Sunday, January 28, 2007

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Of Sticks and Stones and the Word that Overcomes Them

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; Psalm 71:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-17; 1 Corinthians 12:31—13:13 or 13:4-13; Luke 4:21-30

Sisters and brothers, you’ll probably agree with me when I say that it’s not easy to be a Christian. I mean, it’s one thing to get yourself baptized and then go to church every Sunday, or even everyday. That is already not easy. But to try to live like Christ everyday… to try to live a life centered on God alone… to forgive and even to love your enemies… in the midst of all that is wrong in our world, to speak and live in ways that proclaim to all people the Good News that Good has already triumphed over evil… that’s not so easy, is it? It’s so much easier simply to be like everyone else.

I’m reminded of a couple of phrases that I heard or learnt when I was growing up. They’re probably familiar to you too. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Remember that one? That was what you were supposed to say when others teased you or made fun of you. Instead of feeling hurt and bursting into tears, or getting angry and punching someone in the nose, you were supposed to simply chant that line at them and walk away. Very classy. Then there was the grown-ups’ favourite reply whenever I did something wrong and tried to push the blame on someone else. But so-and-so told me to do it, I’d protest. And the reply would be: If so-and-so told you to jump off a building would you do it too? It’s difficult to argue with that kind of reasoning.

These two lines from my childhood make a very good point, especially when we consider them together. They tell us that we should be able to think for ourselves and not be too easily influenced or manipulated by others. Don’t worry about what they may think or say about you. You do what you’re supposed to do, what you know to be right and good. And that’s that. This is very good advice, especially for us Christians, who are expected to proclaim the Gospel in deed and in word, both in and out of season, no matter what response we might get.

But, of course, although they may sound good in theory, things are not always so simple in practice, are they? However hard we may try to be our own person, isn’t there something within us that often seems to search desperately for the approval or acceptance of others. However independent we may think we are, isn’t there a part of us that somehow seems only all too eager to conform? From the clothes we wear to the cars we drive, from the language we use to the friends we keep, consciously or not, don’t many of us tend to be too much influenced by what others think and do?

To be fair, of course, the pressure to conform can be very strong. While it may be true that the words spoken on the childhood playground cannot hurt us, we all know how dangerous and even deadly words can be, don’t we? We may walk away unscathed when someone says to us, you look like a pig. But what about words such as: I’m seeing someone else now, I want a divorce… or I’m sorry the company is downsizing… or it’s stage four, I’m afraid there’s nothing more we can do…? And what about those words that we don’t actually hear but we somehow suspect are being uttered about us behind our backs? What about the gossip – whether downright malicious or simply misguided – that is capable of not only destroying our reputations but also our friendships and our families, our livelihood and our dreams?

In the face of such pressures, isn’t it at least excusable that we should simply do what everyone else is doing? Keep quiet even when it would be proper for a Christian to speak up? Continue speaking even when it would be prudent for a Christian to shut up? What else can we do? Never mind sticks and stones sometimes words can do as much damage, if not more.

But then, just as we may be ready to raise our arms in surrender, the gospel presents us today with this surprising story of Jesus. It is the beginning of his public ministry. He goes to his hometown where he is very well-known and proclaims the Good News. But he does so in a very strange way. We notice how, at the beginning, he won the approval of all… by the gracious words that came from his lips. And yet, he proceeds to antagonize his listeners, to speak words that are not pleasant to hear, so that they actually want to kill him. Couldn’t he simply have kept quiet and basked in their praise for at least a little while longer? Why did he have to speak those provocative words? Couldn’t he have saved them for another, more opportune, time?

Strangely enough, however, although they want to kill him, he manages to slip through the crowd and walked away. In my imagination, it’s as if he simply turned to his fellow townsfolk and chanted those words we learnt as children – sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me – and then walked away. Very classy.

But, of course, we know there is more. We know there will come a time when they will indeed be using sticks and stones, and nails and thorns. They will break his skin and tear his flesh. They will mangle and even kill his body. And still, by meekly hanging on the cross, he will continue eloquently to speak the truth. He will continue to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour… liberty to captives… new sight to the blind… freedom to the downtrodden… Even though they kill him, still he will rise again. What is this power that allows him to do all this? Is he superhuman, invulnerable to suffering? And yet we know all about the great anguish he will endure in Gethsemane. We know how his sweat will fall like great drops of blood. He is a human person like us – subject to the same pressures and temptations. How then does he endure where we so easily succumb?

We heard the reason in the first reading today. His strength comes from his relationship with someone else. I… will make you into a fortified city, a pillar of iron, and a wall of bronze... They will fight against you but shall not overcome you. If the gracious yet provocative words that Jesus spoke could not be silenced, not even by sticks and stones, it was because Jesus himself is also the eternal Word of the Father – a Word that is stronger than sticks and stones, more powerful than death itself. It is a powerful word because it is a Word spoken in love, the same love described so beautifully by Paul in the second reading. This is the Holy Spirit, the eternal love between the Father and the Son that overflows into us and the whole of creation. A love that endures even when all else passes away. As Paul says, there are three things that last: faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love.

And in Christ, this love, this power, is accessible to us as well. Here is where we can find the strength to speak the words that need to be spoken, even when it’s inconvenient or risky. If we are truly to heed Jeremiah’s call to brace ourselves for action… to stand up and tell them all that the Lord commands us, it is only by continually taking refuge in the Father’s love for us in Christ, it is only by truly letting this love be our rock and mighty stronghold.

Sisters and brothers, sticks and stones may indeed break our bones, but God’s Word of love to us in Christ remains forever.

How might we listen more closely to this Word, how might we enter more deeply into this Love, today?

1 comment:

  1. To Fr Chris' "sticks and stones", may I add a countervailing "don't get mad, get even". I'm sure we've heard this often enough, usually in jest.

    There is something about "having my way" that beguiles many people. Has it got to do with proving that we are right? Or knowledgeable? Or dominant? Or being just plain insecure? In this respect, I am drawn to Fr Chris remark: "the art of knowing when to keep quiet and when to speak out". I do not have the art. In fact, I have quite the opposite. This 'art' is not only acquired with age but I believe a gift, a gift which those gifted treasure greatly.

    As social beings, we all long for acceptance and approval. To be "one of the boys". Like Fr Chris writes, from the friends we keep, the clothes we wear, even our manner of speech. The pressure to conform is so strong and subtle sometimes we miss it altogether. This pressure to conform is quite harmless when it is about morally-neutral matters like the type of food we like, the movies we like to watch, etc., but the danger lies in not being aware of moral issues. Jesus dined and wined with friends and Pharisees, but when it came to matters of conscience, He set His Face "like flint" - unflinching - and paid the ultimate price for it.

    May the Word of God and Eternal Love motivate and animate us.