Loving God and Others In And With The Truth, Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (C), January 28, 2007

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
January 28, 2007
Jer 1:4-5,17-19; 1Cor 12:31-13:13; Lk 4:21-30

1) Today we mark the beginning of Catholic Schools Week and we focus in a particular way on Jesus our teacher. One day a young scholar asked Jesus what was the single most important thing we need to do in life, the greatest commandment of the law, and he replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39). Later, Jesus added that we need to our neighbor as he loves us and loves our neighbor (Jn 15:12). This double-commandment of love of God and neighbor is the single most important thing in life. If we do this well and fail at everything else, our life is still a success. But if we do everything else but fail at this, our life will have been a waste. St. Paul teaches this truth at the beginning of the second reading. He said, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Without loving God and others as Christ does, we gain and are nothing, we’re empty, we’re zeroes. This is Jesus’ fundamental lesson and it’s why Catholic schools are so important, because they can focus specifically on the most important thing of all.

2) Today’s readings are a great gift from God to help us to examine whether we really do love God and others as Christ does. We begin with the shocking turnaround in today’s gospel. The people with whom Jesus grew up were assembled in the Nazareth synagogue. After they heard him read Sacred Scripture and give a one sentence homily — “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” — St. Luke tells us that “all spoke well of him and were AMAZED at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” On the surface it seemed like they loved God and loved his word. But that was just a façade. Their amazement soon turned into doubt and then into fury. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son,” they asked, probably thinking themselves wiser than Joseph and smarter than any of the carpenter’s supposed progeny. At the same time in their hearts, they were wanting Jesus to put on a show, to do in his hometown the types of miracles they heard he worked in Capernaum. But they were not ready to accept him for who he was, the fulfillment in their hearing of all God had foretold through Isaiah and the prophets, and Jesus told them as much: “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” When they heard the examples Jesus gave to back up this statement, they were “filled with rage, … got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” In a span of a few minutes, they went from praying in the synagogue to expelling and trying to murder Jesus.

3) This wouldn’t be the last time that supposedly faithful people turned on the Lord so quickly. About two years later in Jerusalem, the people, after having heard his tremendous preaching, after having witnessed his miracles, five days after having shouted to him with palm branches, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!,” cried out in cacophonous unison, “Crucify Him!” and “Give us, Barabbas,” give us, in other words, a murderer and a thief instead of Jesus. The Nazarenes tried to run him out of town; the residents of Jerusalem allowed him to drag his bloody, exhausted frame and heavy Cross outside the city gates all by himself. The Nazarenes tried to toss him over the hill; the people of Jerusalem tried to crucify him on one. In both circumstances, however, with incredible speed, their thoughts changed from amazement to homicide.

4) For us, two thousand years later, we’re driven to ask: How is this possible? How could people who were regulars at the synagogue and the temple, who seemed hungry for the word of God, who praised Jesus with words in Nazareth and palm branches in Jerusalem, all of a sudden seek to KILL him? Why wouldn’t they just have ignored him? The reason is, I think, because they found Jesus’ message a threat to their existence. They couldn’t tolerate his presence because his presence was going to force them to change and they didn’t want to change. Jesus spoke and acted with an authority that didn’t allow a simple refusal. He preached with a power that didn’t allow them to ignore him. His message would continue to reverberate in their consciences. The only way to eliminate the message Jesus was proclaiming was, they concluded, to eliminate the messenger.

5) That brings us to today and our response to Jesus. We’re all here because like those in Jesus’ hometown, we are amazed by Jesus and his words. We love to hear Jesus’ parables, we delight in seeing his compassion in action, we hang on his words during the Sermon on the Mount, we are inspired by his summarizing the whole law in the command to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as Christ has loved us. But for many of us, things change when Jesus moves from the general to the specific. The general is comfortable; the specific can be a little threatening, especially if we’re attached to sin. Many of us say that we love God, but then get angry when someone speaking for God — like a priest, or a Catholic school teacher or a catechist — says that that means we need to put God first on the Lord’s day and come to Mass. We can say we love God but then get terribly worked up when we’re told we have to forgive the person who has really hurt us — not just once, but seventy-times seven times. Or we get indignant when someone speaking for God reminds us that Christ told us that to divorce one and marry another is to commit adultery. Or we rebel when someone speaking in his name tells us that we need to remain faithful to him in our love life. Or we reject what he did in establishing the sacrament of confession and refuse to go. Or we think someone’s encroaching on our freedom when we’re told that all of us must defend Christ in the disguise of the “least among us,” the unborn. It’s on occasions like these that we can change from being amazed by Jesus words to trying to drive Christ out of our lives, or our bedrooms, or our work places, or our schools. It’s at times like this that we’re tempted to reject Christ and to say “Give us Barabbas!” under the disguise of whatever sin to which we’re drawn.

6) The reality is that we are all Nazarenes. We are Jesus’ family members through baptism. This is his house and he dwells here. All of us are faced with a choice, a choice clearly shown by those in ancient Nazareth. On the one side, there’s Mary of Nazareth, who said to the Lord, “Let it be done to me according to your word!,” who repeatedly sought to do the Lord’s will even when it was hard, even when she might be misunderstood, even when a sword would pierce her heart. On the opposite side are other Nazarenes, who praised Jesus when he was tickling their ears or when they thought he could work a miracle for them, but who refused to accept him as he was or to allow him to change them. We can either embrace Christ like Mary or drive him out of our lives like the other Nazarenes. If we really love God, with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, then we will show that, like Mary, by embracing Him and his message even and especially when it is hard.

7) That’s the first part of the two-fold commandment: that we’re called to love God the Father just as Jesus does, and to embrace his will even when we think it might lead to our suffering or death. The second part is to love others as Christ loves us. Christ showed his love for us by preaching the whole truth to us and he calls us to pass on that same saving and challenging truth to others. What the Lord said to the young Jeremiah in today’s Gospel he says to all of us: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” The Lord has consecrated all of us through baptism, and strengthened us in confirmation, to proclaim his Gospel with tongues of fire to the nations. On the great day of our spiritual rebirth, the priest or deacon blessed our ears and our mouths and said, “Be opened! The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.” He opened our mouths so that we would speak his word. He wanted us to be his prophet. This means, of course, fundamentally to pass on his good news. The Gospel is fundamentally a jubilant “yes” to God, a “yes” to the great gift of his incredible love. As Pope Benedict never tires of saying, the Gospel is not principally a series of “no’s” but a great “yes” to God and to the fact that we, by his mercy and love, are his beloved children and called to eternal communion with him.

8 ) But just like Jesus, Jeremiah, Paul and the other prophets and apostles showed us, these “yeses” to God have “no’s” on the flip side — and, as God’s messengers, we have to pass on this part of the message as well. If we know someone who is doing something wrong, then if we love them, we will tell them they need to change and try to help them to change. If we have a friend who is doing drugs, then out of love we won’t ignore the problem or enable it, but call and help her to quit. If we know a Catholic who is not coming to Mass on Sunday, then out of love we will encourage him to return. If a relative is living in sin, the out of love we will remind the person of this and try to encourage the person to follow Christ. Like the prophets of old, the Lord wants to send us to proclaim his good news, that God wants to liberate those who are enslaved and oppressed by sin, that he wants to return sight to those who are blinded by sin’s seductive and false attractiveness. Some may receive this part of the gospel as bad news. They may reject us and the Lord who sent us. They may hate us just like others hated the Lord before us. But we shouldn’t be afraid. Jesus tells us, just as he told Jeremiah, “Get your clothes on; stand up and tell them everything I command you. … I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall…. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you.” The same Lord who strengthened Jeremiah will strengthen us. The same Lord who was with him will be with you and with me.

9) The great gift of Catholic Schools that we celebrate today is that students are able to be formed like Mary of Nazareth to embrace Christ’s teaching in their fullness, rather than grow up in a school environment in which Christ is treated like he was by the other Nazarenes, a persona non grata, driven out of the school and expelled from the educational process. Students are trained how to be able to live that saving truth he teaches and pass on that Gospel to others. Ultimately kids are able to be educated in an environment in which they learn, by word and example, how to love God with all they are and how to love others as Christ has loved us. They are prepared not just for high school and college entrance exams but for the final exam of life, in which, as St. John of the Cross used to teach, they will be examined on their genuine love for God and their genuine love for others — even and especially when it’s hard.

10) Today the same Jesus who entered his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath enters his home on the Lord’s day. Just as he taught then, he teaches now. He wants us to embrace his truth and our mission to proclaim it just as Jeremiah did, just as his mother did, just as St. Paul did. He who came to proclaim liberty to captives actually sets liberates us through the truth, for it the truth that sets us free (Jn 8:32). As we rejoice together in the gift of Catholic education that passes on to our children without shame the liberating truth of Christ, we thank the Lord for loving us enough to give us this truth, and ask for his help so that we might live it and help others to live it as our great act of love toward him and toward them.