And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. Their descendants are impudent and stubborn.
I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, "Thus says the Lord God." Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
The last line of the Gospel is fairly stark. 'He was amazed at their unbelief' Many would suggest that if Jesus was to come among us again he would be amazed at how Ireland has changed. People living in fear of being attacked in their homes. Violence and robbery and suicide are on the increase. During an Irish visit some years back, Bill Clinton spoke about our need to return to core values alongside the journey to economic recovery. A country's economic difficulties are not the end of the world but the beginning of another chapter in our history. 'We need to help our friends not just to recover but to keep their heads on straight while recovering.'
If everyone had thirty lucid minutes before dying nobody would spend them thinking how great it was to be rich. We would think about people we liked and loved, and how the flowers smelled in Summer. Parents would remember what it was like when your children were born or when they were united to a life-partner at the altar of matrimony. Times change but values last. 'The spirit came into me and made me stand up and I heard the Lord speaking to me' (Ezekiel). We Catholics will have to stand up and be counted. Stand up for values and principles we hold dear. Prophets may or may not be accepted among their own people but silence is not always the answer. We need to speak the truth. We must keep the faith.
When my nephew started playing rugby, he was explaining to me that when his team get the ball you have to 'use it or lose it.' With faith or any God-given gift the choice is simple too–'use it or lose it.' Anything worth preserving takes time and effort. There's a story about a young musician who dreamed of playing in Carnegie Hall New York. She was called to audition in the world renowned theatre but was unsure which way to turn when she got off the bus. She saw an old man and asked: 'How do I get to Carnegie Hall ?.' He smiled and said: 'Practice my friend. Practice. That's how you get to Carnegie Hall.' It's how we become good Christians. It's how we become more sensitive to the needs and hurts of those around us. It is the secret of nurturing the faith we treasure. 'Practice my friend. Practice.'
Each of today's readings raises serious issues for anyone who wishes to follow Jesus along the way. Ezekiel says that the Spirit of God "set him on his feet." This reminds me that without the Holy Spirit, without grace, without the energy that is God's gracious gift, faith-life is not possible, inner transformation is not possible, change is not possible. In saying this I realise that it is easier to do nothing than to do something, it is easier to be negative than positive, easier to be destructive than creative, and that I am an amalgam of these contradictory tendencies. That is why I have so often been stiff-necked, stubborn and rebellious, even cynical–because free-wheeling refusal to be responsible takes little effort and less understanding. To live the covenant, however, demands awareness; it calls for a commitment to be conscious of grace and of the practical implications of grace that must find expression in real, practical, reconciling, forgiving, growth oriented patterns of life and relationship.
If today's gospel means anything, we must confront any tendency we may have to judge others, take hurt and offence from them, reject them, and make them scapegoats of our own unrecognised, unaccepted aversions and resentments. We must become aware of how we spread negativity at home, at work–or wherever–lest we become like Pharisees or Herodians, or those of Jesus' own people who so readily rejected him. We must realise how easy it is to confuse reality with our own ingrained prejudices and preferred viewpoints. We need to see that every story has another side, every person has his or her own reasons for what they do.
With St Paul I need to acknowledge our own "thorn," our shadow potential for neurotic behaviour; call it what you will, each of us has it! If I really want to be disciple I must learn to rebuild the centre of my existence on God's terms lest I scatter myself and lose myself because I have no ground of coherent meaning on which to base my relationship with reality. This is spirituality, this is what psychology so often discovers we need. May we remember God's grace, may we remember that it precedes us along the way, may we allow it to set us on our feet and make us courageous. May we permit it to energise us for the next few steps on the perilous, wonderful, bright, dark journey to abundant life.
When family members leave home for the first time to make some kind of a home of their own it can be a very difficult experience for all the family. The one leaving will often have mixed feelings, wanting to strike out and become independent and yet feeling the pain of leaving loved ones. Parents will often have the same mixed feelings, happy that their son or daughter is ready to move on and yet knowing that they will miss them very much. In contrast to partings, homecomings are more likely to be very happy experiences for all involved. Yet, homecomings can also be complicated affairs. The one returning for a visit may have changed significantly since leaving home, and those at home may have changed too. There can be certain expectations all round that are more appropriate to how things were in the past than to how things have become in the meantime. Adjusting to the changes that have taken place while the family member was away can be a challenge for everyone.
Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth, having left there some time previously. He had spent the best part of thirty years in Nazareth. During that time he was known by all as the carpenter, the son of Mary. However, since leaving Nazareth, Jesus' life had taken a new direction. He had thrown himself into the work that God had given him to do. He had left Nazareth as a carpenter; he returned as a teacher and a healer. There was in fact much more to Jesus that his own townspeople had ever suspected while he was living among them. The gospel suggests that they could not accept this 'more'; they rejected him. They wanted him to be the person they had always known; they would not allow him to move on from that. Jesus' homecoming turned out to be more painful than his leaving home. God's unique Son who proclaimed the presence of God's kingdom was experienced by the people of Nazareth as a thorn in the flesh, to use an image from today's second reading.
The people of Nazareth thought they knew Jesus. The image they had of him, which they held on to with great tenacity, became a block to their learning more about him. We too can easily assume that we know someone, when, in reality, we only know one side to them. We can form strong opinions about people on the basis of past experiences. We can become so attached to these opinions that even when the evidence is there to challenge them, we are completely unmoved. There was more to Jesus than the people of Nazareth were aware of. Indeed there is always more to every human being than we are aware of. That is true even of those we would claim to know well, such as family members and good friends. We are each made in God's image. There is a profound mystery to each one of us. We can never fully probe the mystery of another person's life. We each need to approach everyone with the awareness that there is more here than I can see. It was Jesus' very ordinariness that made it difficult for the people of Nazareth to see him as he really was, in all his mystery. God was powerfully present to them in and through someone who was as ordinary, in many respects, as they themselves. God continues to come to us today in and through the ordinary, in and through those who are most familiar to us. In the religious sphere there can be a certain fascination with the extraordinary and the unusual. The gospels suggest that the primary way the Lord comes to us is in and through the everyday. This is what we mean by the incarnation. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The ordinary is shot through with God's presence.
The Lord can even come to us in and through what we initially experience as something very negative. St Paul made this discovery for himself, according to our second reading today. He struggled with what he called a thorn in the flesh. It is not easy to know what he means by this. Whatever it was, Paul wanted to be rid of it. He saw no good in it and he prayed earnestly to the Lord to take it from him, fully expecting that his prayer would be heard. Paul's prayer was answered, but not in the way he had expected. In prayer he came to realize that God was powerfully present in and through this thorn in the flesh. When we find ourselves struggling with something inside ourselves or with something outside ourselves, some person perhaps, we can be tempted to see the struggle as totally negative and just want to be rid of it. Like Paul, however, we can discover that this difficult experience is opening us up to God's presence. The very thing we judge to be of little or no value can create a space for God to work powerfully in our lives. There is something of a paradox in what Paul hears the risen Lord say to him, 'My power is at its best in weakness.' It is often when we most feel life as a struggle that God can touch our lives most powerfully and creatively.