Biblical passages used in the liturgy often suffer from being removed from their contexts. This is particularly noticeable in today’s gospel selection, which shows Jesus referring to a biblical passage from Isaiah, which he has just read without telling us what it is. We need to note, therefore, that he has just read an important messianic passage. Accordingly, when he declares that this prophecy has been fulfilled, he is in effect announcing his own claim to be God’s chosen one for the liberation of Israel.
Jesus senses some resistance to this dramatic announcement and counters it by reminding them that it is always difficult for local folks to believe that one of their own might be much more than they have given him permission to be. In a sense, this is a recognition of the truth in that adage: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
This narrowness of vision takes on much more serious implications when it touches our own relationship with God. As Jesus points out, God has never felt obliged to recognize privilege based solely on birth (or church membership). Being a member of a chosen people simply clarifies one’s obligation to respond to God’s special claims on that people; It does not excuse one from obedience to those claims. It is a privilege with heavy responsibilities. Thus, in the gospel story, the widows and lepers from outside of Israel prove to be more worthy of God’s attention than the members of his own people.
It is important to recognize the symbolic and universal implications of the narrow-minded attitude of excessively provincial people. The challenge of today’s gospel takes us far beyond the merely social implications of that phenomenon. The fact is that we are all tempted to reject the challenging initiatives of God in order to cling to our own more familiar and controllable vision of life. The words of Isaiah are pertinent here: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55: 8-10).
This point is sharpened in the words of Jesus to Peter when he reacts against the thought of a suffering and dying Messiah: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mark 8:33). Jesus is God’s Messiah long before he is our Messiah. And, although we will always be tempted to “domesticate” and make reasonable the claims of God, they will forever challenge us to be converted from self-satisfied, provincial and merely human ways of relating to God’s message.
As a matter of fact, the divine message, embodied in the person and words of Jesus, calls us into the “wilderness” of endless concern for others. For we never really know where unselfish love will lead us. We may even have to say at times, “My life is really no longer my own. I have loaned it to others who are more in need than I am.” When that happens, we will understand why Jesus said that God went outside of Israel to take care of the widow of Sidon and Naaman, the Syrian.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.