14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Jesus' prophetic rudeness
(Readings: Ezekiel 2:2-5; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6)
Introduction to Mass
The readings for Mass this Sunday and next Sunday make a connection between Christ and the prophets of the Old Testament period - a connection Jesus himself makes in the gospel passage today.
Like the Old Testament prophets Jesus communicated and revealed God's message to the people, a message which was often unpopular and often angrily rejected, not only by the elite of religious leaders who had their own interests to protect, but by the ordinary people as well, even including, as in today's gospel, the members of Jesus own family.
To begin Mass we recall the times weíve been unwilling to accept the prophetic content of Jesusí message, and we ask God for his forgiveness.
The six lines of Mark's gospel that we just listened to don't give much of an impression of the general context in which this disagreement takes place.
The context was that from the beginning of his ministry Jesus encountered opposition to his preaching and his activity. The main cause of the opposition was the claim Jesus was making, both implicitly by his activities and explicitly by the words of his preaching, to be representing God, to be speaking and acting on God's behalf - in other words to be following in the tradition of the prophets.
It was in reviving and re-stating the priorities and the areas of concern of the prophets - their "agenda" as we would say now - that Jesus ran into trouble with the religious authorities.
So, what is the prophetic agenda? What were the priorities and concerns that the prophets continually raised and spoke out against?
Putting it briefly, there were two main items on the prophetic agenda, and those were, in biblical language, righteousness and justice.
The prophets were the upholders of the Covenant established between God and the Chosen People, and it was their vocation to constantly draw attention to, and summon the people to return to, the terms of the Covenant. In practice this meant that they often found themselves reproaching the people with betraying the Covenant or neglecting their side of the Covenant relationship.
One side of this was their concern about righteousness or holiness or faithfulness to God. The Hebrew People were set apart from the other pagan nations around them by their worship of the one God. That's what the first of the Ten Commandments was about.
But the prophets often found the people engaging in idolatry - in other words, worshipping other Gods, taking on the beliefs of the pagan religions and copying their religious ceremonies and sacrifices. Their reaction to that was to call for a return to the heart of their own faith - a return to loyalty and faithfulness to God.
When they were faced with cultural influences from outside Israel, or perhaps changed economic circumstances, like an increase in material prosperity within the country, the prophets didn't agitate to re-interpret or modernize the faith, or introduce innovations to adapt to the new situation.
In those circumstances the prophets re-stated the beliefs and the practices of their traditional faith even more vigorously. They were very fierce in denouncing anything they thought contained the danger of detracting from God's complete sovereignty over Israel, or anything that downgraded God or corrupted the Covenant faith.
That was one area of concern. But the second item on their agenda involved demanding that the people live the practical implications of the Covenant by fostering a climate of justice in their society.
The prophets often used passionate and highly-coloured language to paint a picture of a dishonest and decadent country, deceitful business practices, exploitation of workers, a small elite living in luxury and failing to look after the poor members of society. To them this was a country that had turned its back on God in order to worship wealth and prosperity instead.
So this was the tradition that Jesus claims to be following in. But when he goes back to his hometown of Nazareth he finds that in spite of his activities and his powerful preaching, his old friends and family don't accept him in this role.
For them his identity is bound by his origins and his job and his family - isn't this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joset, and so on, and there's the implication of a note of ridicule in their remarks.
Jesus replies with an insult. His well-known statement about a prophet not being accepted in his own country, among his own relations, and in his own house tells us two things.
The first thing is the point Jesus himself is making: that the people who should perhaps be able to recognise him best, and realise most clearly what he's about, don't really know him at all, and haven't got the discernment to recognise a prophet when they see one.
But the second thing is the way Jesus makes his point - with an insult, with a bit of invective or sarcasm.
This was the prophetic style, and for us, reading the gospel now, its a reminder to get an accurate picture of the person of Christ - not someone who was always mellow and agreeable and congenial, but somebody who very often revealed God, and God's will, in an abrasive and rude and insulting way, if he thought his listeners were being especially obstinate and stupid.
In the Church now we always need to be prepared to listen to critics, outsiders, people who donít belong to the atmosphere of cosy mutual appreciation that often seems to be the hallmark of church life. We need to resist the temptation to ignore criticism on the pretext that itís exaggerated or too harsh or insulting.
Rejecting criticism because of the manner in which itís put is often a way of dismissing inconvenient truths. In the Church we should always be ready to accept that the abrasive critic might be the person who is being faithful to Jesusí own preaching, while the respectable insiders are the ones who are following in the footsteps of Christ's enemies.
So the lesson I would suggest we take from this Sundayís gospel is that we always need to be sensitive to both the content and the style of prophetic speaking-out.
This short passage by St. Mark, with Christ defiantly pressing his claim to be a prophetic spokesman for God, reminds us what the prophets' agenda consists of, and at the same time, it calls us back to a whole and accurate picture of the Saviour weíre meant to believe in, rather than the manageable, domesticated version that sometimes takes his place.