“Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place. Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”Luke 4: 24-27
Often when one of our brothers dies, we, his religious family, find ourselves surprised at the expressions of appreciation and gratitude he receives from countless persons whose lives were affected profoundly by his presence and actions in their regard. This is especially striking when the brother had been seen by the community as strange or eccentric, or sometimes even troublesome. This experience is not unfamiliar to all of us, I think. A member of our family who seems at least ordinary and sometimes problematic to us winds up being esteemed by countless persons we knew nothing about.
What is it about us that drives us to find fault with or become readily irritated by those who are close to us? Why is it so much easier for us to recognize the value and goodness of those at a distance, while becoming obsessed with the flaws and limits of those we live with every day? Today’s gospel reminds us that our difficulty in recognizing the gift that is always before us is a universal human experience. What seems clear is that we tend to diminish the gift of God that is those who are close to us as a perverse means to a distorted self-esteem.
St. Paul understands this inner dynamic of our personality very well, which is why he instructs the Philippians (2: 3-4):
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
This directive of Paul can seem somewhat problematic to us, as it can seem to feed that in us that would devalue ourselves. Yet, if we understand these words of Paul properly, we can hear him calling us to move against that in us which futilely attempts to create a feeling of self-esteem by diminishing others. When we live by the rules of competition and a sense of the scarcity of affection, we feel as if the recognition given to another somehow diminishes that which is available to ourselves.
As children, we are always carefully watching to see if our parents or our teachers or our friends like another more than ourselves. Even as adults we continue to be moved often in our relationships by envy and jealously. As a result, we wind up competing for the attention, respect, and affection of others. As Adrian van Kaam points out, however, we are also in competition in a more subtle way, that is with ourselves and with God.
In our deepest core, we are at least intuitively aware of our own original calling. Even if often we lose awareness of this truth, we somehow know how profoundly valuable we are as a unique image of God and gift to the world. We know that we are here to fulfill a task, an assignment, a mysterious call that is unique to ourselves. This is our true originality, who we are in our very origin. To be aware of our originality, however, is also to be aware of our failure to be faithful to it in every aspect of our life. The more we are aware, and this is true self-esteem, the more we realize that in much of our daily existence we settle for so much less than we are. And, to the degree that we repress our spiritual awareness of our own call, we are resentful of anyone who reminds us of this repressed truth. So, the person who dedicates him or herself to the faithful living out of his or her originality is a threat to us, and evokes envy in us. “When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.”
We kill the prophet because the prophet reminds us of our failure to live out our own destiny. The violence we feel and often express in the other’s regard is the violence that springs from the refusal of our own spiritual awareness. The entire project of esteeming ourselves by the bringing down of others is based on our refusal to accept our own infinite value and the responsibility that value imposes on us. We want to be seen as valuable but not recognize that our value is a call and an assignment for the world for which and to which we are responsible.
The heroines and heroes of the gospel are those who were lost and in Jesus become found, who respond to the call that they are to follow him. They are the ones, like most of us, who live an okay life but who busy themselves day to day in order to pass the time of their lives without having to reckon with their own original calling, with the “why” of their creation. The great human paradox is that our own true identity seems to our “fallen” self as just too much to be asked of us. Yet, it is only as we live out of that truth, and give everything we have away, that we begin to know “eternal life.” And because our call is original there is nothing comparative about it.
In the appearance of the Risen Jesus to the disciples on the shore, Peter questions Jesus, who has just told Peter of how he will be asked to give up his life for Jesus, about what will happen to John. “Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me’” (John 21: 22). This is Jesus’ teaching to each of us. Our responsibility to and for the original calling that we are is ours alone, as is true of every other person. “What is that to you?” Of course we can be and should be servants of each other’s fidelity and commitment. Yet, Jesus reminds us that in the matter of our own unique call, we are to “mind our own business.” We are not to justify our own spiritual laziness and carelessness by trying to bring down those whom God sends to remind us of our only real responsibility, which is fidelity to our own originality.
The truth is that charity is laudable and seldom considered dangerous. It is the sign of the nice person, the one who unloads the trucks or sets up the temporary housing units.Joan Chittester, The Time Is Now, p. 35
Prophecy, on the other hand, has ragged edges. It sets out to deconstruct the present situation. It critiques social structures to which many have given their lives or in which they have status. They are invested in its continuance. They have something to lose if the world listens to the cries of the prophet for change.