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JULY 9, 2006: FOURTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Ezekiel 2:2-5
II Corinthians 12:7-10
Mark 6:1-6

The key to appreciating all three readings today is Paul's statement, "Power is made perfect in weakness."

Knowing we'd rather operate from a position of power than weakness, our sacred authors force us to reflect on the strength we possess when we actually are weak, a strength which comes not from us, but from God, a strength we'd never fall back on if weren't forced to be weak.

Ezekiel quickly discovers his vulnerability when he begins to prophecy to his fellow Israelites during the Babylonian exile. Though he's proclaiming Yahweh's word, no one listens to him. His only consolation is that Yahweh recognizes the prophet's situation. "Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you," Yahweh points out. All prophets eventually learn that success isn't an option when one works for Yahweh. Ezekiel's mission is simply to let those rebels know "that a prophet has been among them."

Jesus faces a similar situation in our gospel pericope. But the attack on him is more personal than the one Ezekiel encountered. "Where did this man get all this?" the synagogue crowd asks. In their mind, there's no way Jesus could be a real prophet. "Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not his sisters here with us?" Those whom God sends to convey God's message can't possibly be so common or familiar to us as Jesus is to his hometown community.

The crowd's lack of faith in Jesus leads Mark to write one of the most interesting lines in the Christian Scriptures. "He (Jesus) was not able to perform any mighty deed there . . . ." It makes no difference that Jesus is God. His ability to help people is limited by their ability to have faith in him. At this point, he couldn't be weaker.

When Matthew later copied Mark's passage and inserted it into his own gospel, he made two significant changes in the text. Instead of being a carpenter, Jesus now becomes the son of the carpenter in Matthew 13:55. (Carpenters didn't make "big money" back then.) But more significantly, four verses later, Matthew switches Mark's statement that Jesus "was not able" to "he did not perform . . . ." A huge difference. Some third and fourth generation Christians were also bothered by Jesus' weakness.

At least ten years before Mark described Jesus' vulnerability, Paul writes about his own. No one knows for certain what his famous "thorn in the flesh" actually is. Years ago, most thought it had something to do with his sexuality. Today, many believe it's as unexciting as malaria. Whatever it is, it puts Paul in a position of weakness, taking away the force he originally thought he needed to successfully proclaim the risen Jesus.

Yet in spite of Paul's fear of being inadequate, many of the people to whom he preaches still end up converting to the Way. Instead of being a drawback, his thorn becomes a force they can't resist. It leads the Apostle to state, "I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong."

One of the most difficult faith-things to learn is that we best proclaim God's word when we put no obstacles of our own into the proclamation. Through the centuries, organized religions have always been tempted to become powerful entities, organization which wow people by their strength and influence. We forget that we can be prestigious without being people of faith. Perhaps we, like Jesus' Nazareth audience, are faithful individuals who impede God's actions, by expecting them to appear in our strength, not God's weakness.