Our second reading today from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has to be one of the most well-known passages from Scripture: “Love is patient; love is kind….” When do we hear this reading most often? At weddings of course. And perhaps we’ve heard it so many times that we hear and yet don’t hear its words, or they sound so familiar it’s like someone reading a Hallmark card. But if we really listen to the words though, we hear how beautiful the description of love it gives is. And it is anything but a sentimental Hallmark card: it tells us that love is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling, but that it looks like something, that it has be to lived out in real life, and that it is not always easy.
But let’s shift briefly to our Gospel reading today. It picks up right where last Sunday’s Gospel left off. Jesus announces to the people in the synagogue that the Scripture passage from Isaiah that he had just read to them is now fulfilled in their hearing. And at first everyone “speaks highly of him”; they praise him for his beautiful preaching. But they start to wonder, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” They know Jesus, or think they know him; after all, hasn’t he grown up in their midst? For 30 years, he has been living a quiet, ordinary life working as a carpenter, following in Joseph’s footsteps. Now what is he talking about: “This Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing?” In the versions of this scene in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, it adds that they “took offense at Jesus.” Perhaps they started to think, “Why does he think he is?”
And Jesus interprets their murmuring to a demand for some kind of sign. Just like us, the Jewish people back then were always looking for signs. “How do I know what God wants me to do? I need a sign.” “How do I know if this is true or not? I need a sign.” But Jesus doesn’t give them the sign they are looking for. Instead, he gives them a rather unexpected teaching: in the days of Elijah when Israel was suffering from famine, it was not to the Israelites that a sign was given: instead, it was a non-Jewish woman to whom the prophet Elijah went. And if you remember the story, she was about to run out of food, but Elijah told her that if she would feed him her food would not run out and she wouldn’t starve. The same thing with Elisha the prophet, who healed a non-Jewish person of his leprosy, even though there were many lepers in Israel.
The message that Jesus gives them here is that, not only is he the Messiah, the one whom God promised to send to save the Israelites, but that he came not just for them but the Gentiles, i.e. the non-Jewish people of the world as well. This they cannot accept; the Gospel says they were “filled with fury.” To the point that they were going to hurl Jesus off a cliff! How quickly they turned on him when he challenged them! But Jesus’ final hour had not come, and so they had no power over him.
We live in a media-saturated environment. And the news media have become an outrage machine. That is how they keep us hooked. Every week – more likely every day – they report on scandals, controversies, outrageous tweets and so on. They are constantly getting us worked up. It has gotten to the point of absurdity. They report on things like some stupid thing a politician or celebrity said or did decades ago and we are all supposed to be outraged and hate that person. But there’s also plenty of legitimate things about which to be truly outraged: a lot of bad stuff is going on. Of course, it’s always been this way. We live in a fallen, sinful world. We just have more access to information and constantly hear about all the terrible stuff going on. There’s no shortage of things that ought to upset us.
As well all know, our country has gotten extremely polarized. Social norms have broken down. We are all supposed to accept without question – in fact, celebrate – things that up to a few years ago were unacceptable. If we don’t, we risk social ostracism and maybe even more than that. While some states are rightly creating laws to limit abortion as much as possible, other states like New York are passing laws that seek to remove any impediments to abortion. The governor of Virginia recently supported a bill that would have opened up the possibility of infanticide. Fortunately, it did not pass. But our society is inching closer to the edge on these issues, and soon we will be expected to not only accept what used to be unthinkable but to celebrate it, or else. Yes, there’s a lot to be outraged about.
So what do we do about all this? Do we let the anger fester? Do we try to hurl our enemies off a cliff? No, more and more I am convinced that in order to function as a society, and for our own mental and more importantly spiritual well-being, we ought to look to St. Paul’s words about love in our second reading today. As I said, what St. Paul tells us is that love looks like something. “Love is patient; love is kind. It does not seek its own interests; it is not quick-tempered; it does not brood over injury.” And so on. Sometimes love is not easy. Sometimes it involves sacrifice. Sometimes it means dying a little bit to self. Yes, it means not responding to the outrageous things in our world with anger and with hate, but rather trying to forgive and even love our enemies, or those who wish us ill.
Some of the things Jesus preached about were not always easy to hear, and they angered many. Eventually he was put to death. We must pray to have ears to hear the truth and hearts that are open to receive it, even when it challenges what we might want or prefer. There might be Church teachings that are hard to accept. When we hear them, do we respond with anger? Do we reject those who teach them?
The only response to the mess in the world around us is to love: to love our families, our friends, but also our enemies, those who do not love us. This is not easy do do. It’s not going to give us a warm fuzzy feeling. It is rather an act of the will: I am not going to let how this person has treated me or what this person says about me control my actions. I am not going to let the anger and resentment fester. I am going to pray to able to forgive, and to treat others the way I myself would want to be treated, regardless of how I am treated.
Sometimes even this message can be hard to hear. But it is the truth. If we can’t accept it, we have to pray for the grace to accept the truth. This world is passing; let us not waste time being angry and resentful. Let us rather strive to love, for only love endures.