Sunday, February 3, 2013

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In today’s Gospel, the people who,
at the beginning of the story, “all spoke highly” of Jesus
and “were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth,”
have become by the end of the passage a mob “filled with fury,”
who try to throw Jesus over a cliff.

This change in attitude seems to occur
when Jesus recalls for them two stories in which
the prophets Elijah and Elisha came to the aid of Gentiles –
the starving widow of Zarephath and the leper Naaman the Syrian –
rather than helping their fellow Israelites.
Presumably what fills them with fury is the implication
that Jesus has come not only for them,
to fulfill God’s promises to Israel,
but also for others,
to extend God’s saving covenant to the Gentiles.
Their fury is, I think, rooted in fear:
the fear that God’s favor
is a limited commodity,
so that the more God loves others
the less he loves them;
the fear that there is only so much room
within God’s covenantal love,
so that the inclusion of others in that love
might mean their exclusion.

As is so often the case with the Gospels,
the figures we read about invite us to reflect on our own lives.
Do we treat God’s love as if it were a limited commodity?
Do we react with envy when others benefit?
Do we find ourselves filled with fury
because we fear that another’s gain is our loss?
And if we find such fear and fury in ourselves,
do we ask ourselves, is this who I really want to be?

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov
a character recounts a Russian folktale that paints for us
a picture of such fury and fear:
Once upon a time there was a peasant woman
and a very wicked woman she was.
And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind.
The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire.
So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers
he could remember to tell to God;
‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he,
‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’
And God answered: ‘You take that onion then,
hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out.
And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise,
but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’
The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her.
‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’
He began cautiously pulling her out.
He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake,
seeing how she was being drawn out,
began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her.
But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them.
‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’
As soon as she said that, the onion broke.
And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day.
So the angel wept and went away.
Because she was convinced
that her single good deed belonged to her alone,
that God’s salvation was a limited commodity
that she had to grab for herself,
that those with her in the lake of fire were her rivals
rather than her fellow sufferers,
she found herself left in that lake for eternity
drowned in the fire of her own fear and fury.

But this is not who we are condemned to be.
In our second reading,
Paul speaks of a different kind of living,
what he calls “a still more excellent way,”
the way that prizes love above all else.
This love, Paul says, is not jealous, not pompous, not puffed-up, not rude,
“it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered,
it does not brood over injury.”
It is not filled with fear of being deprived of a blessing,
or fury at the good fortune of others,
but “bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.”

If we want to be Christians,
if we want to live this still more excellent way,
we should pray that God fill us with this greatest of gifts,
the love that seeks not its own good
but rejoices in the good of others,
the love that led Jesus to endure the cross for all,
the love that conquers fear and fury.