Fourteenth Sunday of the Yea
People sometimes talk about thankless jobs. What about this job description: ‘Requires spending endless hours with people who dislike, dismiss, or reject you completely. Must be able to defend a product that few want and many hate. No vacations; few apparent benefits. Poor pay. Chances of bodily harm, torture and death very high.’ This was the thankless job of people like Ezekiel, other prophets and Jesus.
Ezekiel announces that ‘The Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet’ whereby he was called to speak of God’s care for a people in exile. In case Ezekiel was naive enough to think that this would be easy when the Spirit entered him, God explained that ‘whether they heed or resist… they shall know that a prophet has been among them.’ Pope Francis has said, ‘A true prophet is the one who is capable of crying for his people and also saying things strongly when he has to’ but only the Spirit provides the humility and mercy to do so with compassion. But, there was no telling what the outcome would be.
In the gospel, Jesus’ audience could not get past the fact that Jesus did not fit their preconceived notion of a prophet and so rejected one who displayed compassion and mercy. Though rejected, Jesus did not give up making the rounds of some neighbouring villages. In other words, you can only do what you can do.
Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt said that preaching is an ‘audacious act’. It can render one exposed and vulnerable. It is downright dangerous where people work passionately for the status quo rather than be moved by another’s word to ‘cross over to the other side.’ Life was precarious for Ezekiel and his efforts seemed to be in vain. He could not bring about the change needed to avert disaster. As Paul said ‘the love of God impels us’, the coming of the Spirit to Ezekiel meant he can kiss his ambitions goodbye. Something stirred that could not be avoided. This wild Spirit has plans for humanity and creation but people with the will and power to protect their privileges will unite to reject and silence the prophets as with Ezekiel, Paul, Jesus, Martin Luther King and many others who allowed the Spirit to work through them. As Philip Berrigan said, ‘The poor tell us who we are. The Prophets tell us who we should be. So we hide the poor and kill the prophets.’
Jesus’ teachings and ministries clashed against with that of the Pharisees and Sadducees of the temple. They had contrasting interests. Though seeing themselves as keepers of the Law of Moses, they also connived with the King and the Roman empire to obviate disorder, crush dissent among the people and expunge all forms of rebelliousness. Jesus came as prophet, not a parrot, of the religious political establishment. He called out the hypocrisy that claimed to know the freedom in the Laws of Moses whilst maintaining the imperial subjugation of the people. When honour is ascribed to Pharisees and Sadducees, and their contemporaries, who are connected with the ruling powers, the case of Jesus who speaks against them must be one of shame.
Connivance with the ruling powers persists around the world, in churches, in the Philippines and our backyard. Persecution in various ways persists. For some it is death. They do not seem successful by worldly standards because they could not be absorbed by government hegemony. Based on how we measured these people, they are nuisances, and like Jesus, ‘prophets without honour’. We see this in people like Witness K and Bernard Collaery who have exposed government corruption, spying and lies, people like Daniel Ellsberg with the release of the Pentagon Papers 50 years ago (June 30) to expose the real reason for US presence in Vietnam, people like Sr Patricia Fox deported from the Philippines for her solidarity with the poor, workers, peasants and indigenous people against an oppressive Filipino regime. Where is one like Daniel Ellsberg, as the drums of war roll amidst out the propaganda and the lies?
Walter Brueggemann says that prophets nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness to the dominant culture around us such as power, prosperity, consumerism, and a growing public narcissism. The prophet’s call and task is lift the veil on whatever opposes God’s reign by critiquing and criticising this culture, government, institutions, and practices of abuse and oppression that many consider acceptable. Another task is to point out how community can be formed that is compassionate, human, just and caring and with a preferential option for the poor.
Last week, a woman interrupted Jesus whilst on his way to heal a sick child. It was her ‘interruption’ that created a space for Jesus to act and to heal one who had, like many women, been systematically exploited and deprived of dignity. For Walter Brueggemann this interruption to reveal the ‘violence of silence’ is a necessary part of the prophet (in Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out). Milan Kundera says, ‘The struggle of (man) against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ This forgetting is about who God is, who we are, and hearing the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.
The prophetic word might be vary in different places and times, but Jesus’ radical message of reconciliation and nonviolence continues. Each of us, as is the church, is called to live a prophetic life; to be Jesus’ presence in the world; to speak God’s compassionate and merciful word; and to broaden the tent in which people can be embrace.
We are more than people think and sometimes that ‘more’ breaks out and there is no turning back. Sometimes a striking deed challenges another’s assessment of us. This is the belief of the gospel: we are more than we show. Our call is to be more than people think and be as God sees us. Remember the mislabelling of the mustard seed two weeks ago. Though seen just as a weed – just ‘the son of Mary’ - it grew into something that protects and nurtures. The readings are about ‘revolutionaries’ that the establishment saw as ‘rebels’. Ezekiel was called to a people in ‘rebellion’ – a people focused on their own concerns. They had abandoned the ‘revolution’ that fosters justice, equity and sharing. Today we call it ‘the national interest’ over the common good. Paul confronted people about their private agenda religion that did not serve others. Jesus was thought of as a ‘rebel’ by his contemporaries: Where did he get all this? Is he not the carpenter, the ‘son of Mary?’
The ‘real rebels’ were/are those who had privatise and diminish religion according to their own narrow views and concerns. People can readily be labelled ‘rebels’ to justify dismissing their stand on an issue. We saw this when government backbenchers dared to oppose the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. They were considered ‘rebels’ and ‘traitors’ to the party. To those with eyes, they were ‘prophetic’. They called those in power to look with new eyes and respond with new hearts, with humanity, to marginalised people.
The Gospel shows us that we are always more than people think. Jesus’ critics sought to inhibit him and deny his healing touch to others. Their closed minds prevented wonderful things from happening in their local situation. Frederick Buechner, was right I believe, in asserting that miracles do not evoke faith so much as faith evokes miracles. Fr. Anthony de Mello (1931-1987) wrote that a ‘society that has domesticated its prophets has gained its peace – but it has lost its future…’ Through Jesus’ humanity we know that ‘God feels our pain.’ And he needs us. Our participation - not simply observation - through the exercise of faith was/is strategic to Jesus’ effectiveness to transform lives. Rejection of Jesus also resulted in rejection of what he was capable of doing for them. When we reject strangers—we reject Jesus. It doesn’t matter what our rejection is based on. When we reject others we do not love them as we were commanded to...and we limit God’s hand in their lives and in ours. When we reject those closest to us—we reject Jesus.
The call to us is to embrace the long haul. Though people say, ‘What good does it do?’, or listen or not, God says this set of rebels will know there is a prophet among them. ‘You’ll have to keep on speaking regardless of whether the people seem to hear or not to hear. The important thing is that God’s word is proclaimed.’ We may ask ‘What good does it do’ to stand with Indigenous people to determine their own future, when governments refuse to listen. ‘What good does it do’ to call attention to the humanity, the faces, and the history of people seeking asylum, when the world’s doors close to them? ‘What good does it do’ when women and other marginalised groups seek equality in church and society and encounter deaf ears? ‘What good does it do’ when more than 70% of trafficked persons are women and girls are exploited for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, forced marriage and forced labour we unthinkingly consume. Fronting up and being there means that a prophet is among them.
Last Sunday, Jesus modelled another task of the prophet. As he said ‘Talitha Kum’ (‘Stand up, arise!’) to Jairus’ daughter, he is telling us through many people of faith, and no faith, to get up or to arise from complacency, indifference, passivity and apathy to a greater compassion and mercy and awaken those who are asleep and violated in any way. Jesus’ ‘Talitha Kum’ to us is that we stand together with our voices, actions and to denounce the arrogance, violence and banality of economic and financial power, when it acts against the dignity of the person. It is a call to counter whatever dehumanises our sister and brothers. Arise. Get up.
Claude Mostowik msc