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4th Sunday, Year 2

It was a sleepy afternoon in the school classroom. Thirty 12-year old boys were waiting for the end of the school day. The history teacher was droning on. As often happened, he began mocking one particular boy who was not gifted in the classroom setting. Another boy, noticing this, slowly lifted his hand. ‘Sir, this is not fair. You are always picking on Robert.’ The teacher paused, and issued an abrasive response. Some days later, the annual parent-teacher evening took place in the school.  The history teacher criticized the young whistle-blower to the parent. At home, the parents too criticized their son for his temerity in challenging the teacher’s behaviour in the classroom. The boy felt confused and isolated.

Jesus too experienced rejection. He too challenged socially-accepted ways of keeping out whole categories of people. For us, this is not a cosy, warm-hearted Gospel scene. It is tough. Jesus has just begun his life as a wandering preacher. Word has filtered back to his home place about the powerful impact his presence and his words were having on those who flocked to hear him. Now he was returning to his home place. As a good Jew, steeped in the regular worship and the scared scripture of his people, Jesus was in the Nazareth synagogue. There was space in the service for a visiting preacher to share some wisdom from the Hebrew Bible. His choice of text is significant. From the prophet Isaiah, he chooses the passage offering good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight to the blind. So far, so good. Everyone in the room was happy, indeed proud of this local boy, one of their own.

     But then it all starts to turn nasty. For Jesus begins to apply this message. And, always drawing on the Bible, he refers to two people who received God’s favour. However, these two were outsiders for the Jewish community, aliens, and so not people entitled to God’s favour. One of these was a poor widow facing starvation at a time of drought and famine. She shares her last small piece of food with a visitor. The guest turns out to be a prophet. He assures her that from then on, her food will never run out. The second person Jesus mentions was a foreign government official, who had leprosy. A Jewish serving girl in the household suggests that he submits himself to the prophet of her people. He does so, and he too receives wholeness and healing. For his hearers in his home town, that Jesus should highlight God’s graciousness to two foreigners was shocking. They were enraged. Their tone changed utterly. One minute they were rejoicing in him being with them. As they listened to what he was saying, they changed into an angry mob, hustling him out of the place; indeed they wanted to lynch him there and then.

For us, this is a shocking and disturbing scene. We might well ask, where is the good news for us this morning? We have a choice. We might be drawn to dwell on what pulls us towards small-mindedness, just like the home crowd in the Nazareth synagogue. We might be drawn to drown out protesting voices. Faced with outsiders of whatever type, we might want to circle the waggons, as the trekkers in the Wild West used do, whenever they felt threatened and afraid, thereby keeping out those they perceived as aliens. We might ask the Lord to throw a light on our anxieties faced with outsiders. In that way, we may become more free to respond, not out of fear, but with the attitude of the Holy Spirit.

On the other side, we might consider the good news Jesus offers in the midst of the strong rejection he was experiencing. The generous widow who eventually receives a steady supply of food, the official with the skin disease, both unexpectedly receive God’s favour. And both of them were foreigners. By highlighting these life-giving encounters from the Hebrew Bible, Jesus is reminding his listeners, and us today, that God is offering salvation to all. In who Jesus is, in what he says and does, this message is not only confirmed but infinitely surpassed.

A picture from the travels of Pope Francis comes to mind. Traditionally a Holy Year begins with the Pope visiting some church in Rome. For the opening of the Holy Year some time back, Pope Francis decided he was going to the cathedral in a central African country plagued by war and unrest. Against all the security advice, he went. The city is delicately shared by Muslims and Christians. After the church ceremony, Francis was standing on the back of the pick-up that was driving him slowly past the waving crowd. He spotted the local imam (or Muslim leader) in the crowd. Having asked the driver to stop, the Pope reached out to welcome the imam on board. The two, standing side by side on the truck, shared the ride, waving to the crowd.

Faced with the big complex problems, we may feel we have nothing to offer. Like the prophet Jeremiah, we may say ‘Ah Lord, I am but a child! I don’t know what to say!’ But Jesus’ courageous stance before his family and neighbours gives us courage, too. At times we are called to speak truth to power. Do we just stand silently by when we see that others are being unfairly or badly treated? Perhaps it could be a simple gesture, like who we invite to our small events. Who do we include? And we can always ask for the Holy Spirit to guide us, to give us the words and gestures to respond generously to various situations in work and family. How often we all need the Spirit’s guidance regarding situations in our families, and with those with whom we live!

We too might reflect on our experience of rejection, just as Jesus had. On reflection, can we discern some life-giving message, underneath our pain and upset? Might rejection, at times, make us more serious in our commitments? Conflict, at times, can help clarify identity, what we stand for. Might it also make us more generous and compassionate in our dealings with others? As a praying community, we might ask, can we pray for those more publicly or clearly in the firing line? Can we pray for the prophets of our time? We may not be called to some dramatic public gesture. Yet we all can pray to the Lord for necessary change in our society and for change in the way whole groups are suffering in our world  - those feeling from persecution, or political violence, or poor living conditions, for example. The Lord, who comes to bring good news to the poor, and freedom to those in all forms of captivity, is with us.

Brian Mac Cuarta SJ