Sunday, July 8, 2018

14th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Ez 2:2-5
Ps 123:1-4
2 Cor 12:7-10
Mk 6:1-6

What was the thorn in Paul's flesh?  The second reading raises many questions but supplies no answers. What was the nagging irritation that kept Paul from being too elated?  What bothered him so much that he likened it to being beaten by an evil spirit?  Don't bother looking it up.  There is no agreement among scholars from Augustine to the present. 

Some suggest it was any of a number of physical ailments, including, eye disease, recurrent kidney stones, or attacks of biliary colic. While possible, purely physical diagnoses are not probable.  St. John Chrysostom wonders if the thorn was the unrelenting criticism by opponents who complicated his struggle to preach the gospel.  Paul's acceptance of weaknesses, insults, and persecutions would support such an argument. Other commentators suggest temptation.  Was it temptation to power?  Temptation to pride?  Was it lust? Was the thorn all of the above, some of the above, or something else entirely?  Perhaps the thorn was the burden of realizing that he was a sinner, his awareness of the human condition, from which he suffered in the same way we do today.  Paul may have been burdened by an awareness of his sinful self.  Perhaps it was the guilt he experienced when he recalled his complicity in the persecution of Jesus' followers or the memory of his silent assent to and support of Stephen's martyrdom.

How often do we cringe at a memory?  How often do we wish we could forget how we hurt another?  How often do we want to take back words that we said, or pain that we caused, when we realize that we acted wrongly?  How often do we regret acting on our prejudices without thinking first?  That question leads us to the gospel.  

The Gospel is fascinating.  It exposes one of the most satisfying and self-destructive of all sins: smugness.  Smugness is defined as self-righteous complacency.  Smugness would lead many of us to gaze over the crowd and assume that had I been present at this scene I never would have criticized Jesus for being a local kid come back years later.  I would never have felt that Jesus was the boy from down the street who is so full of himself.  

In reality the odds are very high that had any of us been standing with the crowd we would have said or felt the same things they did.  We would have joined in the chorus of disapproval; “Just who does he think he is?” “Where did that son of a carpenter get all of this?” 

While it doesn’t matter whether or not we nurture fantasies of standing apart from the crowd in this gospel story, complacent self-righteousness that is uninformed by facts, can devastate our relationships in community, at work, in family life, and just about everywhere else.  At times we must be skeptical, but that skepticism must be supported by fact rather than feelings or old memories.

It is a challenge to honor the “prophets” in our midst, the prophets in our families, the prophets about whom we think "I remember him when . . . " "I remember when she was . . ."  It is a challenge to accept the success-story of the guy with whom we went to junior high school.

Smugness is destructive pride.  It is prejudicial in the extreme.  It causes us to exert premature closure on something we may need to hear. It may cause us to reject the truth out of hand simply because we know the messenger and don't particularly like him. "I wouldn't trust a word that came out of his mouth" is a sad commentary about the speaker.  That was the sin of Jesus’ critics.  They knew everything about him—or so they thought.

In his commentary on this passage, the late Jesuit Father Dan Harrington described the crowd’s attitude as the “prejudice of familiarity.”  The prejudice of familiarity is a particular risk for those of us who live in a religious community because we know each other well.  At times it is true that familiarity breeds contempt.  It is a risk in our families, our schools, and work in general. “Where did he get all of this?” “Who does she think she is?"

These are not reactions peculiar to the villagers of 1stcentury Palestine.  To paraphrase Walt Kelly's most famous Pogo cartoon: We have met the faithless and they is us. 

Heat broke.  Gorgeous weather this weekend.  Off to celebrate Mass at St. Patrick in about two hours.  

The first photo is that of a memorial bench in front of Bapst Library on the BC campus.  The quote is worth pondering. 

This flag is sitting in a pewter mug, a med school graduation gift from one of my favorite high school teachers.  The effect is that of a macro lens though I was not using macro (I don't have any macro lenses and have no intention to acquire any) done by using the equivalent of 300 mm, a wide-open 2.8 lens, and manual focus.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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