Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Little Way: The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

 For this fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, I would like to offer a reflection on the readings informed by St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her “little way.” While there are other potential ways of uniting the readings for this Sunday, it appears fitting to draw on the wisdom of St. Thérèse in order to illuminate the readings the Church has selected, beginning with the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel.
First Reading: Ezekiel 2:2-5

 As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me
and set me on my feet,
and I heard the one who was speaking say to me:
Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites,
rebels who have rebelled against me;
they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.
Hard of face and obstinate of heart
are they to whom I am sending you.
But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD!
And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house—
they shall know that a prophet has been among them.

In giving Ezekiel his prophetic commission, God sends Ezekiel to the exiled house of Judah, a people that God describes as hard of face and obstinate of heart.
It should come as no surprise that the theme of hardness of heart plays a major role in the message of Ezekiel to Judah in exile (see Ezek 3:6-7; 11:19-20; 36:26-27), and this directly follows not only from the words God speaks to Ezekiel, but from Israel’s covenantal relationship to God.

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of Israel to circumcise their hearts in order to offer God the kind of obedience that he can bless. In fact, it is possible to connect the admonition that Israel circumcise their collective hearts with the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-7, for there Moses famously tells Israel to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). Quite significantly, Moses then states that “these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart” (Deut 6:6), and this is not only for the conquest generation, but they are to be taught “diligently to your children” (Deut 6:7).

In Deuteronomy 10:16, Moses commands Israel to circumcise their hearts, yet only after admonishing them once again to love God with all of their heart, for this is what Yahweh requires of his people (Deut 10:12). While Moses is clear that God has set his electing love upon Israel, they are not free to confess that it is due to their own righteousness that he has chosen them to be his people (Deut 9:4). Therefore, in light of Israel’s repeated disobedience, from the worship of the golden calf at Mt Sinai (Exodus 32) to idol worship at Beth-Peor (Numbers 25), the call to circumcise their hearts is not mere rhetorical flourish but absolutely necessary for covenant fidelity. As a result, God is also clear that failure to circumcise their hearts through genuine love for him would be an act of provocation, for he is a God who is impartial and executes justice (Deut 10:17-18).

This sets the backdrop for Judah’s exile, for it is due to their failure to circumcise their hearts that they are sent into exile in Babylon, an exile that the book of Deuteronomy takes as inevitable (see Deut 30:1-2). Therefore, when God sends Ezekiel to prophesy to exilic Judah, he sends them to a people with a “heart problem.”

It is against this backdrop that I will jump ahead to the Gospel reading in order to best connect the readings for this week.  

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 123:1-4

R. (2cd) Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.
To you I lift up my eyes
who are enthroned in heaven —
As the eyes of servants
are on the hands of their masters.
R. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.
As the eyes of a maid
are on the hands of her mistress,
So are our eyes on the LORD, our God,
till he have pity on us.
R. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.
Have pity on us, O LORD, have pity on us,
for we are more than sated with contempt;
our souls are more than sated
with the mockery of the arrogant,
with the contempt of the proud.
R. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Brothers and sisters:
That I, Paul, might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
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.

Gospel: Mark 6:1-6

Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples.
When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue,
and many who heard him were astonished.
They said, “Where did this man get all this?
What kind of wisdom has been given him?
What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!
Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary,
and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?
And are not his sisters here with us?”
And they took offense at him.
Jesus said to them,
“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place
and among his own kin and in his own house.”
So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there,
apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.
He was amazed at their lack of faith.

In our Gospel reading from Mark 6, we find Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath, and his fellow Nazarenes are astounded at Jesus’ wisdom. To further contextualize this Gospel passage, the Nazarenes could have reasonably hoped that they were the recipients of the post-exilic promise that when Yahweh brings Israel back to the land he will circumcise their hearts (Deut 30:6).

While all of the northern tribes had not returned to the land, Judah returned from the Babylonian exile around 539 BC, and what is more, Israelites from other tribes certainly lived in the land at the time of Christ, including in Galilee. In rejecting Jesus, the Nazarenes show themselves to still be uncircumcised of heart, like Judah when Ezekiel was sent to them.
It is tempting to view both exilic Judah and the Nazarenes as remarkably sinful in rejecting the mighty works of God so clearly put before them. However, to view it from this angle alone is to run the risk of missing an even deeper point, namely, that without true faith, all humanity is left in the hardness of their hearts, unable to both see and receive the liberating work of God. In order to drive this point home, I turn to the Apostle Paul for help.
In his letter to the Romans, after issuing his introduction (1:1-15) and famous thesis statement (1:16-17), Paul offers a scathing critique of Gentile sinfulness (1:17-31). From there, Paul turns and indicts anyone who judges another, for the one who judges is guilty of hypocrisy, and their hard heart will be judged by God (2:1-5).
At this point a Jewish reader of Paul’s letter might be tempted to place themselves outside of this indictment, for they have the law to guide their conduct so as to be righteous before God. However, Paul indicts Israel along with the Gentiles due to Israel’s failure to do what the law requires, thereby demonstrating that they lack the promised circumcision of the heart (Rom 2:28-29; Deut 30:6). As a result, Paul is able to conclude that both Jews and Greeks alike are under the power of sin (3:9-20) and thereby lack the glory of God and stand in need of his justifying grace (3:23-26).
Why do I use this example from Romans in reference to exilic Judah and the Nazarenes? The reason can be stated as follows: no one is able to indict the hard-heartedness of Judah and the Nazarenes without also indicting themselves as well, for apart from God’s grace everyone has a “heart problem.”
If we all have a heart problem apart from grace, what should our proper response be before God? Both the responsorial Psalm and the second reading from 2 Corinthians offer important guidelines in this regard, for the Psalmist declares the importance of fixing our eyes on God, pleading for his mercy.
In the second reading Paul recounts his request that the Lord remove a thorn in the flesh, yet the response is no, for Christ’s power is made perfect in Paul’s weakness. Why is this so?
I would suggest two interconnected reasons, the first being directly related to our analysis to date, and that is that left to himself, Paul, like all humans, is weak and sinful, and should he overvalue his position and abilities as an apostle, he would inevitably fall into failure. In order to keep Paul humbly dependent upon him, Christ gives Paul a thorn in the flesh, one that demonstrates that it is by God’s power that Paul is able to fulfill his apostolic mission.
With this being said, there is a second reason that I would suggest illuminates how God’s power is made perfect in weakness and that centers on the nature of divine grace. Paul is told that Christ’s grace is sufficient, and this is precisely what Paul repeatedly tells his various Churches in numerous ways throughout his letters.
In a previous letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul states that he is the very least of the apostles, and although he works harder than all of the apostles, it is not Paul but the grace of God within Paul (I Cor 15:8-10). In fact, Paul tells both the Romans and Galatians at length that it is only by grace through faith that one made just by God and empowered to do what the law calls for without being under the law as such. Therefore,  Paul is able to tell the Romans that “boasting” in one’s own self-generated efforts is excluded (Rom 3:27), yet if one is to boast of one’s work, Paul is clear that such boasting can only occur on the basis of God’s grace empowering the work to be truly praiseworthy (Rom 15:15-18).
Conclusion: When I am weak, I am strong, the “Little Way” of Thérèse of Lisieux

In summation, how are we to respond in such a way as to not follow the hard-heartedness of exilic Judah and the Nazarenes in the Gospel reading? Our response should not be to think that we are intrinsically better than they are and would never reject Christ. Instead, we should follow the Psalmist and plead for God’s mercy.
As for a clear example of what this looks like in practice, we have the example of Paul, for in his weakness God’s grace empowered him to change the world perhaps more than any other man other than Jesus himself.
As for the kind of conclusions we should draw from this analysis, I would like to highlight the “little way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In her “little way”, St. Thérèse calls on those who belong to Christ to embrace the reality of their littleness and weakness and instead of self-reliance and self-promotion, depend entirely on the grace of God. Her approach to the spiritual life can appropriately be summarized by Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 12:10 found in the second reading, When I am weak, then I am strong. While spoken to her sister, I would like conclude with the following words of  St. Thérèse, words that all of us can apply to our lives as if addressed to us:
Whenever you are lacking in virtue, you should not excuse yourself by throwing blame on physical causes, on the weather, or some other trial. Instead, you should make it a means of self-humiliation, and then go take your place in the rank and file of little souls, since you are so weak in the practice of virtue. Your soul’s urgent need at present is not the ability to practice heroic virtue, but rather to acquire humility.




Tim said...

Excellent scriptural exegesis through the lens of a saint and doctor of the Church.

Do you have any ideas about what the "thorn in the flesh" may have been?

Thomas Renz said...

Ulrich Heckel, “Der Dorn im Fleisch: Die Krankheit des Paulus in 2Kor 12,7 und Gal. 4,13f.,” ZNW 84 (1993): 65–92, cf. his Kraft in Schwachheit. Untersuchungen zu 2.Kor 10-13 (WUNT II/56, Tübingen 193), argues that "the thorn in the flesh" is likely a reference to recurring migraine headaches. This was already the view of some of the church fathers and seems to be our best guess. He argues that epilepsy over a period of fourteen years would have left more serious brain damage than is likely, given that the apostle still wrote Romans, and that the idea of an illness to Paul's eyes rests on exegetical mistakes.

Thomas Renz said...

Heinz-Heinrich Stricker, Mensch in Schwachheit - Apostel in Kraft: Psyche, Krankheit und Heil bei Paulus im Urteil des Arztes (LIT Verlag Münster, 2008) probably offers the most detailed recent argument for identifying "the thorn in the flesh" with severe migraine recurring several times a month.

fr jim said...

he suffered ......... he asked that it be removed, Christ offered the "remedy" ...... May grace is enough for you......

long before migraine diagnosis, advil, tylenol.......

Thomas Renz said...

I don't think they even had a word for migraine in those days although apparently there were already church fathers who in effect gave the same diagnosis. If I remember right, I read this in Ulrich Heckel's Kraft in Schwachheit. Untersuchungen zu 2.Kor 10-13 (WUNT II/56, Tübingen 1993). Cf. his "Der Dorn im Fleisch: Die Krankheit des Paulus in 2Kor 12,7 und Gal 4,13f.," ZNW 84 (1993): 65-92.

It remains of course a best guess but there seem to be strong reasons for ruling out other proposals that have been put forward over the years such as human opponents, epilepsy or an illness to the eyes. In terms of preaching I find it helpful to mention the proposal to hint that while we do not know for certain what "the thorn in the flesh" was there is no reason to think that it was something esoteric and to facilitate application to our own lives - we have not all suffered from migraine but it is something we can all relate to and makes the point that it is ordinary weakness in which Christ wills to dwell and in which his power can become evident.

Anonymous said...

Thanks John. I really liked your connection to St. Therese. Excellent job!