03 February 2019

The Gospel is worth a riot or two

4th Sunday OT (C)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Jesus causes a riot. I don't think he wanted to cause a riot, but he must've known that his announcement in the synagogue would make people angry. He does it anyway. He tells the synagogue-goers that Isaiah's prophecy of the coming of the Messiah “has been fulfilled in your hearing,” meaning: he is proclaiming himself to be the Messiah. Some are amazed. They speak highly of him. His words are gracious, grace-filled, they say. Then they begin to question. They question his credibility. His authority. His family. They want to know just who he thinks he is. At this point, if Jesus were a 21st c. politician or CEO, he would immediately hire a P.R. firm, issue a non-apology apology, donate money to an orphanage, and check himself into rehab. But Jesus is not a politician. He's the Messiah. And so, he causes a riot. Basically, he scolds the doubters by comparing them to the people who refused to believe God's prophets, Elijah and Elisha, leaving only the pagans to place their faith in Abraham's God. The angry crowd chases Jesus to a cliff so they might hurl him headlong to his death. The lesson here: the truth will set you free. . .and probably get you tossed off a mountain. But tell it anyway.

Now, we know that Jesus wasn't tossed off the mountain. He “passed through the midst of them and went away.” The question I have is this: why did he announce his mission and ministry in this way? In the middle of Sabbath services at a synagogue? He just sort of blurts it out! He could've done it more gently, more “professionally.” I don't know, maybe start small with a few close friends and let the word spread in its own time. Let people get used to the idea. Expand slowly to make sure that only those who truly believed in him would be admitted into the Church. Instead he does the one thing that any sensible consultant would tell him is guaranteed to make people angry – he proclaims the truth boldly, clearly, and in public. And sure enough, people get mad. They get mad b/c the truth hurts AND b/c the one proclaiming the truth is someone they know – a prophet come home to find that he is not honored as a prophet. Does this bit of inconvenience stop him? No. He does what prophets do. He proclaims God's truth. And he stings the conscience of those who refuse to believe. Their faith is smaller than that of the pagans who believed Elijah and Elisha. And they know it!

Proclaiming the truth of the Gospel – in season and out – is no easy thing. We, as good law-abiding, tax-paying citizens, are trained not to cause trouble. Not to rock any boats we might be on. Not to stir the pot. Or otherwise say or do anything that might offend. Good, middle-class manners keep us connected in the neighborhood, at work, and at school. We keep the family peaceful, friends friendly, and co-workers working with us by minimizing points of difference and maximizing points of similarity. This is basic human nature. We are tribal animals in many ways. We want/need to belong to the group – for safety, community, even survival. The earliest Christian churches around the Mediterranean were persecuted precisely b/c they refused to be part of the larger pagan culture. They lived differently. They married for life. One man, one woman. They did not kill their unwanted children. They went out of their way to help the poor, the disabled, the abandoned, and the sick. They forgave those who persecuted them. And they worshiped just one God. All of this made them outcasts in their own nations. And it is quickly making us outcasts even now. 
This is where you might expect me to grouse about the declining morals of a great nation, or lament at how poorly Christians are being treated by the culture. Nope. Not gonna do that! Instead, I'm going to point you back to Jesus in the synagogue and say, “Do as he did.” Tell the truth – the Gospel Truth – and tell it with boldness and clarity. There is nothing to be afraid of. Nothing permanent, anyway. Christ promises his followers persecution. If you declare for him, follow him, and take on his mission and ministry as you own, then you are asking to be opposed by the world. So, don't be surprised when the world opposes you. Don't be surprised when the rioters form and start looking for a handy cliff to fling you from. Just do what Jesus did: tell the truth in love. Veritas in caritate. Truth in love. Yes, you will likely be questioned: Who are you to judge me? Everyone accepts [insert sin here] as a good thing! What's wrong with you? Why are you trying to take away my rights? Etc., ad. nau. Truth in love. Truth in love. You're not trying to win an argument, or trying to scores points against an opponent. You're bearing witness as a sinner to the freely offered mercy of the Father through Christ. Surely, that's worth a small riot or two. . .

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