Scripture in Depth
Reading I: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19
Today’s Old Testament reading consists of the first and last portions of the account of Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet. The call, properly speaking, covers verses Jeremiah 1:4-10, 17-19, and it would have been more consistent with the structure of the text to divide the material thus, omitting only the two visions that interrupt the narrative of the call (Jer 1:11-16).
The call is related in the form of a dialogue between YHWH and the prophet. Jeremiah was predestined from the womb to be a prophet—a characteristically biblical emphasis on the initiative of YHWH in Israel’s salvation history.
“Consecrated” refers to the separation of the prophet for a distinctive role in that history. Jeremiah’s call played an important role in Paul’s understanding of his apostolic call (Gal 1:15).
The liturgical selection today, however, treats Jeremiah’s call as a type of Jesus’ messianic call, for this passage was chosen to match the second half of the sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth.
Jeremiah’s mission is not merely to Israel but to “the nations.” Since the time of Amos, the prophets had a strong sense of God as the sovereign Lord of all history, not just that of his people. This lordship was expressed more in his judgments than in his acts of mercy.
The caption, “I have appointed you as prophet to the nations,” calls special attention to this universality of Jeremiah’s mission because of the Epiphany season and also because of the Gospel Reading, which invokes the stories of Elijah and Elisha as types of Christ’s universal ministry.
In these two types, however, the emphasis is on the salvation of YHWH reaching out beyond Israel rather than on his judgment.
In the second paragraph of our reading, Jeremiah is warned of the opposition he will incur in Israel, which again links this reading with Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth. There is a consistency both in God’s dealings with his people and in his people’s reaction to his word, a consistency that runs through both the Old Testament and the New.
Responsorial Psalm: 71:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-17
This psalm is an individual lament, sung by an aged person in a time of sickness (third stanza). The afflicted one flees to God and prays for deliverance (first and second stanzas), and concludes with a vow to praise God henceforth (presumably in thanksgiving for delivery from sickness).
This hymn would be suitable for Christian devotion at any time, for the Christian’s fundamental sickness is sin, and the delivery is forgiveness through the atoning work of Christ.
However, the reason for its choice today seems to be that Jeremiah frequently fled to God for refuge in face of the hostility of the kings, princes, priests, and people of Judah (First Reading).
Reading II: 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13 or 13:4-13
Paul’s hymn to charity falls into four parts: (1) 1 Corinthians 12:1-3; (2) 1 Cor 12:4-7; (3) 1 Cor 12:8-12; (4) 1 Cor 12:13: conclusion. The shorter reading consists of the second and third parts plus the conclusion. The longer reading reproduces the whole hymn plus 1 Cor 12:31, which indicates its context in the letter, namely, Paul’s discussion of the charismata.
The first and third parts refer to the charismata; the second part is more abstract and general in its characterization of agape. The hymn’s place in the letter is problematical. 1 Corinthians 14:1 would follow directly upon 1 Cor 12:31a.
Whereas 1 Cor 12:31b in the RSV [= 1 Cor 13:1 in the NAB] promises one “more excellent way,” the hymn gives us the three virtues of faith, hope, and love, although love is acknowledged to be the greatest.
These problems have led some to suppose that the hymn is a post-Pauline interpolation, but the first and third parts are too specifically related to the context, the discussion of the charismata, for that.
Striking, too, is the lack of any specific Christological reference in the hymn. But the triad of faith, hope, and love belongs to Christian tradition and occurs elsewhere in the Pauline letters, especially in the opening thanksgivings. Otherwise the hymn is akin in style to hymns in praise of wisdom and other virtues found in Hellenistic Jewish wisdom literature.
It might be suggested that the second part of the hymn was preformed in Hellenistic Jewish Christianity or even in Hellenistic Judaism, and that Paul himself has adapted it to the context by adding the first and third parts.
Note the difference of style: the first and third parts are written in an “I” style. This is not Paul’s own ego speaking but refers to anyone or everyone. This use of the “I” style is characteristic of Hellenistic rhetoric (cf. Rom 7:7-25).
If the central paragraph originally stood on its own, before Paul used it here, and was modeled on Hellenistic Jewish material, we can see why agape is treated simply as a human virtue without any reference to Christology, and why there is no clarification about its object—whether it is God’s love for human beings or their love for God or for others. It is simply the description of an abstract virtue, like the praise of wisdom in the wisdom literature.
Gospel: Luke 4:21-30
As we have already noted, this is the second part of the sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth. The first part, read last Sunday, consisted of the text of the sermon (Is 61) and the brief declaration in Luke 4:21, with which today’s reading also opens.
The synagogue congregation expresses its astonishment at Jesus’ teaching and is perplexed because it knows his human origins. This material is similar to Mark 6, though the reference to Jesus’ family is different, recalling John 7:41-42 and therefore suggesting a second source.
Then comes the proverb “Physician, heal thyself” (not found elsewhere in the Synoptics) and the awkward reference to works already done in Capernaum—awkward because in Luke’s Gospel Jesus has not yet worked there. This would suit the Marcan context better, but the reference to Capernaum is absent from Mark.
Therefore the proverb and the reference to Capernaum must be a fragment of a non-Marcan version of the rejection that Luke has inserted here. Then comes the saying from Mark about the prophet’s not being honored in his own country.
After this we have more material peculiar to Luke, namely, the references to the miracles performed for Gentiles by Elijah and Elisha. The style and vocabulary of this section are definitely Lucan, as A. R. C. Leaney notes in his commentary on Luke. The interest in turning to the Gentiles after the rejection by Israel is also a characteristic Lucan theme.
It is impossible to say for certain whether the whole of this section of the sermon is Lucan composition (Leaney leaves the question open). There is, of course, the possibility that the examples of Elijah and Elisha had already been used in Christian preaching before Luke, and that he has worked these traditional features into his composition, just as he formed the kerygmatic speeches in Acts out of earlier Christological formulas and Old Testament testimonia.
The story closes with a hostile attempt on Jesus’ life. At first sight this looks like a Lucan expansion of Mark’s statement (Lk 6:3) that the people of Nazareth were offended at Jesus because of his teaching.
But the miraculous escape from a hostile crowd is paralleled in John 10:39, so it is hardly likely to be a Lucan creation. It seems, therefore, that Luke has a special source containing a version of the Nazareth episode differing from Mark’s.
This alternative tradition will include: (1) the citation of Isaiah 61; (2) the proverb about the physician and the reference to earlier works in Capernaum; (3) the attempt to stone Jesus. Luke will then have combined this narrative with Mark’s, expanding it by his own composition and embodying the references to Elijah and Elisha.
The effect of this Lucan redaction is to make the story programmatic to his two-volume work. Luke will repeatedly stress the fact that because of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah, the gospel goes forth to the Gentile world.
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University