14th Sunday, Year B

Just a thought

Many times in life it can seem obvious to us what someone else should do. And sometimes we’re never shy, (no matter how well intentioned) in trying to impose our suggestions on others.

But quite rightly; we often encounter a tendency on their part to resist us and our apparently helpful suggestions. Such opposition forces us to face the fact, that each person has the basic freedom to do what he/she wishes; to choose as their conscience directs. We know this basic freedom of choice as:

“Free will” a God given gift.

This is the mood of today’s reading from Ezekiel. As we see, even God, respecting our freedom of will has the same experience with us, as we have with one another. Here God sends the prophet Ezekiel to the ancient Israelites with a message for those rebels who have turned against Him; He is aware that they may choose not to listen. (The fact is that at our creation, God has given each and everyone one of us the gift of “Free will”, and He’s not about to take it back, no matter what. This gift was also given to our first parents: Adam and Eve who chose to use it unwisely with dire consequences for the whole human race, their wrong choice allowed “original sin” to enter the world and into every soul).

By sending a reluctant Ezekiel to speak His word, God is offering man an option, a choice:

“And whether they ‘heed or resist,’ they shall know that a prophet has been among them.”

They shall know that each of them has received an opportunity, a chance. —  The response now rests with each individual to make their choice. This is a “personal responsibility’” — a “freedom of Choice.”

Unless one is a simpleton or a self-styled visionary, no-one lays claim to the title and mission of a prophet. Indeed, who would dare speak in the Lord’s name unless they were truly assured that God has commissioned them when they were absolutely not seeking such a call? For prophets are often sent where they do not want to go, charged with announcing a message which will cost them dear and which has all chances of exposing them to trouble and dangers, to persecution. Ezekiel has this painful experience. God duly warns him that he is giving him a mission particularly unpleasant to fulfil, even impossible. So why send him? God is like a sower who throws seed by the handful, although he knows that a part of it will fall upon ground in which it will not germinate. Is this wasteful? By no means, God wants to give everyone a chance. He cannot resign himself to seeing the least plot of land remain fallow. His love causes him to hope against all hope. He knows the fecundity of the Word that, in any event, will bear fruit. Everyone must be given the chance.

We see similar examples of man’s freedom in relation to God littered throughout the Gospels: we see for example, in spite of the popular enthusiasm he aroused, Jesus knew bitter failures. The evangelists do not attempt to hide or minimize them, because they are also an essential aspect of our Lord’s mission, of the Church, and finally salvation. The Good News is announced at the risk of faith, of freedom of human beings who can receive or refuse it, open or close their hearts to it, and by the same token allow or prevent its bearing fruit.

When Christ announced the Eucharist in the Gospel of St. John, chapter six, and some of His followers left Him, thinking his speech intolerable “How can he give us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink?” He asked His disciples “Will you also go away?” He demonstrated by this, His willingness to let them go if they chose to — the responsibility of choice would clearly be that of the disciples.

Later Peter and Judas dramatically exemplified this freedom of choice: one chose to return to Christ after deserting him and enter onto the path of reconciliation; the other chose the path of self-condemnation and betrayal.

Today we see the example of this freedom of choice occurring in Nazareth, but whereas the ancient Israelites had a “Prophet in their midst” in Ezekiel; here today the Nazarenes — those who thought they knew Jesus the best, had in their midst, not a prophet, but God Himself. God chooses to reveal Himself on His own terms; whether the Nazarenes accept or reject Him (for whatever reason) is their free choice. Still in the company of his disciples Jesus arrives at his native Nazareth, the place where he grew up, where everyone knows him? Where his mother and other members of his family (cousins) live. On the sabbath, he goes to the synagogue, like all villagers, and he begins to teach. In Capernaum, the hearers were struck by his authority. In Nazareth, this teaching arouses astonishment, and the inhabitants of “his native home” take offence at him. “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given to him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands?” Their astonishment is understandable. But the hitch is that no-one knows where he has gotten his wisdom and power to work miracles, for if they did, they would know that he was the Messiah. Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith.” And so, the folk-lore expression that “a prophet is not without honour save in his own country” is born, and, as we see comes from today’s Gospel reading, and comes from the Lord’s own mouth: “A prophet is only despised in his own country among his own relations and his own house.” “And they would not accept him!” Our Blessed Lord must have felt so betrayed by His own fellow Nazarenes, to experience rejection and misunderstanding from the very people whom He had known all His life and who had known Him. But His neighbours were so fixed on what Jesus had been before, that they could not accept His present great significance, now “His time had come.” Surely as Jesus grew up in Nazareth, they must have seen something special about him, heard stories about him, saw his obedience, his relationship with God — but in their astonishment of observing Jesus teaching in the synagogue they had become blind and said to one another:

“Where did he get all this? What kind of power is he endowed with? Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” They raised one disbelieving question after another, until they had convinced themselves.

It was too much for them to accept that the carpenter that they once knew, could now have such wisdom and importance — so they chose to reject him. They could not see that the Incarnate God. —  the Messiah stood among them. If only they had remembered more accurately his growing up in their village over the previous thirty years, perhaps they would have put two and two together and made four. Jesus did nothing to convince them more. 

It’s a classic case of “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Their envy, jealousy, hostility and blurred vision causes them to only see, what they had known before and so the wrong choice is made. This is something that continues to be demonstrated throughout history and in our own time and society and so still affects us today. We have had two thousand years of hindsight and yet there are still people today and in the past that have rejected Jesus for who he is, just as the Nazarenes did. It’s sometimes difficult for us to see what’s right under our nose’s, but the Nazarenes and all of the Jewish nation had been looking forward to and expecting the coming of the Messiah, yet here in Nazareth, they could not see Christ’s meaning and message.

The important point we get from today’s Gospel is that we must discern very carefully before using our very special gift of freedom of choice. We should never fear of asking God for guidance so that we can ensure that the choices we freely make are also in line with what God wants for us. It’s a wonderful gift God has given us; we must use it wisely.

The difficulty that the Nazarenes had in recognizing Christ for who he was, reminds us of his humanity: how ordinary he might seem if one did not consider him, his actions, and his words, with great care. This should also remind us too, how Christ (fully God and fully man) did not force them to accept him, either in his humanity or his divinity. They had their own free choice.  The Gospel constantly confronts us with Jesus’ mystery: “But who is he?” Yes, he had his family in Nazareth, but he also said “Before Abraham came to be, I AM.”

This same freedom and responsibility of choice is also ours. Since Christian teaching is all around us now, we too, like Jesus’ Nazarene neighbours, can let familiarity cause us to be blind and deaf. We can if we’re not careful miss all the richness of the Christian truth because we have known it for so long, we can become complacent, we can ignore what’s in front of us; we can shrug our shoulders and say, “there’s nothing new in that.” If so, we can be tragic victims of the folk-lore wisdom, that too much exposure or familiarity to someone or some truth runs the risk of bringing with it, not the appreciation and acceptance it deserves, but contempt and indifference.

Whether we look back to the ancient peoples of Ezekiel’s time; or to the Gospel times of Christ’s life; or even come up to the present in our own experiences, we are continually brought face to face with the issue of human freedom. The responsibility for its consequences is our own. While we, therefore, deeply appreciate the gift and dignity of our freedom, we are also aware of its parallel potential for tragedy, and loss, as with Adam and Eve. Let us pray and hope, then, both for ourselves and others, that with God’s help we will see, and choose the right path, the path of redemption: the path which, when we see clearly through the eyes of faith and our own wise reasoning, is ultimately best for us. This is God’s loving desire for us. But respecting at the same time our freedom, (he never forces our choice) so we too can 

“Heed or resist”:
“Accept or reject.”
“What about you, do you want to go away too?”
“Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life.” (Jn. 6:67-69)