Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time - a reflection

Monday, January 31, 2022 - 12:15

Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction to these reflections and please look at the readings for Sunday Mass here (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):

“Today, this scripture is being fulfilled even as you listen” These words from Jesus bridge the Gospel readings of last Sunday and this. Then we heard Jesus proclaim the Scripture from the prophet Isaiah “he has sent me to bring good news to the poor”, now we hear how Jesus understands this passage.

“Today” is a key. We can hear it here between the angels’ earlier announcement “Today a Saviour has been born…” and Jesus’ later words to Zacchaeus “Today salvation has come to this house”. The Church begins every day with the Psalm saying “O that today you would listen to his voice”. 

Yesterday, we were listening to the keynote speech of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. The first part we heard last Sunday, but it is good to reflect upon the sermon as a whole. The sermon shows Luke being different to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark which are often very close. Luke though tends to go his own way and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is a good example. Following his baptism and temptation in the desert, Jesus returns to Galilee where in the other two Synoptic Gospels he immediately calls disciples to follow him. In the Gospel of John as well, Jesus’ first gathers disciples around him as we saw at Cana a couple of  weeks ago. With Luke’s story though, Jesus first has a period of ministry on his own before he calls disciples. There are hints that they are not far away but what makes Luke special is that the disciples first have a period of catechesis before being called. Luke gives us a good example of modern practice. 

Jesus has now returned to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit”. The Spirit has been present since his baptism. Jesus would have been full of enthusiasm as well no doubt. Soon therefore he goes to his home village and thence on the sabbath to the synagogue “as was his custom”. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus was a regular practising Jew. The other two Gospels tell of this visit to Nazareth later in their story and make less of it, except that Jesus was not well received. Luke therefore makes this speech of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry a manifesto, the programme for his ministry. It is clearly important. This is followed by a strong reaction from the people. There is an intriguing possibility that Jesus “blew it”, that he misjudged his audience so they were outraged. That thought is worth a mention because it makes us aware that Jesus as human needed to learn and, like all of us, to learn from his mistakes.

In the synagogue therefore Jesus stood up to read; possibly this is the clearest indication we have that Jesus was literate. This set up though comes from the storyteller so the Isaiah reading may well be the evangelist’s choice. It is in harmony with the message of this Gospel from Mary’s Magnificat onwards. 

Jesus then sits down, a teaching position, seen for example at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and he attaches the Isaiah passage to himself in a special way, it is being fulfilled in him. Fulfilment is an important theme in this Gospel. There is as here and at Emmaus after the resurrection the fulfilment of prophecy. There is also “fulfil” in the sense of accomplish as at the very beginning of the Gospel. It is the word which links the two quite different paragraphs of the reading. Fulfil in both points towards Jesus himself who is the Saviour in whom all the promises of God have found their fulfilment. 

This is the turning point of the sermon and the division between the two Sundays. The reading for the third Sunday leaves us with a thoroughly favourable impression of Jesus. As the Gospel for the fourth Sunday begins, the congregation in the synagogue respond very positively because the Isaiah passage fits their own situation. They have to cope with absentee landlords and Roman occupiers. Galilee would have been regarded in Jerusalem as “the back end of beyond”.

Jesus then starts to talk about Elijah and his follower Elisha. One healed a poor widow, the other a powerful general, neither of whom were Jews. These were the two major prophets of early Israel whose deeds are told in the books of Kings. By aligning himself with these two, Jesus is announcing that his own ministry is that of a prophet. This Sunday we hear from the Old Testament the call of the prophet Jeremiah. It’s been edited to give us just the beginning and end so it is best to read the whole conversation between God and Jeremiah in your Bible.

For us, Jesus is a prophet to the nations like Jeremiah. Both Elijah and Elisha extended their ministry beyond Israel with the healings of the widow and Naaman. So too will Jesus. It was this that the people of Nazareth could not accept, they were thinking of their own needs and so reacted strongly, a marked contrast to their earlier praise of Jesus. Yet Jesus simply goes on his way and no more will be heard of Nazareth. Instead, we are told how his ministry is favourably received in Capernaum.

Luke therefore has portrayed Jesus in his ministry as a prophet in the tradition of the prophets, though the Gospel shows Jesus is more than a prophet. There is no “the word of God came to the prophet” for him as for Jeremiah. Prophecy though continues. We have heard Saint Paul in recent weeks speaking about Christian prophets and his great celebration of love which we hear this Sunday twice speaks of the gifts of prophecy. We think of prophets as individuals but part of the Church’s role would be a prophetic presence in our country. It is far from that at present as we know and there lies the direction of renewal. At best, the prophetic presence could be the critical conscience of our society which is still based on a Christian ethos. This is a prophecy which comes from hearing the word of God like Jeremiah yet firmly founded on Jesus. It is shown by example as much as by preaching. Prophecy is the Church’s option for the poor, seeking to fulfil the programme from the prophet Isaiah which is fulfilled in Jesus, proclaiming Good News to the poor. It must be a voice of hope; we living in times when we need to be realistic about difficult circumstances so we must be a people of faith and hope. Above all, it must be based on love, otherwise prophecy becomes self-righteous.

There are three things that last, says St Paul, faith hope and love. The greatest of them is love.