Called to be Prophets; to Speak the Truth

Reflection for the 14th Sunday. Year B. 2018
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Archway, London 


In a typical African village, back in the day, adult education lessons were arranged for the elders to teach them how to express themselves in simple English sentences.

On the first day of the lesson, the young man teaching them said “my father has a motor car” and asked the elders to repeat that after him. But the elders took it literally. They objected and told him: “We know your father, he has no motor car”. And feeling slighted that the young man is feeding them lies, they abandoned him and his lessons.

Friends, the hardest type of mission is preaching to those who suppose that they know you in and out. That was the mission of Ezekiel in our First Reading this Sunday. That is equally the experience of Jesus in the Gospel.

Unlike Jonah who was sent on foreign mission to Nineveh and Moses to Egypt, Ezekiel is sent his own “rebellious” people of Israel. On the other hand, after working wonders in other places and growing in popularity, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. There, he spoke in the synagogue as was the right of any devout Jew. But instead of responding with pride at his brilliance, they treated him with cynicism.

They couldn’t reconcile his brilliance with his unimpressive background, which they thought they know too well. They therefore retorted: “Where are all these coming from? This is the carpenter we know too well. We know his family too.” In other words, who the hell does he think he is? And, like the elders in the adult education class, they would have none of him.

But do they really know him that well as they claimed? Yes, they know his poor family background but is that all there is to him?

The young Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie famously noted that there is danger in having just a single story about people. In the case of Jesus, it led to the most tragic incident in the whole Bible – he was unable to work miracles! Yes, not that he didn’t want to, but as the Gospel says “he could not work miracles there”.

We may ask: “Is anything impossible for Jesus?” Well, we now know better. It is impossible for Jesus to perform miracles where there is no faith.

Recall last week’s Gospel where many were pressing and touching him all over but nothing happened. It was not until the woman with haemorrhage touched him with faith that his healing power was enabled. The Gospel says that Jesus was amazed at the people’s unbelief. Therefore, while we wonder why God does nothing in the face of human suffering, God is perhaps amazed at our unbelief that made it impossible for Him to act.

God constantly visits us through familiar sources; the people we know, our environment, our experiences. But how often have we hindered his love and healing power because we are blinded by our myopic vision (our prejudice), to see and accept Him in persons and situations that appear too common and ordinary.

Every person or group has their negative story. But problem arises when people are defined by their negative story which doesn’t tell their full story. That is stereotyping.

When we stereotype people, we put them in a box and they are disabled because nobody can perform effectively from inside a box. That was what happened to Jesus and many are similarly disabled today.

For instance, Nigerians are stereotyped as scammers. So, there was this story of a Nigerian priest (not me) who was posted to a UK parish. On hearing that their new Parish Priest is a Nigerian, the parishioners hastily put together a Finance Committee to keep an eye on their money. They went further to write to the Bishop expressing their fears.

The Bishop forwarded the letter to the priest perhaps as a way of saying “don’t prove them right.” So, right from the first day, the priest became pre-occupied with disproving this stereotype. He would not touch the parish money even for necessities. The church fell into disrepair, with the roof leaking from many points and the heater broken down. The parishioners were being soaked under freezing temperature. So, they raised a reverse alarm. Like the people of Nazareth for whom Jesus could not perform a miracle, people blinded by their myopic prejudice become the ultimate losers because with their attitude they don’t get the best of people. In fact they get the worst of people.

Jesus bitterly lamented that a prophet is only despised by his own people. Ironically, what people find displeasing about others is not the real person but some distortion they have made of the person. In a sense, Jesus returns to his hometown every time his Gospel is proclaimed in the places which were once the cradle of Christianity. Places like Italy, France, Ireland, the UK and indeed Europe in general are, for Christianity, what Nazareth was for Jesus – the place where he was raised.

Though Christianity was born in Asia, it grew up in Europe just as Jesus was born in Bethlehem but was raised in Nazareth. Today, these places run the same risk as the Nazarenes not to recognize Jesus. Jesus is “expelled” not only in the Constitutional Charter of the new united Europe but also in the recent votes for abortion in Ireland among other things.

Every baptised person is called to be a prophet; someone that speaks the truth of God to the world. Traditionally, prophets face resistance, hostility and even violent deaths. It is an irony that messages urging truth, love, justice, freedom and peace arouse such violent resistance.

Martin Luther King Jnr died for preaching the equality of all irrespective of race. Mahatma Gandhi died because, as a Hindu, he was friendly with Muslims. Bishop Oscar Romero died because he denounced the exploitation of the poor. The list is endless.

But whatever happens, we have to spread the message of the Gospel; to proclaim and defend truth, love, justice, freedom, people’s rights and dignity, in our families, in our work places, among our friends, in our society.

There are some things over which we cannot compromise and sometimes when we cannot keep silent. Sometimes we don’t succeed but as God told Ezekiel, we have to go anyway, that whether they heed or resist, they shall know that a prophet has been among them. As Mother Teresa would say, God calls us not to be successful but to be faithful. Leave the long term result to God who is always faithful.

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