Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why Do People Hate a "Good Person"? The 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Readings for this Sunday show both Jesus and Jeremiah facing opposition for speaking God’s truth to their contemporaries.  They raise interesting questions about why it is that the “good person” so often suffers at the hands of others, and offer encouragement to those who experience this suffering.

1.  Our First Reading is  Jer 1:4-5, 17-19:

The word of the LORD came to me, saying:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.

But do you gird your loins;
stand up and tell them
all that I command you.
Be not crushed on their account,
as though I would leave you crushed before them;
for it is I this day
who have made you a fortified city,
a pillar of iron, a wall of brass,
against the whole land:
against Judah’s kings and princes,
against its priests and people.
They will fight against you but not prevail over you,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.

One of Jeremiah’s major contributions to salvation history and Christian theology is his own person as a type of Christ, more so than any other prophet.  Biography plays little role in the Book of Isaiah, but a large role in Jeremiah.  In many ways, Jeremiah becomes absorbed into his prophetic ministry,
such that not just his words but his own life experiences become transformed into “prophesy.” 

Indeed, tradition remembered Jeremiah as the quintessential suffering prophet, and more than one scholar has proposed that the “Suffering Servant” of the second half of Isaiah was modeled on Jeremiah.  Thus it is unsurprising that Jeremiah is the first of the literary prophets that Jesus’ contemporaries compared to him:

“Who do men say that the Son of man is?”  And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Mt 16:13-14).

The similarities abound:

(1) chosen from the womb (Jer 1:5; Lk 1:31); 
(2) destined for rejection and conflict with their people (Jer 1:18-19; Lk 2:34-35),
(3) called to celibacy (Jer 16:1-4; Mt 19:10-12),
(4) likened to a sacrificial lamb (Jer 11:19; Jn 1:29,36),
(5) betrayed by those closest to him (Jer 12:6; Jn 13:18,38 etc.)
(6) preach against the Temple and predict its destruction (Jer 26:2-6; Mk 11:15-19, 13:1-2)
(7) opposed and persecuted by the chief priests for doing so (Jer 20:1-3; 26:7-9; Mk 11:18)
(8) condemned to death for doing so (Jer 26:8-9; Mk 14:57-58)
(9) tried by a vacillating, partly sympathetic, yet weak-willed civil magistrate (Jer 37:16-38:28; Jn 18:28–19:16)
(10) cast into a pit and raised up from it again (Jer 37:6-13; Jn 19:40–20:18).

As I mentioned above, in many ways, both Jeremiah and Jesus fit the profile of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant of the LORD (e.g, Isa 52:13-53:12), though ultimately Jeremiah is not the royal figure the Servant is. Nonetheless, the Church’s memory and liturgy holds up Jeremiah as a proto-type of the suffering prophet fully realized in Jesus of Nazareth.

In today’s First Reading and Gospel Reading, we are confronted with the reality that righteous men who are fulfilling the will of God (Jeremiah and Jesus) are disliked and opposed by their contemporaries. 

This raises an important question: why are “good people” disliked?

I suppose many of us in childhood tried to “do what’s right” on the assumption that it would “win friends and influence people.”  After all, wouldn’t others like a person who keeps his promises, practices kindness and honesty, does his work faithfully, etc.?  At some point in our development, however, we begin to realize that doing the good does not necessarily lead to popularity.  Why?  For various reasons: 

First, there are others who get pleasure from practicing some sort of vice, and the very presence of a person who refrains from that vice is a kind of silent rebuke, a prick of the conscience.  But to cease their vice would involve the loss of some personal pleasure, so their reaction is to try to drive away the “good person” whose presence awakens their conscience. 

Second, to seek the good means to oppose injustice.  The “good person” cannot stand by silently while others are abused.  Yet there are many in society who profit from the abuse of others—for example, the executives of Planned Parenthood, who profit from the killing unborn children, and make generous contributions to the Democratic Party, setting up a dynamic of monetary profit and political power.  So certain individuals come to have a vested interest in the perpetuation of injustice.  Other obvious examples would be the institution of slavery both in America and elsewhere, and the current worldwide (and immensely profitable) scourge of human sex trafficking. 

The “good person” cannot be silent in the face of these evils.  As Bishop Monforton of Steubenville quoted in a homily this past week, “Silence never helps the victim, only the oppressor.”

Yet to speak out means to run afoul of those who often wield a great deal of power and wealth gained through vice—power and wealth which enables them to inflict every sort of harm on the “good person,” in some cases even death.

This is the perpetual human condition.  The reality of sin in human society means that the quest to be like God, to do the good, to attain holiness, will inevitably lead to conflict with others who are not on that quest.  Our Lord taught us so in his most famous sermon:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5:10-12)

Persecution is one of the marks of a true prophet.  Jeremiah and Jesus were true prophets, but we also share the prophetic role, if we have been baptized into Christ.  When Jesus says, “so men persecuted the prophets who were before you,” he implies that we, too, are prophets (see Catechism §783).  But by definition prophets cannot remain silent.

2.  Our Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 71:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-17:

R. (cf. 15ab) I will sing of your salvation.
In you, O LORD, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your justice rescue me, and deliver me;
incline your ear to me, and save me.
R. I will sing of your salvation.
Be my rock of refuge,
a stronghold to give me safety,
for you are my rock and my fortress.
O my God, rescue me from the hand of the wicked.
R. I will sing of your salvation.
For you are my hope, O Lord;
my trust, O God, from my youth.
On you I depend from birth;
from my mother’s womb you are my strength.
R. I will sing of your salvation.
My mouth shall declare your justice,
day by day your salvation.
O God, you have taught me from my youth,
and till the present I proclaim your wondrous deeds.
R. I will sing of your salvation.

This psalm brings comfort and consolation to those who seek “righteousness” and the “kingdom of heaven,” and so experience the persecutions Jesus talks about.  They can depend on God, who cares about them “from their mother’s womb,” which reminds us of God’s choosing of Jeremiah “before I had formed you in your mother’s womb.”  From conception to natural death, those who love God and seek his face find their strength and consolation in him.  He will “rescue them from the hand of the wicked,” even if only in the next life, when the Resurrection will right the wrongs of this life.

3.  Our Second Reading is 1 Cor 12:31—13:13:

Brothers and sisters:
Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts.
But I shall show you a still more excellent way.

If I speak in human and angelic tongues,
but do not have love,
I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy,
and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge;
if I have all faith so as to move mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own,
and if I hand my body over so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, it is not pompous,
It is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.
If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing;
if tongues, they will cease;
if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child,
think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
At present I know partially;
then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
So faith, hope, love remain, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.

This Reading from St. Paul offers an important balancing perspective to the lessons on persecution from the First Reading and Gospel.  In the face of persecution, it is easy to become bitter, self-righteous, and hateful toward the persecutors.  St. Paul reminds us “love does not brood over injury … Love bears all things … endures all things.”  The Christian who simply gives into self-righteous indignation and condemnation of the “wicked” in society can become like “a resounding gong or clashing cymbal”—a harsh, unpleasant sound that does not speak to the heart.  The challenge for the Christian is to learn to suffer persecution while still practicing and showing love.

“Love never fails,” because it is the one virtue that will operate for eternity.  Faith and hope only operate in this life, where we do not yet “see” (so we have to have faith) and we have not yet “obtained” (so we have to hope).  When we see God face to face in the next life, and obtain the good things He has promised us, faith and hope will no longer be necessary—nor prophecy, nor prophetic knowledge—yet we will continue to love God and one another for all eternity.

4.  Our Gospel is Lk 4:21-30:

Jesus began speaking in the synagogue, saying:
“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
And all spoke highly of him
and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
They also asked, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”
He said to them, “Surely you will quote me this proverb,
‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say,
‘Do here in your native place
the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’”
And he said, “Amen, I say to you,
no prophet is accepted in his own native place.
Indeed, I tell you,
there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah
when the sky was closed for three and a half years
and a severe famine spread over the entire land.
It was to none of these that Elijah was sent,
but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon.
Again, there were many lepers in Israel
during the time of Elisha the prophet;
yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
When the people in the synagogue heard this,
they were all filled with fury.
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.
But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.

This Gospel Reading picks up seamlessly from last week’s, and in it we find Jesus encountering the most hostile reaction from his own town folk, much like Jeremiah did long ago (see Jer 11:18-23, where Jeremiah’s own town folk plot to kill him).  They are particularly offended that Jesus cites examples from the Old Testament in which the great Israelite prophets did not minister to people in Israel, but went to heal and bless the Gentiles: the Sidonian woman of Zarephath, the Syrian general  Naaman.

The people of Nazareth were good Israelites.  In fact, Benedictine bible scholar and archeologist Fr. Bargil Pixner argues that they were largely descendants of the royal House of David.  In any event, they felt like they were special.  They had a unique claim on God.  God’s blessings were for them, not for the wicked Gentiles! 

They forgot that the reason God chose Abraham, the father of the Israelites, was so that Abraham and his descendants would bring “blessing to all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3).  They forgot that the great prophets foresaw salvation for all the Gentiles, as in this famous passage from Isaiah

Is. 49:5   And now the LORD says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength —  6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Again we have the theme of the “prophet formed from the womb” who brings salvation to all the nations.

Surely from a biblical perspective, God knows each of us from the womb and has planned for each a mission and purpose for our lives.  As prophetic people of God, we cannot be silent about this Good News.

The Readings for this Sunday call us to face persecution with courage, knowing that persecution is the mark of the true prophet.  Those who share Christ’s prophetic role through baptism cannot hope to avoid persecution in this life.  At the same time, we cannot give in to hatred, bitterness, and self-righteousness.  Unlike the people of Nazareth, we have to practice love, and remember that the Good News is for all people, not our personal possession.  Prophets speak out about injustice, yes—but in the hope that all will repent and be saved by entering the love of God.


This summer I will be visiting Nazareth, near the site where this Gospel takes place.  Join me and Fr. Denny Gang, TOR, for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land June 26-July 5.  If you are interested in coming with us, click here or here or here for more information.


Anonymous said...

(will this comment fix this for IE9?)

John Bergsma said...

I hope so!

Ken Mafli said...

"The people of Nazareth were good Israelites. In fact, Benedictine bible scholar and archeologist Fr. Bargil Pixner argues that they were largely descendants of the royal House of David."

Interesting, I had not heard that before. It is a good reminder that resting on our past can blind us to God's future.