Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Homily of Most Rev. Gerhard L. Müller
Dear Friends in Christ,
The Gospel we have just heard describes the beginning of Christ’s public ministry as recorded by Saint Luke. It is striking how inauspicious a beginning it is: at the start of the passage, the Evangelist tells us that "all spoke highly of him," but just a few verses later we read: "They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill … to hurl him down headlong" (Lk 4:22, 29). What was it that made the people of Nazareth turn so quickly against Jesus?
We get our first clue in the words that Our Lord read out from the prophet Isaiah, which we heard last Sunday: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. …[T]o let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord." It may be that some in his audience who were familiar with the passage were surprised that he omitted the conclusion of the final sentence: "… and a day of vindication by our God." (Is 61:2) Suffering under the yoke of oppression by the Roman empire, many Jews awaited a Messiah who would punish their enemies – that was what an "acceptable year" would be. Luke’s description of the initial reaction of the congregation is somewhat ambiguous, and it could also be interpreted as: "All spoke highly of him but were astounded at the gracious words that came from his mouth" (Lk 4:22) In other words, they were scandalized by his omission of a negative reference to the Gentiles.
This interpretation becomes more persuasive as the event unfolds. The people in the town where Jesus grew up have heard about the miracles he had performed elsewhere, and they are bothered that he has not done any for them. Our Lord infuriates his listeners by not only refusing to do any such signs, but by speaking of occasions in the Old Testament when the prophets healed Gentiles rather than members of God’s people. This is what angers his audience: far from threatening "a day of vindication", Jesus speaks of salvation being extended to all the nations.
The universality of Christ’s saving work is one of the principal themes in Saint Luke’s writings, and indeed the central theme in the sequel to his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. It is a mission prophesied at the very beginning of Christ’s life. Yesterday we celebrated the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the temple, and heard Simeon’s description of the infant Jesus: "… a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel" (Lk 2:32). As at the start of his earthly life, so at the start of his public ministry, Jesus is seen as Savior of Jew and Gentile alike. At the very least, the reaction of the congregation at Nazareth is an invitation for us to examine our consciences on where we draw the line between who is acceptable and who is not, who is included and who is not included. We live in a world that is increasingly polarized in many ways – religiously, politically, economically, socially – and one of the lessons we can take away from today’s Gospel is that wherever we draw the line, Christ stands on the other side of it.
Were I to stop here, this might be a very successful homily, in worldly terms. "Inclusivity" and "celebrating diversity" are popular catchwords in our society today. I could even mention what Saint Paul says about love in the second reading for good measure. But if Christ’s experience in Nazareth means anything, it is that a "successful" homily is not necessarily the same as a pleasing one. So we must ask, how does God’s word challenge us this Sunday?
I would suggest that we consider for a moment the word with which Jesus inaugurates his public ministry in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark: "Repent!" (Mt 4:17; Mk 1:15) What united the first Jewish and Gentile Christians was not simply mutual respect and tolerance, but faith in Christ. They formed one body because, as diverse as they were in many ways, they were united in discipleship, in taking up their cross and following Christ. Saint Paul writes that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female. Why? Because, he says, "you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28). He did not mean that these realities did not exist at all, but that for the Christian the fundamental reality is faith in Christ; this is the bond that overcomes all that separates us from others. This is why communion in the Church can, and should, embrace many forms of diversity – but this can never be attained by sacrificing fidelity to what the Church professes in matters of faith and morals.
As you are probably aware, I am in here in Houston to celebrate the first anniversary of the establishment of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in the United States. The Ordinariate represents a wonderful example of diversity of expression and unity in faith. In response to the heartfelt requests of Anglicans desirous of entering into full communion with the Catholic Church, our Holy Father has made a generous provision not only to welcome them, but to invite them to enhance the Catholic Church with the spiritual and liturgical riches of their Anglican tradition. In the Apostolic Constitution making provision for such Ordinariates, Pope Benedict reminds us that it is the Holy Spirit who is the source of communion in the Church, the principle of unity in the Church. But, in a way analogous to the mystery of the Incarnation, this communion of necessity has a visible dimension to it. The Holy Father writes: "The communion of the baptized in the teaching of the Apostles and in the breaking of the eucharistic bread is visibly manifested in the bonds of the profession of the faith in its entirety, of the celebration of all of the sacraments instituted by Christ, and of the governance of the College of Bishops united with its head, the Roman Pontiff."
This sentence echoes the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, but the same doctrine has been professed since the Church’s infancy. Writing in the middle of the second century, Saint Justin Martyr said: "No one may share the eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ." In other words, it is precisely when we are united in professing and living the Catholic faith that we can "celebrate diversity".
There is, however, a challenging paradox here: the same faith and way of life that unites us as Catholics can divide us from others. Some Christians feel that the Catholic Church is too inflexible in matters of dogma, and in the eyes of many today we seem too intransigent in our moral teaching. The fidelity that is essential to our communion with Christ and one another brings us into conflict with others. This is to be expected; the same Infant who was heralded as "a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel," was also described by Simeon as "a sign that will be contradicted" (Lk 2:34). Christ spoke of God’s mercy being extended to the Gentiles, but he also said, "I have come to bring not peace but the sword" (Mt 10:34), and, "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters" (Lk 11:23).
Christ can make such absolute claims because he has first poured out his life’s blood for us. In a few moments we will celebrate the liturgy of the Eucharist, in which his redemptive sacrifice is made present. We will pray at this altar in communion with Benedict, our Pope, and Daniel, our Bishop. What unites us to Catholics all over the world is our common faith, the faith handed down to us from the Apostles.
I would like to conclude with three simple suggestions. First, before we approach to receive Holy Communion, let us inwardly repent for those times that we have desired to contain God’s mercy within the parochial borders of our personal preference, or weakened the bonds of unity in Christ’s Church by our selfishness. As you share the sign of peace, perhaps you might think of some broken relationship in your life that you can heal, some prejudice you can fight against, some animosity that prevents you from seeing Christ in others.
Secondly, let us commit ourselves to profess with courage and live with conviction our Catholic faith, even in the face of opposition. We should at all times treat others with dignity and respect, even those who mock us and ridicule our beliefs. But we must never compromise on the truth of Christ’s Gospel, for it alone has the power to save, it alone can hold together our polarized and broken world. There are many currents in our modern world that run counter to our Catholic understanding of what is true, good, and beautiful; we must devote ourselves to learning and living our faith so that we will not be swept along by those currents. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is an invaluable tool, and I would hope that every Catholic here today has a copy and is taking time to study it.
Thirdly, let us strive to share the beauty of our Catholic faith with others. We are in the midst of the Year of Faith, an invitation from our Holy Father not only to be disciples, but evangelists as well. We should not be discouraged in the face of misunderstanding, indifference or even hostility; rather, let us imitate Christ himself, who went on to other towns after his rejection in Nazareth. We can bear witness by sharing with others the faith in Christ that gives meaning to our lives, but also by exercising that charity of which Saint Paul spoke in our second reading. In his Apostolic Letter announcing the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict writes:
Faith without charity bears no fruit, while charity without faith would be a sentiment constantly at the mercy of doubt. Faith and charity each require the other, in such a way that each allows the other to set out along its respective path. Indeed, many Christians dedicate their lives with love to those who are lonely, marginalized or excluded, as to those who are the first with a claim on our attention and the most important for us to support, because it is in them that the reflection of Christ’s own face is seen. Through faith, we can recognize the face of the risen Lord in those who ask for our love.
May the Body of Christ we will soon receive in faith strengthen our faith; and may that faith in turn enkindle our charity, so that the love of Christ will touch the hearts of all people.