Fourteenth Sunday In Ordinary Time
This column for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time explained the background for the oracles of the prophet Ezekiel. The dates of his prophetic ministry and his oracles are tentatively set at 593-573 B.C. As noted, Ezekiel was a young priest in Jerusalem who was taken to Babylon in the first wave of exiles in 597. In the first chapter of his oracles, he identifies himself as being among the exiles in a town on the River Chebar in Babylon. There he experienced visions. Among his visions was that of four living creatures, each of them accompanied by a wheel. He describes their movements and the movements of the wheels as “running to and fro like thunderbolts.” Inside the vision, a throne on which Ezekiel saw “one like a son of man,” that is, a human being. This vision is a goldmine for enthusiasts of claimed extraterrestrial sightings in our time. The vision is a prelude to the call of the young priest Ezekiel to be the Lord’s prophet.
Biblically speaking, a prophet is not a foreteller of future events, but a spokesperson for the Lord. The first reading of this Sunday is the call of Ezekiel. Overwhelmed by the visions, he had fallen on his face on the ground. The scene opens with a command from a Voice, “Son of man (human being), stand on your feet and I will speak to you.” The Voice never uses Ezekiel’s proper name, just, “Hey, Human!” Here our reading begins, “And when he spoke to me, the Spirit entered me and set me upon my feet.” His mission: the Lord was sending him to the people of Israel in exile. The Lord indulges in unpleasantries against his people, “rebels, sinners to this very day, impudent, stubborn, a rebellious house.” Not a pleasant prospect for a young priest and prophet! But the Lord promises, “I will make you more stubborn and hard-headed than your “parishioners.” A tough assignment! Why was this reading chosen for this Sunday? Because the gospel reading describes hard-headed citizens of Nazareth, unwilling to accept the “new” Jesus.
The Responsorial Psalm (123) is a song or prayer of confidence in God. The Psalmist admits his sinfulness, implying that he is unworthy of God’s mercy. He is saturated with the contempt and mockery directed at him by proudly arrogant men. (Think to bully.) Nevertheless he “lifts up his eyes to heaven.” He watches for the slightest signal to do the Lord’s bidding as earnestly as slaves watch for any hand-movement of their masters which might indicate an opportunity or duty to serve. The people repeatedly pick up the theme of needed consolation from the Lord, “Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.”
The second reading continues selections from 2 Corinthians. Paul defends himself against his critics. They accused him of instability of character and flip-flopping. With boasting and swear-ing he describes the suffering he endured in the Christian mission. He realizes his boasting might be a problem, and says, “If I must boast, then let me boast of my weakness.” That includes the humbling experience of escaping arrest by being let down in a basket on the outside of a city wall. Then back to boasting, in a kind of literary disguise. He narrates an out of body spiritual experience about a man he knows (himself, of course), an experience that merits more boasting. But the Lord provided a humbling experience – “a thorn in the flesh,” some physical limitation which the Lord would not take away from him despite his petitions, because “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” An important principle when we think our prayers are not answered.
The gospel reading describes Jesus’ unproductive visit to his hometown, Nazareth. By this time he is famous throughout Galilee. When a well-known person passed through town, it was the custom for the president of the synagogue to ask the visitor to address the gathered people. So Jesus began teaching in the synagogue, probably on a Scripture reading of that day. This was too much to accept for his fellow Nazarenes. They had known him as a skilled carpenter, who went off to Judea, was baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptizer, and was never the same again. As we might say today, “He found Jesus!”, or “He was saved!” Jesus had started his own baptismal ministry, but after the arrest of John, he headed north with his new disciples back to Galilee. After success in preaching and healing, he returned to Nazareth. The Nazarenes display their parochial mindset, “Where did this man get all this? Isn’t 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?” A devastating conclusion: he was unable to do any mighty deed there because of their lack of faith.
Catholic Christians are troubled by the mention of at least six siblings of Jesus. What about the perpetual virginity of Mary which was taught from the beginning in the earliest creeds? There are three main hypotheses. First, these really are siblings of Jesus, children of Mary and Joseph.
This is generally the Protestant explanation. Secondly, they are children of the widower Joseph by a former wife. This hypothesis, acceptable to Catholics, claims the support of many Church Fathers and a 2nd-centurygospel not accepted into the New Testament, the Protogospel of James. It is this view and this gospel that led to later artists’ depictions of Joseph as an old man. The third hypothesis claims that the “brothers and sisters of Jesus” are close relatives, first cousins.
This view was strongly defended by the Scripture genius, St. Jerome, died 420. This is the most accepted Catholic Christian interpretation. One could add another argument. If Jesus had full sibling brothers, why does the Gospel of John depict Jesus commending his mother to the care of the Beloved Disciple? We profess with the Church, “Born of the ever-virgin Mary.”