By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
I remember how incredibly nervous I was on the Sunday morning when, not long after my priestly ordination, I presided and preached at a Mass of thanksgiving at the parish where I grew up, St. Gabriel’s in East Elmhurst.
Planning the homily weeks ahead of time, I pondered and prayed, studied the Scriptures and reflected, wrote and rewrote, and more than a few times tore up what I had written and started over again, before finally coming up with words I thought would be fitting for the occasion. I went on tweaking and amending until the day arrived, all along praying and hoping that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t decide to take the morning off that Sunday!
As I walked from the presider’s chair to the pulpit, I couldn’t help but notice: my family sitting where we always sat; grade school classmates; ushers who had known my family since we arrived in the parish; Christian Brothers who had been my teachers and in the sanctuary, parish priests for whom I had served Mass many years earlier.
“Anxious” doesn’t begin to describe how I felt, but for some reason I still don’t fully understand, I set aside my prepared text and instead spoke from the heart, unscripted. What did I say? I don’t even remember. As far as some in the congregation were concerned, it would probably have been just fine if I had read to them from the phone book. All that mattered to them was that I had come home!
To this day, the memory of that Sunday makes me wonder how Jesus might have felt on that Sabbath when he first stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and then to preach. What did He make of the fact that “the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him” (Luke 4:20)?
Apparently unfazed, Jesus began to speak, telling the assembly, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing,” the stirring text from Isaiah in which the prophet announces, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1).
Luke’s Gospel provides us only with the first few words of Jesus’ homily, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” It is hard to imagine that His remarks ended there, given what His hometown audience thought: “all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Whatever else Jesus may have said, His neighbors were also left wondering, asking each other, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”
What follows next shows how astutely Jesus intuited the attitudes and the expectations behind the hometown smiles. Jesus knew exactly what they wanted: “Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.” When Jesus arrived back home in Nazareth He brought His reputation with Him, and His neighbors wanted to bask in the benefits and in the reflected glory of their hometown hero.
He tells them with solemn seriousness, as the opening “Amen” clearly indicates, “Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place.”
Jesus wasn’t interested in collecting compliments, nor was He about to play favorites. By teaching His townsfolk what the prophets Elijah and Elisha did on behalf of foreigners – a widow from Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian – He made it clear that God’s saving and healing plan isn’t confined to any borders of people or territory, of region or religion.
Dedicated to a Purpose
In this Sunday’s reading from Jeremiah, we learn of the prophet’s call. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah 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.”
When Jeremiah objected, saying “Ah, Lord God … I do not know how to speak. I am too young,” God overcame the resistance fueled by his anxiety and lack of experience, insisting, “Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, To uproot and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10), reassuring the reluctant envoy, “I am with you to deliver you” (Jer. 1:19).
The wonder of it all was that God deliberately chose the weak – including the young and inexperienced Jeremiah – to bring words of challenge and hope, of justice and of joy, words that heralded the loving work of God that extends to all nations, and that finds its way into the world’s most neglected spaces.
By framing His words of tough truth toward His hometown crowd in terms of God’s track record of working through the prophets, Jesus was inviting them to keep this big picture in focus and to keep from being selfishly parochial about how they understood God’s plan.
Whoever we are and wherever we come from, God has big things in store for us. When God chooses us – and we are each chosen by name according to the divine plan – it doesn’t matter how prepared or not we imagine ourselves to be.
Because God provides the challenge, so too does God provide the grace! Unlike Jesus’ Nazareth neighbors who wanted to know what was in it for them, let our trusting response to God’s call be: “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.”
Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 1: 4-5, 17-19
Psalm 71: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-17
1 Corinthians 12: 31 – 13:13 or 1 Corinthians 13: 4-13
Luke 4: 21-30
Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University