4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached February 3, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
We meet with a rather unusual juxtaposition of readings in today’s Mass. For bookends we have the 1st reading from Jeremiah and the Gospel.
In the 1st reading we hear God call prophet and tell him: 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.
The book of the prophet Jeremiah has given us the English word “jeremiad” which means a lengthy tirade denouncing wickedness and announcing punishment.
In the Gospel we hear Jesus tell the people of his own town, Nazareth, No prophet is accepted in his native place. Then as though to prove the point, the people drag him from the synagogue and attempt to throw him over a cliff, but Jesus passed through the midst of them and went his way.
Then in the middle we have St. Paul’s famous “hymn of love”.
Now I sometimes wonder if anyone ever actually pays attention to what St. Paul actually writes about love, because the impression I get is that some people, the moment they hear if I have not love, I am nothing, go soft in the head and warm in the heart.
Today’s fashion seems to go something like this: “Ah, love is all you need; just say the magic word and all troubles disappear. As for all those people with strong minds, they are just a bunch of ‘haters’ who have not love; they divide people and set them in opposition when they speak of truth. If they would just accept that all things are relative and that only I can judge what is right for me, if they could just learn to accept me for who I am, then they could begin to embrace ‘love’. Then all would be well.”
In that case, I guess we can dismiss both Jeremiah and Jesus as ‘haters’ since clearly they did not have love. How unkind it was of Jeremiah to denounce the wickedness of the people of Israel; how unkind of Jesus to rebuke his own people for their lack of faith.
Or maybe we could actually apply our minds to what St. Paul says and understand it in light of the example of Jeremiah and Jesus.
Jeremiah was indeed patient, enduring the plots and conspiracies of his enemies, threatened with death, locked in the stocks once, thrown into a pit and abandoned until he was rescued by a sympathizer. He was patient and suffered greatly as he watched his people, the people he loved, rush headlong down the path of self-destruction, heedless of the warnings he gave in the name of God. Centuries later the people would remember him as a man who loved his brethren and fervently prayed for his people and for the holy city of Jerusalem. (cf. 2 Mac 15:14)
We could also say that Jeremiah was kind, even in the midst of his unyielding denunciations.
These were not the denunciations of social media mobs, personal insults, or smear attacks; these were not denunciations of crass and crude speech or bitter mockery; there was nothing cruel and nasty about the jeremiads of Jeremiah.
In this regard, let me give a bit advice for the next time you are tempted to send off an angry and self-righteous email, text, or Facebook post. Stop! Think! Pray! Ask yourself, “Is this truly for the good of someone else, or only to satisfy my own ego?” If you can truly say that you are moved by what is true, right, and good, if there is indeed a wrong that you personally need to address, even then you still need to ask if these are really the right words to use or the best way to go about it? Then maybe you will realize how you can say what needs to be said without any personal attack or affront, or without the bitterness of your own hurt.
Jeremiah did not denounce the wicked because he got his kicks that way; he did not denounce the wicked in order to revenge himself on them; he denounced the wicked because God commanded him to and he was filled with compassion seeing them running heedless down their path of self-destruction.
First though, he needed to conquer his tendency to jealousy and to overcome his vanity; he had to be a man who was no longer absorbed by his own interests, not quick-tempered, and not one to brood over the injuries that he had received.
Jeremiah was not only known for his denunciations, but also for his laments. For example: Let my eyes stream with tears day and night, without rest, over the great destruction which overwhelms the virgin daughter of my people, over her incurable wound. If I walk out into the field, look! Those slain by the sword; If I enter the city, look! Those consumed by hunger. Even the prophet and the priest forage in a land they know not. (Jer 14:17-18)
While twitter mobs verbally tear apart people they do not know, Jeremiah lived in solidarity with the people; he did not merely denounce from afar but lived with them their sufferings; he lived with them through the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple.
So maybe we can see in Jeremiah that of all the characteristics of love enumerated by St. Paul, perhaps these are key: love does not seek its own interests … it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. Love is governed above all by the truth about what is good; love is guided by the vision of the good. This is what gives love the capacity to be patient and kind; this is what gives love the ability to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.
Finally, Jeremiah’s prophecy is not all denunciation and lament. He is the one who gives us the words of the Lord, I have loved you with an everlasting love. (Jer 31:3) He is the one that announces the new covenant in which the Lord will write his law on the hearts of his people, forgive their sins, and give to them the knowledge of himself. (cf. Jer 31:31-34)
Jeremiah gave the words of the prophecy, Jesus brought the reality to fulfillment; he is the Son of God who reveals the love of the Father; he is the one who establishes the new and eternal covenant in his Blood and who through the gift of the Holy Spirit forgives our sins, writes the law of God in our hearts, and gives us the true and intimate knowledge of God, the Most Holy Trinity.
Jesus shows his kindness in his miracles of healing and in words like, I do will it, be made clean. Your sins are forgiven … neither do I condemn you; go and from now on do not commit this sin. (Mt 8:3, 9:2, Jn 8:11) St. Peter will say that Jesus went about doing good to all. (cf. Acts 10:38)
Jesus’ unmatched divine patience was revealed in the unjust trials before the high priest and before Pontius Pilate, in submitting to the scourging and crowning with thorns, in carrying his Cross to Calvary and then hanging upon it for three hours before bowing his head and dying. He brought to fulfillment the words of the prophet Isaiah, Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers he was silent and opened not his mouth. (Is 53:7)
Yet, during the time of his preaching Jesus did not hesitate to bear witness against his own townsmen, as we heard today; he also warned the people of Capernaum and Bethsaida, where he worked most of his miracles, that their unbelief and lack of repentance put them in danger of eternal condemnation in hell, (cf. Mt 11:20-24); finally his severe rebukes of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees have become legendary.
Once again, whether it is an act of kindness, patience in the face of injustice and suffering, or a bold condemnation, Jesus’ actions are always governed by the truth of love, by the vision of what is truly good. There is never any self-seeking because he needs nothing from us, never any lashing out because of his own hurt, never any seeking of revenge. Jesus came not to do his own will, but to do the will of his heavenly Father and he always did what was pleasing to Father. (cf. Jn 4:34, 6:38, 8:29) Standing before Pontius Pilate he declared, For this I was born and came into the world, to testify to the truth. (Jn 18:37)
Love rejoices with the truth. Truth and love are inseparable. Love without truth is mere sentimentality; truth without love is nothing but harsh condemnation. The way of love is not a path of dreaminess or illusions, but is the most realistic life of all, the way of life most rooted in reality, that is because the deepest reality, the highest truth, is the truth of God himself, the truth of the most Holy Trinity, the truth of love.
St. John writes, See what love the Father has bestowed upon us that we may be called children of God. Yet so we are. (1 Jn 3:1) And, In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. (1 Jn 4:10-11)