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FEBRUARY 3, 2013: FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19
I Corinthians 12:31-13:13
Luke 4:21-30

Both Jesus and Jeremiah are depicted in today's first and third readings as fulfilling the second rule for distinguishing real prophets from fake prophets: real prophets suffer because of their ministry. But our second reading verifies the third rule: those who follow the words and example of real prophets also suffer.

Jeremiah's call leaves no doubt about the pain he'll have to endure. "Be not crushed," Yahweh commands, "on their account. . . . They will fight against you but not prevail over you . . . ." One need only turn to Jeremiah 20 - Scripture's most depressing chapter - to surface the pain the prophet endured every day of his ministry. He tells us exactly what the "word of Yahweh" meant for him.

Jesus suffers in a similar way in today's gospel pericope. Speaking in his hometown synagogue, he quickly discovers his message isn't very well received by his former friends and family members. "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." Though at this point of his ministry, Jesus escapes, he's not going to avoid death for long.

What did Jeremiah and Jesus say to cause otherwise good people to want to do them in?

Jeremiah's constant message revolves around "returning to Yahweh:" insisting people get rid of those peripheral aspects of their faith that they've turned into "essentials." The prophet points out, for instance, that they're more concerned with liturgical regulations than with loving of their neighbors; with the upkeep of shrines and discussing legal minutiae than with going one on one with their God. People don't like being told their cherished religious practices aren't cherished by God. If they could rid themselves of Jeremiah, they could once again return to their unchallenging beliefs.

Jesus' problem, on the other hand, springs from his conviction that Yahweh is just as much God of the Gentiles as of the Jews. His two examples of Yahweh helping Gentiles - the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian - aren't well received by his synagogue audience. They're uncomfortable with a God who pushes the religious envelope, and with anyone who forces them to relate to such a God. Once they eliminate Jesus, they eliminate their unease, and can return to the security blanket of organized religion.

Paul of Tarsus quickly discovered that those who followed real prophets also inherited their persecution. Though today's I Corinthians passage is one of the best-known in the Bible - it's proclaimed in at least half of the weddings I "perform" - few people of faith dare carry out its demands. We're afraid of what would happen if we actually made love an integral part of everything we do. Without doubt, if we became patient, kind, stopped being jealous, pompous, inflated and rude, refused to seek our own interests, got rid of our quick temper and brooding over injuries, and stopped rejoicing over wrongdoing, we'd relinquish all of our psychological defenses. People will run roughshod over us.

Yet only when we put love at the center of our lives will we be able to carry on the ministry of Jesus, and actually become the body of Christ.

Back in Genesis 3, the Yahwistic author of the Torah taught that we can't accomplish good unless we're willing to put up with the pain that accompanies our efforts to achieve it. Jeremiah and Jesus would agree. But in the long run, both were convinced that the good we bring about is always more pervasive and powerful than the evil it overcomes.