No one who has studied the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel has ever doubted his self-confidence. Among the prophets he is the least swayed by emotion. Despite his oftentimes verbose sermons, he reveals precious little about himself. Ezekiel never felt the hesitation and agony of the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah as he announced the coming disaster that would swallow Israel and lead to the destruction of the Temple. He had the strength of his convictions and spoke directly, clearly, and without a hint of hesitation. When God sends Ezekiel to speak to his fellow Israelites, he alerts him to the fact that they will resist him. The Israelites are “rebels,” God tells the prophet. “Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you.” They will not welcome him or his call to repentance. Nonetheless, he doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it is. “Thus says the Lord.”
St. Paul is also capable of telling it like it is, particularly when he writes to the Church of Corinth, not exactly his favorite community. Today we hear him boasting once again of his weaknesses. In the previous chapter, Paul enumerates all of the hardships he has endured for the sake of the Gospel: beatings, shipwreck, imprisonment, and constant dangers as he crossed rivers, encountered robbers, walked through deserts and dealt with the false teachings of those who preached that only Jews could be baptized in the Christian faith. Like Ezekiel, despite the resistance he encounters and the hardships he is forced to endure, he does not hesitate to proclaim the Gospel. In today’s reading he tells us of a “thorn in the flesh” that has been given to him by an angel of Satan. Though we will never know exactly what he is talking about, this kind of language is usually reserved for a physical illness or disability. God has answered his prayer to be delivered of this malady by telling him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” While such a situation might dissuade a lesser man, Paul continues his missionary activity even from his prison cell.
Jesus also meets resistance in today’s Gospel passage. His own townspeople and his relatives take offense from his teachings. They remind themselves that this is the Son of Mary, a carpenter, a lesser avocation in their minds. Israel did not have great forests of trees. Wood was scarce. So carpenters were not considered of much importance. They cannot see beyond his humble trade and fail to hear his teaching.
The responsorial psalm for this Sunday is a perfect prayer in the light of the resistance that Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus encounter as they share the Word of God with their respective audience. “Our souls are more than sated with the mockery of the arrogant, with the contempt of the proud.”
The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard writes about the danger we might encounter as we read these passages. “The holy words of our text are not spoken to encourage us to get busy judging one another; they are rather spoken warningly … to you, my reader, and to me, to encourage each one not to let his love become unfruitful. … The divine authority of the Gospel speaks not to one man about another man, not to you, the reader, about me, or to me about you, no, when the Gospel speaks it speaks to the single individual.”
So rather than try to conjure up an idea of who might be the one who is “hard of face and obstinate of heart,” we would do well to look within and ask whether we are not the rebellious one about whom God is speaking to Ezekiel. Rather than look at others and imagine them as the ones who disregard a prophet in their midst, we need to ask whether we are not cutting ourselves some slack when it comes to obeying the commandments and living by the Gospel precepts we hear proclaimed every week. Let us always remember that when Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him, Judas and all of them responded, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?”
In the Roman Catholic liturgy before we receive communion, we pray, “O Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” In the Byzantine Catholic liturgy, the congregation puts it a little more strongly, “O Lord, I believe and profess that you are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator