all must be concerned for one another (V. 25). That’s still true. Every one of us is precious in God’s sight.
Someone has calculated that every human body, on average, has some medical problem every three days. To resolve it, usually an aspirin will do, or a band—aid, or a good night’s sleep. Sometimes, though, ‘our more serious conditions require batteries of therapies. Our “vessels of clay”, as Paul called our bodies, have other limits. Without food, they last only weeks; without water, only days; without air, but a few minutes. Does this mean that our almighty Creator’s design is fraught with flaws, such that God has to depend on the medical establishment to undo His blunders? No, God had a better idea. He sees weakness not necessarily as an absence of strength, but rather the means to strength.
Has Jesus failed, then? In today’s Gospel, he cited himself as having fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah to help the poor, release prisoners, heal the sick — yet homeless poor remain in our streets, our prisons are overcrowded, and every one of us will eventually succumb to physical death. No, he has elected that, he being no longer present among us in the ﬂesh, we are to be his hands to do his work, the feet to run his errands, the voice to speak in his behalf. If Jesus wants someone sent, he depends on apostles; if he wants to be spoken for, prophets; if he wants people taught, teachers; if he wants aid given the unfortunate, administrators (v. 28).
We all have our own gifts. With a diversity in our unity, not all of us serve on the same basis. Yet each of us is called to personal holiness and a sharing of our talents with others. We saw in today’s Gospel that at the beginning of his public life the Son of God stood alone in Nazareth to boldly proclaim God’s message in the face of members of his own faith. At the end he stood alone before Roman authorities like Pilate and Herod. And at the hour of his death he hung on the cross alone.
We, too, have issues on which we may have to stand alone. We have deﬁnite vocational decisions to make — whether to be clergy like Ezra, or lay people like Nehemiah, or missioners like Paul.
More speciﬁcally, we live in a time that witnesses many terrible attacks on human life. Warfare and genocide have accounted for the deaths of millions of human beings. Abortion attacks human life itself -— eliminating the unborn infant only because it is alive.
Who, after all, deserves to be born? Would-be parents are using genetic screening for what they consider a clearly responsible purpose — ensuring the birth of healthy children. These tests ultimately pose the most complex problems of all: What constitutes health? And who bears the responsibility for decisions affecting unborn children?
Genetic histories can indicate the probability of Fragile X syndrome, which indicates that a person can give birth to a child who will be defective in some way — deaf, for example, or retarded. Increasingly sophisticated genetic tests have prompted some women to request amniocentesis to screen for Alzheimer’s, for example, even though the disease generally does not manifest itself until old age. Some parents use these procedures to ensure the birth of children who are not “healthy” in the conventional sense. More than “perfect” children, some parents hope for children who resemble themselves. One doctor reports a call from a dwarf couple wanting to abort a child of normal height; a bioethicist has puzzled over the case of a deaf couple who didn’t want a hearing child.
Abortion is resulting in millions of deaths every year. It has led to a coarsening of our entire culture’s respect for life – the increasing acceptance of assisted suicide for the elderly and ill; experiments on living human embryos; the abuse of women, children, and the elderly; irresponsible sexual license; the weakening of families; and the further victimization of the poor to whom society is willing to give abortion rights in place of real justice.
In a more simple time, our materialistic society estimated that a human being weigh in g 140 pounds contained enough fat for seven cakes of soap, carbon for 9,000 pencils, phosphorous to make 2,200 match heads, magnesium for one dose of salts, iron to make one medium-sized nail, sufficient lime to whitewash a chicken coop, enough sulphur to rid one dog of ﬂeas, and water to fill a ten-gallon barrel. All was valued at 98 cents.
Then, when a more sophisticated analysis became possible, it was discovered that the average human also has more than a pound of nucleic acids and enzymes, valued at about $800 a pound. Still later, a scientist estimated that the human body is actually worth more than $6 million, and that price covers only the raw materials; the intricate work of fashioning the materials into human cells, if it could be done, might cost six thousand trillion dollars.
In all cases, we’re to be real people -— not like a Hollywood set with all front and nothing in back — and, fulﬁlled and fully human, imitators of Christ our principle of life and of unity.