“Set your hearts, then, on the more important gifts. Best of all, however is the following way…If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong…Love is patient, love is kind…” 1 Corinthians 12, 31-13, 13
“I tell you solemnly”, Jesus said, “no prophet is ever accepted in his own country…And in the prophet Elisha’s time there were many lepers in Israel, but none of these were cured except the Syrian, Naaman.” Luke 4, 21-30
Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a text that is frequently heard at wedding ceremonies. As I reflected on it, I started to ask myself if the kind of love Paul described is actually possible. I wondered whether Paul was carried away with enthusiasm or even caught up in a rhapsody when he wrote it. We’ve all experienced love, but could anyone ever love with the completeness and intensity that Paul describes? Was Paul actually in touch with the reality of ordinary people doing their best to love those around them or was he trying to whip up his audience to rise to greater heights in their loving and caring for others?
We’ve all glimpsed different facets of the composite picture of love which Paul paints. We’ve seen those facets in the patience parents demonstrate in dealing with their teenage children. We’ve witnessed extraordinary acts of kindness by complete strangers on our streets or in buses and trains. We’ve known prominent leaders who wear their position and status very lightly. We’ve seen friends and acquaintances, unjustly ridiculed and publicly humiliated, bounce back without carrying grudges, with no focus on revenge. But is it possible for any of us to integrate all these admirable facets of love into our lived reality?
No matter how hard we try, we discover that there is something elusive about love. We do reasonably well for a while, and then we slip backwards. But despite our lapses, we pick ourselves up and try again. Yet, even with the best of intentions, we find it difficult to remain fully committed to loving everyone we encounter. Moreover, there will always be people who have been so disappointed in their efforts at loving that they will want to tell us that our efforts will come to nothing. Still, while we know from our own experience that the way of love can be fairly steep, we keep returning to renew our efforts, probably because the experience of our past successes has been uplifting and personally rewarding. Deep down, we know that we are made for love - for giving love and receiving love.
When we look at the troubled lives of some of the people around us, and then further afield, at places like Syria, Venezuela, Yemen and South Sudan, we wonder if the supply of available love is sufficient to meet the demand. We even ask ourselves if we can keep at it into our own old age. Yet we have the inspiration of people who have been faithful in their loving commitments over fifty, sixty or seventy years. Then, we can find consolation and encouragement in Paul’s observation that “love is eternal” (1 Corinthians 13, 8).
One surprising aspect of Paul’s rhapsody of love is that he fails to point out that love has need sometimes to put on a hard face. Today’s first reading gives us a very clear picture of tough love. In launching Jeremiah on his vocation as a prophet, God assures him that he is to be “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass” to stand against kings, princes, priests and people who will resist his message. And in today’s gospel Jesus expresses tough love as he confronts the people of his own town because of their pettiness, small-mindedness and prejudice. They set aside God’s invitation to live lovingly by turning their attention to questioning his pedigree, his qualifications and his courage in speaking the truth. Speaking the truth in love can be a considerable challenge to personal integrity. Yet we all know that there are times when love demands that of us. Genuine love can draw us into the discomfort of confrontation. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that genuine confrontation means inviting the other person (or persons) to stand beside us, so that together we can look at whatever it is that is challenging, dividing or discomforting us. Those are the times when it’s necessary for us not to lose sight of God’s love for all of us.
In quoting Isaiah to the people gathered in the Synagogue of Nazareth (last Sunday’s gospel), Jesus made it clear that his love and concern were to be directed especially to the poor and downtrodden, to prisoners, to those alienated because of physical disability, and to those confined by psychological illness. By implication, he was telling his audience that they, too, had to get their hands dirtied in caring for all those whom society had alienated or discarded. Initially, they “were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (Luke 4, 22). But their admiration and amazement quickly turned to hostility when he referred to the way in which God, through the prophets Elijah and Elisha, had expressed a preference for a widow and a leper who were Gentiles and from countries hostile towards Israel.
What blinkered the people of Nazareth from seeing what Jesus was saying to them were their sense of entitlement and their fixed expectations of how the long-awaited Messiah should act. They simply could not envision a Messiah who was from their town, who looked and spoke like them, and who favoured the outcasts. They dreamed of a Messiah who would rid them of their Roman oppressors, one who would restore to them every comfort, luxury and security to which they believed they were entitled.
And isn’t it a sense of entitlement that can block our vision and feed our prejudices? Haven’t there been times when we have felt that we deserved a better deal from God? Haven’t we felt that our fidelity to Sunday Mass, our monetary support of our Church and our integrity and honesty should have protected us from illness, accident and the untimely deaths of those close to us? Have there not been times when we have compared ourselves to others whom we have categorized as only half-baked Christians, and concluded that we’ll be given preferential treatment at the time of final accountability?
Jesus took the risk of telling his own townspeople a few home truths, and they resented it.
Are we able to apply to ourselves the underlying message of what he dared to point out to the people of Nazareth? Can we see God’s love reflected in our encounters with the other very ordinary people with whom we rub shoulders each day? Are we able to imagine that those we regard as “unchurched” might have something to teach us, something to soften our hardness and even melt away our prejudices?
Let’s conclude with a delightful story from the Middle East: “Abou Adam was wealthy according to every earthly measure. At the same time, he did his best to become spiritually enriched as well. One night, he was roused from sleep by frightful stomping on his roof. Startled, he sat bold upright in bed and shouted: ‘Who’s there?’ ‘A friend’, answered a voice from the roof, ‘I’ve lost my camel.’ Disturbed by such stupidity, Abou called back: ‘You idiot! Why the devil are you looking for a camel on my roof?’ ‘You’re the idiot!’ came the reply. “What are you doing looking for God, lying on a golden bed, dressed in silk pyjamas?’”