30 January 2010

STAGES OF ANTAGONISM AND THE ANTIDOTE

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lk 4:21-30

Today’s gospel is a direct sequel to last Sunday’s. Last week, Jesus stood up to do the reading in His hometown synagogue. He was handed the scroll on which the prophecy of Isaiah about the coming Messiah was written. After reading the prophecy, Jesus, looking intently on His audience, proclaimed: “Today this passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Clearly, Jesus claimed that He was the Messiah. Initially, the gospel today continues the story from last Sunday, the people of His own town approved of Him and were amazed by the gracious words that came from Jesus’ lips. But by what seemed to be an absurd shift of popular mood, what begun so innocently, the gospel today reveals, ended in near tragedy. His neighbors, some perhaps were His own relatives, dragged Him out of the synagogue, intending to throw Him down the cliff on which their town was built. This must be one of the grimmest episodes in the gospels. Jesus, barely escaping with His life, slipped through the crowd and walked away.

What really happened between the approval and the rejection, the amazement and hatred of Jesus’ neighbors? How could such a sudden shift of common mood happen? From Luke’s narration, we may deduce three stages in the antagonism of Jesus’ neighbors at Him: first envy; second, impossible demands; and third, violence.

“This is Joseph’s Son, is He not?” His neighbors asked one another about Jesus. These words betray a sentiment familiar to all. We often find it easier to acknowledge greatness in a total stranger than in someone close to us, so close that we should otherwise be the first to affirm and praise him. Jesus underscored this by quoting a proverb: “No prophet is ever accepted in his own native place.”

There may be two reasons why a prophet is not accepted in his own native place. One reason stems from the fact that the prophet is too close to us. The very proximity of the prophet enables us to detect or to remember his shortcomings that escape the eyes of strangers. We, simply know him too well. He is, afterall, just like any of us: tainted with flaws and burdened with the weight of human weakness. The other reason comes from our unspoken anxiety that if we acknowledge the success of one who used to be one of us we implicitly admit our own failures. We resent achievements that we ourselves failed to attain, a success we cannot equal. There is one word for this mood: envy.

Together with pride, greed, anger, gluttony, lust, and sloth, greed is one of the seven capital sins. Among the seven, there is none more ugly than envy. It reaps nothing but grim discontent. Quite often it is mistaken for jealousy, but the two are not the same. Jealousy is having something in your hands and you do not want anyone to even look at it. Envy, however, is having something in your hands already and you still keep on wanting what the other has in his hands.

From envious neighbors the people in the synagogue turned into townmates with impossible demands. If He indeed were the miracle-worker they heard He was in other towns, should Jesus not perform some magic in His own neighborhood? Remember that this was not the first time Jesus was challenged to work some tricks for His self-aggrandizement. Nor would it be the last. In His forty days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus to inaugurate His public ministry with a display of aerial acrobatics from the pinnacle of the temple. In His final hours, Herod would press Jesus to entertain his court with some amazing miracles. These demands were impossible, not because Jesus was powerless, but because His power to do miracles was meant to reveal God’s goodness and make people feel the presence of God’s kingdom in their midst, not to entertain some bored audience or please incredulous neighbors. Even for old and close friends from Nazareth, Jesus would never perform a miracle if it were not necessary and if it were not evoked from Him by faith. Many times, before healing the sick, Jesus would question him: “Do you believe?” But His townmates did not believe in Him and even taunted Him.

Envy and impossible demands can easily create fire. And it did in Nazareth that day. The otherwise peaceful village suddenly erupted in savage violence. So infuriated by the wise reply of Jesus, the people dragged Him unto the brow of the hill on which their town was built in order to throw Him headlong. Perhaps, Jesus’ utter calmness in the midst of the insults they hurled at Him, enraged His townmates even more. Gracious reaction to envy and impossible demands can indeed make the envious and the impossible demanding man mad. Madness seized Jesus’ neighbors. Beware, in a tensed moment such as that in the gospel today, a community can commit atrocities that its individual members will, in private, tremble even with the thought of doing it.

Envy, impossible demands, and violence – these were the three stages of the antagonism of Jesus’ neighbors at Him. Nothing much has changed since then really. These are still the stages of our antagonism be it at God Himself or at one another. Fortunately though, we have been given the antidote to this malady: love. Sadly, however, we often forget it. Thus, St. Paul reminds us about it in the second reading today. But may we not merely remember what love really is and that it is the antidote to antagonism that manifests itself through envy, impossible demands, and violence. More importantly, may we truly love. Let us strive to love as we have first been loved by God.

Is there anyone you are envious of? Love him. Is there anyone on whom you tend to impose impossible demands? Love him more. Is there anyone you seem to be violent with? Love him most. And where there is no love, St. John of the Cross said, let put love and you will find love.

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