The story goes that one day, St. Theresa of Avila was wheeling a cart across a bridge over the river. At one point along the bridge's passage, a wheel of the cart got stuck in the planks, and St. Theresa had to wrestle the cart to get going again. In the struggle, the cart tipped over, and its entire contents spilled out and into the river. As she looked at all her stuff floating down the river, she said, "Well, God, if this is how you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few of them!"
Many of us, I would venture to guess, have had experiences in our own lives where it seemed like the contents of our carts were floating down the river. Certainly that must have been how Ezekiel felt in today's first reading. To be told, in no uncertain terms, at the outset of your life's work, that your work will be frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful might be a little too much reality all at once. You'll never see that reading quoted on vocation posters or seminary websites!
Jesus' experience in the Gospel reading was much the same. The people who knew him first and knew him best, people from his own home town, totally misunderstood who he was and what his ministry was sent to accomplish. These people saw the miracles he worked elsewhere and heard the words he preached, but were so offended by it that their lack of faith stifled his ability to do anything great in their midst, other than to cure a few sick people.
Today's readings are filled with contrasts as we read them. Let's first back up a bit – all the way to last week. Do you remember last week's Gospel reading? The faith of Jairus and the woman with the 12-year hemorrhage made possible two wonderful, miraculous healings. Jairus's daughter was literally resuscitated from death because Jairus had faith enough to come to Jesus in humility. The woman with the hemorrhage was cured because she had just enough faith and courage to reach out and touch Jesus' garment. Last week we were impressed with faith that overcame long illness and even death.
Today's Gospel, coming right on the heels of that celebration of faith and healing, is the complete opposite. Where last week there was faith, this week there is rejection. Where last week there was courage, this week there is fear and offense. Where last week healing abounded, this week there is hardly any mighty deed to be found. What's going on here?
In Jesus' time, there was a clear delineation of one's class based on where one's family fit into the social structure. To honor one's family, a person worked hard, within the parameters of his or her family's place, and didn't rock the boat. Where striving to better ourselves is a hallmark of the American ethic, in that time it was scandalous to try to rise above one's place in the social structure. It just wasn't done. So this is the basis at which the people of Jesus' home town took offense at him. They knew he was a carpenter, they knew his mother and relatives. His actions and words seemed to put him above all that, and for them, that was just intolerable. That explains their reaction, but of course, it doesn't make it a good reaction, does it?
Another huge contrast in today's readings is the faith of St. Paul over against the lack of faith of Jesus' neighbors in the Gospel. In today's second reading, St. Paul has plenty of reason for a lack of faith: a thorn in the flesh – whatever that was for him – afflicted him and would not go away. In addition, he put up with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints. And yet, in all of this he did not waver in his faith: he put up with it all for the sake of Christ, proclaiming that when he was weak, it was then that he was strong. If Jesus' neighbors had just a little of that kind of faith, think of the many wonders that would have been accomplished in their midst!
The contrasts we have looked at in these readings show the range of response to the presence of a prophet in one's community. Everywhere Jesus went, his prophecy was met with wonder and awe – except in his own community, that is. In every other place, people came to him in faith and were healed of their illnesses and freed from their sins. In his own place, they were scandalized by him and wanted nothing whatever to do with him. That was just the kind of reaction that Ezekiel was promised in today's first reading. The people to whom he was being sent were "hard of face and obstinate of heart" but Ezekiel was sent to preach to them anyway, so that whether they heeded or resisted, they would nonetheless know that "a prophet has been among them."
The question for us, then, is how we will respond to the prophetic voices in our own lives? When we hear our parents, our elders, our Church or whoever it may be calling us to reform our lives, what will be our reaction? Will we become hard of face and obstinate of heart? Will we take offense at those who dare to speak to us, because we know who they are and where they came from? Or will we, like St. Paul, boast of our weaknesses and be content with all our afflictions, knowing that in all of that, the power of Christ will take hold of us and God will be glorified?
Because we all of us have days where our cart tips over and our stuff ends up floating down the river, don't we? St. Theresa could get away with taking God to task for that because her faith was unquestioning and her trust in God was central to her life. But what about us? Will we look at our stuff floating down the river and give it all up and turn away from the voices of those who strive to help us make sense of it all? Or will we hear the Word of the Lord speaking through the hard times and the crisis and the pain and respond in faith, knowing that God longs to collect the contents of our carts and restore them to us, sending us on our way to continue the journey over the bridge?
We have to see that what God is calling us to here today is a faithful response, and not necessarily a wildly successful one. Sure, we are going to have resistance to our best efforts. Yes, life will bring its share of hardships and obstacles. Some days we may be victorious over pain and evil and sin, and some days they may get the best of us. We may pray over and over and over again that God would deliver us from our thorns in the flesh, and we may get discouraged at the lack of results. But our response must always be a response of faith, letting God be God, and trusting in God for our salvation.
We've all heard the famous serenity prayer, written by the protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
But maybe you haven't heard the rest of that prayer. It goes like this:
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
We are a people drenched with the imperfections of the world, and yet called to a resilient faith. The psalmist today puts it well and sums up our experience of life by saying that we are "more than sated with contempt … with the mockery of the arrogant, with the contempt of the proud." But even suffering all of that, that same psalmist makes a case for faith and models what should be our response to it all: "Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy."