Three weeks ago, we listened to the account of the wedding feast in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine. That was the first day of his public ministry according to the Gospel of John. Today we’re going to reflect on the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke. The two are very different. John structured his gospel around the manifestation of seven signs, miracles, that proclaimed the arrival kingdom of God. Changing water into wine was the first of those signs. John ends the passage by writing, “and his disciples began to believe in him.” The phenomenon of the kingdom had begun.
Luke brings us to Nazareth to witness one of the first days of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had been baptized by John in the Jordan River and immediately retreated into the Judean desert for forty days where he prepared for his ministry and battled with the powers of darkness. “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.” Then, he came to his hometown synagogue.
He was asked to read the scripture and was handed a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. “He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
This is a very well-known and important passage from the prophet. It’s the description of the Messiah. Jesus’ initial commentary was very simple. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, he told them that he was the Messiah.
The congregation reacted in a variety of ways. Everyone spoke highly of him, but some wondered how Jesus had gotten the wisdom he exhibited. He hadn’t gone to rabbinical school; he was a craftsman. Jesus addressed their skepticism and lack of faith in him by pointing out two examples of God favoring Gentiles over Jews because they had more faith.
There was a terrible drought and food was very short. The prophet Elijah responded to the generosity of a widow in Gentile Zarephath who gave him the last
bit of food she had for herself and her son with no hope of replenishing it. Miraculously, her little jar of oil and her bowl of flour never emptied until the drought passed.
A Syrian general, Naaman, a Gentile, had leprosy. His Jewish slave told him about the power of the prophet Elisha. He believed what his slave told him and traveled to Judea. He had faith that the God of Elisha could cure him, and so he was cured.
These two examples of Gentiles with faith infuriated the people in the synagogue. Jesus was telling them that these two Gentiles had more faith than they had. Naaman and the widow weren’t members of the chosen people, but their faith was greater than the faith of the people of Nazareth. The hometown boy had the gall to call them on their faith. They couldn’t accept his teaching that he was the Messiah. He was common. He was one of them. They became blind with rage and attempted to kill him.
What kind of message can be gleaned from this moment in Jesus’ life? I believe that God is constantly reaching out to us but, more times than not, we don’t stretch out our arms to connect. Sometimes we’re so consumed by our daily tasks that we miss the subtle ways God is present. Sometimes we’re so self-reliant that we don’t accept God’s help. Sometimes God is standing right in front of us but we don’t see.
Look for God. Look everywhere. Look in the faces of children. Look into the eyes of a homeless person. Look up to the sky. Look at the shapes of the clouds. Look at the brightness of the moon on a clear night. Look at the people you love, really look at them, see their hearts. God’s everywhere. We just have to have the faith to see.
We have an interesting Gospel selection today. It consists of a one sentence introduction to the Gospel of Luke, and the account of Jesus’ first day of ministry. I’ll write about that momentous day when we read the conclusion of the account next Sunday. This week I’m going to focus on that first sentence of Luke’s Gospel. Let’s begin with a bit of background.
Luke wrote his Gospel account of the life of Jesus between 61 – 63 AD while he was staying with Paul who was under house arrest in Rome. He wrote the Gospel for a gentile convert, Theophilus. We know nothing about him other than Luke referred to him a second time in his introduction to the Acts of the Apostles, his history of the early Church. Here’s how he begins that history.
“In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them for forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While he was with them he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for ‘the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water but in a few days, you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’”
Isn’t it interesting that Luke quotes Jesus to Theophilus. It implies a wonderful intimacy with the material he is about to present. He’s not just reporting; he’s giving witness.
In the introduction to his Gospel that we’ve read today that same witness comes through loud and strong. “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eye witnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word handed down in to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.”
Sometimes we forget that the Gospels are much more than narratives about the life of Jesus. They do give us some information about Jesus. They tell us that he was a missionary who traveled around for three years teaching about the kingdom of God. They record many of his parables which were his primary teaching tool. But most importantly, we have to remember that the gospels were written to specific communities: John’s Gospel for Greek converts. Matthew’s for a community of Jewish Christians and Luke’s for a Greek convert, Theophilus. The Good News is packaged in a way most understandable for each community. AND, the faith of each evangelist gives his unique view and experience of the Jesus event. Sometimes their details differ because the writer is making a different point using the same material as the others. For instance, in John’s Gospel Jesus died on the day before Passover. The other three say he died ON Passover. John does so because the day before the Passover was when the Passover lambs were slaughtered. He wants to teach that Jesus is THE Passover lamb whose once and for all sacrifice has forever redeemed the world.
Where do we go with this bit of information about the writing of the Gospels? First of all, we need to understand the Gospels as more than narratives about the life of Jesus and his teachings. Secondly, we need to speak the Gospel message as our personal testimony of faith just as the evangelists wrote their Gospels to enrich and guide the communities they were addressing.
Understanding this, we need to follow their example. We know the Jesus story, but we need to internalize it, to make its Good News the life-core of our lives. Our personal, faith-filled, retelling of the story to our friends, our children and grandchildren, passes on, not only what historical facts we know but, more importantly, the experience of the Lord we have had deep in our hearts.
We’re beginning the season of Ordinary Time with a wonderful and mystical passage from the second chapter of John’s gospel. The setting is a wedding feast in Cana, a town in Galilee.
A source of joy and celebration in every time and culture, a wedding was an especially important symbol in Jewish tradition. It represented the unique wedded relationship of God and the chosen people. To this day, orthodox Jews wind their phylacteries down the left arm, wrapping the strap around the wedding finger. When a Jew prays, he does so while remembering his special wedded relationship with God.
In this passage, Jesus had joined a wedding reception, but there was something amiss. The wine had run out. It had lasted a long time, but now there was none left. Symbolically, Israel’s wedded relationship had gone as far as it could. It needed rejuvenation. It needed more wine, new wine.
There, in the corner of the room stood the remnant of Israel’s past, six empty water jars. They were used for ceremonial washing. But the wedding, Israel’s relationship with God, didn’t need water for washing. It needed more wine! Jesus brought the wedding back to life. He changed the water into wine, and not just any wine – the best wine – the new wine of the kingdom.
The account of the wedding at Cana is meant to inspire us with a dynamic vision of the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated. His kingdom is still manifesting itself. It isn’t complete yet. It’s fermenting in our hearts. The baptismal water of our rebirth is slowly changing into wine, and we’re gradually being transformed into new wineskins, tabernacles of the Spirit and citizens of the kingdom of God.
Holy Spirit of God, I open my heart to you.
Pour into my heart the new wine of the kingdom.
Bestow upon me the gifts that can build up the kingdom we all so fervently desire.
I see the kingdom only dimly, now.
With joy in my heart, I await the day when I can drink the new wine of the kingdom here on earth. Amen.
John the Baptist was urging everyone to ritually cleanse themselves in preparation for the arrival of the long -awaited Christ. By washing away their past, they would be ready for a new life in a new time.
Jesus entered the Jordan River along with everyone else that day. They washed away their sins. He was anointed for his mission. The heavens opened above him, and the Father pronounced words of consecration while the Spirit descended upon him. He was ready to preach the Good News. The first light of the Kingdom of God was here.
Jesus would teach the people that the Kingdom of God was within them. He taught them to nurture it, to let it grow, to free it, to purify the entire world with the fire with God’s love.
Today, we begin the season called Ordinary Time. We celebrate Jesus’ anointing for his mission and recall that we, too, have been anointed by the same Spirit, and consecrated by the Father of us all, to continue the mission Christ inaugurated at his baptism.
As in the time of John the Baptist, our world is longing to hear the Good News. So many countries are in political upheaval, including our own. Climate change is challenging every government and every person. The global pandemic has challenged the security of everyone, rich and poor alike. Now, more than ever, the world needs to listen to the voice of the Kingdom speaking in the body of Christ, the anointed disciples of Christ. The world needs to free the Kingdom of God that’s dormant in each us. The world needs to listen to the god-voice of the indigenous peoples. The world needs to listen to the saints who plead, “war never again.” The world needs to hear the poor weeping the tears of the hopeless. The world needs to listen to the voice of the divine speaking in every atom of creation.
Today, our mission, as anointed disciples of Christ, is to open the ears of the deaf. The Spirit will continue to anoint us, and the Father will continue to consecrate us. It’s time for the world to hear the Good News again.
On Christmas day we reflected on the meaning of Luke’s account of the birth of the Messiah. Today, we reflect on Matthew’s account. Though we tend to mix the two accounts together telling them as one story, it’s best to keep them separate so that we can enjoy each author’s unique insight.
Matthew wrote his Gospel for Christians of Jewish origin, so he drew a great deal of his imagery from Jewish religious memory. A simple sentence introduces his narrative. “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” This isn’t merely an introduction; it actually tells most of the story.
The narrative begins AFTER Jesus is born. There’s no census. There’s no stable. There aren’t any shepherds, nor are there angels. Matthew begins by simply noting that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod.
David, Israel’s greatest king, was a descendent of Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons who was born in Bethlehem, a small town in the province of Judea. Jesus, a descendent of David, was born in the same town “in the days of king Herod.”
Any hope of an independent Israel ended when Rome installed Herod as king of Judea. Herod was half Jewish. His father was a Jewish convert. His mother was a non-Jew of Arab descent. As king, he straddled a difficult political fence. He had to appease the Jewish population while retaining unquestionable loyalty to the Roman state. To win the loyalty of the Jews he built their Temple in Jerusalem. To flatter Rome, he constructed temples to various Roman emperors. He kept kosher but served only expensive imported Gentile wines at his receptions.
He was quite paranoid. He executed his wife, mother-in-law, brother-in-law and his two of his sons for treason. He built several fortresses throughout the province that could serve as places of refuge should there ever be an uprising. Masada, near the Dead Sea, is one of them. Herod’s paranoia plays an important role later on in Matthew’s narrative. His response to the Magi’s question about the
new-born king of the Jews is quick and determined; locate the child and destroy him!
The introduction of “magi from the east,” would catch the attention of every Jew who read this narrative. This is a story of the birth of the Jewish Messiah. It was ironic that only gentiles recognized the Jewish king. Even the prophecy of the star was voiced by a pagan soothsayer, Balaam. “I see him, though not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.” (Numbers 24:17) These magi from Persia saw the star and followed it.
In Matthew’s gospel, the star reflected two realities. It announced the birth of the king referred to in the prophecy of Balaam, and it also proclaimed that his birth was not only a worldly event – it was cosmic. Heaven and earth took notice of this “newborn king of the Jews.”
The magi came with symbolic gifts for the new-born king, myrrh, frankincense and gold. They were meant as theological commentaries on this cosmic event. This child was a king, and so was given the royal gift of gold. This child was divine, so frankincense was offered to him. This king would suffer. The gift of Myrrh, referred to as “gall” in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, represented suffering, affliction and healing. This refers to Isaiah’s prophesy of a “suffering servant,” a messiah whose suffering and death would bring salvation and healing to the world.
There’s a sadness in Matthew’s account of the birth of the messiah. The magi weren’t Jews, yet, they saw the cosmic light and recognized the “King of the Jews.” Even the soldiers who beat Jesus during his arrest called him, in mockery, King of the Jews. And Pilate’s decree of execution read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Years later, the evangelist John felt this same sadness. He quite bluntly wrote in the prologue to his gospel, “He came to his own, but his own people did not accept him.” Luke put it this way in his gospel: “There was no room for them in the inn.”
The accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ are spiritual commentaries that are meant to engage our spiritual imaginations. They invite us to ask ourselves the same questions the evangelists asked of themselves when they wrote their accounts of his birth. Who is this King of the Jews? What do I believe about him? How does he impact my life and the life of the world I live in?
If we’re people of faith, like the magi, we never stop searching for him; we’re never content where with our present understanding of him. We always look beyond our small worlds for that star that continually leads us to the cosmic Christ – the Christ beyond religious structures and cultural limitations – the Christ who assured us, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of time.” (Matthew 28:20b)