Sunday, February 03, 2013

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Putting One’s Foot in One’s Mouth

Picture: cc AshleyNYCPics

Sisters and brothers, are you familiar with the English idiom to put one’s foot in one’s mouth? As you know, this phrase doesn’t mean to actually try to find out what your own toes taste like. No. To put your foot in your mouth is to say the wrong thing. Something that goes against the grain. That embarrasses or shocks people. That offends or even scandalises others. Something that may even make you, the speaker, very unpopular. Which is why, in general, politicians try their best to avoid putting their foot in their mouth. Otherwise they may lose the support of their constituents, and be voted out of office. But, whether we are politicians or not, none of us likes to be caught putting our foot in our mouth. We know how painful and embarrassing it can be.

And yet, isn’t it true that, sometimes, it’s very important to be able to put one’s foot in one’s mouth? For example, in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes, a pair of swindlers tricks the emperor into believing that they have made him a suit of magical clothes. Clothes that cannot be seen by stupid people. Incompetent people. People unfit for their jobs. As a result, everybody pretends to be able to see the suit, even though it doesn’t exist. It’s only when an innocent little boy exclaims that the emperor is naked, that the scam is brought to light. At a time when everyone else was too afraid to look stupid, this little boy bravely proclaimed the truth. How did he save the emperor, sisters and brothers? By being willing to put his foot in his mouth.

All of which may help us to appreciate a little better, what our Mass readings are telling us today. As you may have noticed, the readings are all about what it means to be a prophet. Contrary to popular belief, a prophet is not just someone who is able to predict the future. A prophet is not a soothsayer or a fortune-teller. A prophet is primarily a spokesperson. Someone appointed by God to speak God’s word to others. So, in the first reading, God tells Jeremiah that God has consecrated him–has set him apart–even before he was born, to be God’s prophet to the nations. And, in the gospel, after reading from Isaiah, Jesus claims that the prophetic text is being fulfilled in him. Jesus identifies Himself as the One Whom God has appointed to bring the good news to the poor.

But our readings go even further. They invite us to reflect more deeply upon what it means to speak God’s Word to others. As it turns out, to be God’s spokesperson often means having to speak an unpopular word. An embarrassing word. Even a scandalising and upsetting word. This was certainly true of Jeremiah. When we read further on in the book of Jeremiah, we see just how unpopular was the message that God wanted him to proclaim. At a time when the Babylonian empire was growing in strength, and posing a serious military threat. At a time when many voices were calling for military alliances to be made, and military action to be taken, against Babylon. Jeremiah tried to persuade the people to submit. To let themselves be conquered. Even to allow their precious Temple to be destroyed. And they themselves to be sent into exile. Is it any wonder, then, that the people were so unhappy with Jeremiah that some even plotted to have him killed?

The situation in the gospel is similar. Perhaps one of the most striking things in the reading is the sudden shift in public perception of Jesus. When He first identifies himself as the Saviour that everyone is waiting for, we’re told that he won the approval of all. Not only that, but people immediately try to claim him as their own. This is Joseph’s son, surely? They exclaim. In other words, he is one of us. We know him. His achievements are our achievements. We can share in his glory. And it must have been so easy for Jesus simply to go along. To ride this wave of public approval. As any politician might.

But Jesus is the Prophet. Not a politician. His concern is not to win popularity, but to speak the Truth. He points out that it is not God’s intention simply to side with the people of Israel against their enemies. For God does not take sides in the way that we may expect. If anything, God sides not so much with Jew or Roman, but with all who are downtrodden and oppressed. Wherever and whomever they may be. As Jesus reminds the people, this is how God acted in the past. In a time of famine, when both Jews and Gentiles were starving, it was a Gentile that God sent Elijah to feed. A widow from Sidon. And, even though there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha, it was Naaman, from Syria, that God sent the prophet to heal. This is how God operated in the great prophets of the past. And this is how God is operating in Jesus in the present. God’s mercy reaches beyond human boundaries to embrace all who may be suffering. All who may need God’s care and concern.

This, of course, is not a popular message to preach. It is not a politically astute position to take. So seriously does it scandalise the people, so upset are they, that they try to do to Jesus what their ancestors tried to do to Jeremiah. They try to kill him.

Clearly, sisters and brothers, to be a prophet is not an easy thing. It’s not easy because it often means having to put one’s foot in one’s mouth. And to do it on a regular basis. Even to make it a way of life. And yet this is what we too are called to be and do. You and I. We, who have been baptised in Christ, share His prophetic mission to speak the often unpopular, but always truthful Word. Which is why it’s important for us to pay close attention to the reassurance that God gives to Jeremiah in today’s first reading. Although it may be difficult and frightening to be a prophet, God promises to strengthen us. To make us into a fortified city, a pillar of iron, and a wall of bronze. And God does this by pouring into us the gift that Paul writes about so beautifully in the second reading. The gift of God’s love. The gift that comes to us in the one Sacrifice of Christ, which we have all gathered around this altar this evening to celebrate and to share.

This gift of love–as well as the gift of prophecy that it empowers–is something that our world needs more than ever. Today, we need people loving enough to speak the unexpected and unpopular word. People like Canadian journalist, Carl Honoré, for example. In a world increasingly obsessed with speed, Carl has written a book In Praise of Slowness. Or people like American former-corporate lawyer, Susan Cain. In a world that tends to favour extroverts–people who crave continuous social connection–Susan has written a book entitled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Or, closer to home, people like Francis Yap. The father of Nigel and Donovan. The two brothers recently killed in a tragic accident in Tampines. At a time when others might curse and urge retaliation against the driver responsible for his sons’ deaths, Francis has this to say: Losing my sons, my heart is broken. Even if I hit, punch or scold him, my children can't come back…. as a Christian, I must learn to forgive.

Sisters and brothers, how is God calling us to speak the truthful word, and to live the prophetic call? How are we being invited, in some way, to put our foot in our mouth today?

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