Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Danger of Religion

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

In the Scriptures today we encounter some hard teachings, and they ought to be very challenging for us. To prepare him for his prophetic vocation, the word of the LORD comes to Jeremiah: God will make him a “fortified city,” a “pillar of iron,” and a “wall of brass” against kings and princes, against the priests and the people. But why should God have to do this for Jeremiah? If to be a prophet means to speak God’s Truth to the world, why should the prophet be in an adversarial relationship with the people and priests of God? In this we begin to see the hard truth at hand: sometimes it is devout folk—and the official and professional stewards of religion especially—who are exactly the people who don’t want to hear a prophet’s word.

We see this in the gospel today. After one sermon in his hometown synagogue, Jesus’ fellow Nazoreans drive him out of town and then try to throw him off a cliff. In interpreting this rejection of Jesus, we have to be careful. We’re accustomed to praying through the condemnation of Jesus; his Passion and Cross are at the center of our faith. Jesus is executed for his messianic claims—so the charge against him reads on his cross: “The King of the Jews.” We heard the beginning of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah in the first part of the Nazareth sermon last Sunday, and today’s gospel repeats it: after reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus proclaims “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled your hearing.” The people don’t seem to have a problem with that. In fact, St. Luke reports, “all spoke highly of him.”

The people’s problem isn’t that Jesus claims to be the Messiah, but for whom he suggests he is savior. By recalling two scriptural incidents of God working for the salvation of people who were not part of Israel, Jesus suggests that he is to be savior also for those who are outside the in-group of God’s people. Neither the poor and humble widow helped by Elijah or the powerful Naaman cured by Elisha were Jews. Neither were members of God’s people, but it was to these outsiders that God also sent his good news.

It’s not that being a member of God’s people doesn’t matter; as we say in the third Eucharistic Prayer, “From age to age you gather a people to yourself.” Just as God chose his people Israel to be his special possession, he has built us into “a people set apart” as we pray in the first Preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time. But this never means that God doesn’t reserve the right to work, act, and save outside of the people of God as we are visibly constituted. Too many times religious people get this idea, and become jealous for God. They are the chosen ones, and outsiders do not have the same—if any—access to God. This is what is going on in the gospel today. The people in the synagogue were happy to hear that Jesus was the Messiah; they just couldn’t bear the idea that he might be savior for anyone but themselves. Otherwise devout religious people have made this error down through the ages, and have sometimes caused a lot of suffering.

Nevertheless, it’s a delicate distinction. We have been called into the people of God and should be glad to have the Truth. But we can’t limit God to what he has revealed to us. We can see this distinction, for example, in our own doctrine of the sacrament of baptism. God has revealed the necessity of baptism for salvation (e.g. Mark 16:16), but this doesn’t mean that God can’t save someone in another way. As the Catechism puts it, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” (§ 1257) Baptism is the way to salvation as far as God has revealed it, but this doesn’t mean that God can’t save in other ways as well. So we always proclaim the necessity of baptism for salvation—as Jesus has revealed—but we are careful to remain humble in this assertion, knowing that God’s work is not limited to what he has publicly revealed.

So let us rejoice today in the knowledge that God has revealed to us the way to salvation, but let’s not make the mistake of thinking that we know everything about what God is up to in the world.

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