Theme: Power of the Word
When Mother Teresa she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she said in her acceptance speech, ‘with this prize I am going to make a home for any who have no home … if we can create a home for the poor, love will spread and we will be able to understand that love is to bring peace and to be good news to the poor’. Before her death in 1997, this tiny woman’s words had inspired the establishment of more than 200 homes for the poor in 30 world’s poorest countries. Powerful and effective words are also at the heart of today’s liturgy.
First reading: Nehemiah 8:2-4, 5-6, 8-10
Anyone who has attended international conferences knows any public speaker will get a varied reception. Some people in the audience will be quick to applaud, while those who are indifferent will stay silent. No such partisanship characterized the community who gathered to listen to Ezra. In this excerpted text from Nehemiah, all were attentive and agreed to accept the word of the Law wholeheartedly with a double Amen. The formal reading of the Law in the open place before the Water Gate represents a climactic moment in the process of reconstruction that took place in Judah after the return from exile. After being freed through the edict of Cyrus, Hebrews came home to find a deplorable situation which was well documented in Malachi 1-2.
To hasten the reconstruction of the temple and Jerusalem’s infrastructure, uplift morale and stabilize religious fervor; the Persians sent aid, supplies and artisans. When reports of poor progress reached the Persian court, Emperor Artaxerxes sent his royal cupbearer Nehemiah to supervise the entire works. When city walls and the temple were completed, Nehemiah requested Ezra the priest to conduct what would later be the basis for synagogue worship. The scroll of the Torah was brought forth, the dais/platform/ambo was mounted, the scroll was opened, God was blessed, the Word was read and the people responded in Aramaic which was understood by all the peoples of the Persian Empire, thus replacing Hebrew which had been the common language in Judah before captivity. A commentary/sermon-like explanation of the text was done by the priest because of expertise in the Law. As they had no king to rule in post-exile Judah, those who could interpret the Law became the uppermost authorities within the community. Although Israel was no longer politically powerful after the exile, it had an autonomous faith which was essential. Even though Ezra and Nehemiah could not keep the people from sinning, yet they were able to keep the Law before the eyes which became a continuous vehicle for conversion.
Second reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-30
In this reading Paul uses graphic words to drive home the importance of mutual respect desired to form a visible and functioning human community that reflects the image of God. His point becomes clearer if we keep in mind the fact that one body and its many parts cannot function without unity since all “parts have the same concern for one another. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it. If one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” 1Corinthians 12:25-26. This comparison between the body and human society was commonplace in the ancient world, especially in essays and speeches advocating social harmony. Members of subordinate classes were urged to be satisfied with who they were rather than rising against those who seemed superior to them. According to this model, the ‘foot’ may not match the ‘hand’ and the ‘eye’ to the ‘ear’; yet, all body-parts were a necessary blessing demonstrating unity within diversity within members who form the Body of Christ because of their harmonious complementarity.
This analogy therefore is not intended to designate subordinates but to urge the more privileged members of the community to respect and value the contributions of those who may seem inferior/simple. This mutual respect of all members of the community is rooted in the unity each shares in the Spirit. “For in one Spirit we were baptized into one body….we are all given to drink of the one Spirit” 1Corinthians 12:13. In the mid-first century, Paul insisted that this one Spirit unified Jews and Greeks, slaves and free people; today the same words are offered to us to encourage us sustain the truth that the Spirit continues to be the factor who unites us by breaking down the barriers that intend to classify us into men and women, rich and poor We need to learn from Pope Francis who witnesses that ‘my people are poor and I am one of them’.
Gospel: Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
Six centuries before the word became fresh, a prophet suffering the shame of exile prayed: “The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them” Isaiah 50:4. This prophet who was deeply sympathetic to the plight of his people was still convinced that it was their sins that had brought them suffering. Isaiah made every effort possible to call the Israelites to the repentance which would result in returning to Judah and gaining the lost freedom. In addition to urging their repentance, the prophet promised that they would enjoy a new beginning under the leadership of an anointed servant of God.
On a Sabbath day in the synagogue of Nazareth Jesus roused his listeners when he laid out his strategic plan/manifesto/plan of action intended to make the world better. From then on; good news would characterize his mission and that of his community. This rationale supports the fact that our salvation was the reason why Jesus came into the world. Luke acknowledged the existence of other versions of the good news while affirming that they in no way contradict each other. In the mind of Luke the term ev-aggelion/ gospel/ good news meant three things: 1- what Jesus proclaims to which believers are to respond with welcome; 2- Jesus’ Passover from death to resurrection, to which we respond with faith; 3- Jesus’ manner of being in service to the kingdom to which we respond by serving others. Through his words and good actions, Jesus established a relationship with the least in society thus breaking the chains that robbed people of their freedom. Luke presents how Jesus’ followers were continuously impressed by his message; but that was not enough. We who live in the interim between Jesus’ first coming and final parusia are challenged with carrying on with his agenda by practicing what he intended.
Jesus’ declaration is not just some private conversion or spiritual renewal, but a program of social transformation that is ready to produce a new economy, a neighborhood attuned to the needs of the poor and vulnerable, a true religion of compassion whose hallmark would open tables of fellowship and reconciliation by restoring the outcasts into God’s year of favour for all. No wonder the miserable citizens of Nazareth regarded Jesus as an upstart, and his message as a utopian pipe dream. They thought that it was totally unrealistic within the framework of Roman control and privilege of the ruling class. As eloquent as he was, even though he possessed mysterious power to heal the sick and command spirits, Jesus was viewed as a danger to stability and perhaps a charlatan. The town rose up against him. We know the rest of the story on how he escaped from hostile crowds of synagogue attendants, yet many may of you may have reservations; but the original challenge of that day in Nazareth remains before us: a radical program of social transformation that is good news for the poor, freedom for captives, sight to the blind, hope for the oppressed is still realistic today.
Five centuries earlier, when Ezra and Nehemiah read the word of God to the people just returned from exile, they wept at the challenge of conversion before them, yet at the same time joyful that God had restored them to the covenant. Twenty one centuries after Jesus’ inaugural address in Nazareth, we stand in our own moment of challenge. The word of God comes to us no less than to those in the past asking us to smart up. Today, as these words are proclaimed in our hearing, their power challenges us to act upon them.
We who are lucky to live now need to stay friendly with the Word of God. It is our unity that will determine our success. As baptized we need to transform the world beginning with ourselves. Today Jesus reads again this familiar messianic text: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me and he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” Luke 4:18; our status quo ought to be disrupted by new agenda laid out by Jesus. If the reign of God is at hand, then all other reigns and rulers must fall.