By Father Donald Dilger
First Reading: Ezekiel 2:2-5; Response: Psalm 123:1-2, 2, 3-4; Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Gospel: Mark 6:1-6
Ezekiel was a young priest associated with the temple in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 6th century B.C. He was an eyewitness to the declining days of the Kingdom of Judah. The super-power of the day was the Neo-Babylonian Empire ruled by King Nebuchadnezzar. In those times as in our times there were satellite countries under the unwanted protection of a superpower. When the superpower was unsatisfied with its satellite, troops were sent in. So it was with the Kingdom of Judah. A common way to control a satellite kingdom was to exile prominent and other citizens to the controlling nation — a form of hostage taking. Ezekiel was among the 8,000 hostages exiled to Babylon in 598-597 B.C. There among the exiles in 593 B.C. the Lord called him to be a prophet. A prophet is not a fortuneteller to foretell the future. He is God’s mouth to God’s people. In an autobiographical introduction to the ministry of Ezekiel we read, “As I was among the exiles on the bank of the River Chebar (in Babylon), heaven opened and I saw visions from God.” An editor adds, “The word of the Lord was addressed to the priest Ezekiel in the land of the Chaldeans, (alternate name for Babylonians), on the bank of the River Chebar.”
Such is the introduction to a very strange visionary display. The vision begins with a description of a Chariot of Fire, pulled by four living creatures, each with four faces — human, lion, ox, and eagle. (Centuries later Christian commentators made of these faces the symbols of the four authors of our four gospels.) There was a dome over the heads of the four creatures. Above the dome Ezekiel saw a throne. On the throne there was a being in human form. An autobiographical note follows, “Such was the appearance of the glory of the Lord, and when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.” The voice said, “Human Being (son of man), stand up and I will speak to you.” At this point our first reading begins. The Spirit of the Lord takes over, sets Ezekiel on his feet, and he hears the message of the Lord. “I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against me . . . to this very day.” The description of the Israelites is not flattering, “hard of face, obstinate of heart, a rebellious house.” Possible reason for the selection of this reading: in today’s gospel Jesus experiences the same resistance from his fellow-citizens as Ezekiel will experience from his own.
Psalm 123 echoes some of the concepts of Ezekiel’s vision. The Psalmist sees the enthronement of the Lord, ”To you I lift up my eyes who are enthroned in heaven . . . .” The contempt Ezekiel will experience and the contempt Jesus experiences in today’s gospel are reflected in the psalm, “Have pity on us, Lord, for we are more than sated with contempt. Our souls are more than sated with the mockery of the arrogant, with the contempt of the proud.” The psalm is a prayer for confidence in God, well-expressed in the people’s response, “Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.”
Much of 2 Corinthians is a defense (apologetics) of Paul’s apostolate. In the context of today’s reading he has been boasting about visions and revelations he received. As an antidote to his boasting and seeming arrogance he speaks of his “thorn in the flesh.” This must have been some kind of physical or mental affliction. He begged the Lord to be rid of it, but without success. This leads him to boast of his weakness rather than his strengths. The result: what seemed like his own power is really the power of Christ acting in Paul’s weak body. He is happy to bear all the sufferings his mission brings with it, “for Christ’s sake.”
In Mark’s arrangement of the material of his gospel Jesus was going back and forth across the Sea of Galilee in a ministry of teaching and healing. In today’s gospel he visits Nazareth, his hometown. As a faithful Jew he goes to synagogue on the Sabbath. He was well known. When a celebrity came to synagogue it was the custom to have him do a Scripture reading and offer comments on it. An example is given in Luke 4:16-22. The same custom became Paul’s approach to preaching Jesus in synagogues. Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes are amazed at the words of their former carpenter. They knew he had not studied as a disciple of some famous scribe, so they ask with a hint of contempt, “Where did this one get all this?” They had heard rumors about his curing of diseases. They ask, “What kind of wisdom has been given to him that enables him to do such mighty deeds?” The ‘wisdom’ would be various medical practices of the time, something Jesus did not need. Mark uses the Greek word ‘dunamis’ for Jesus’ miracles. The English word ‘dynamite’ is derived from this Greek noun, therefore the translation, ‘mighty deeds.’ The Nazarenes are not ready to accept the carpenter as teacher and healer.
The next question shows more than a hint of contempt. “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” Jesus had six siblings? That is a problem. There are three main theories. The first one: they are biological siblings of Jesus, children of Mary and Joseph. Such is the usual explanation from the Protestant side. Second theory: they are children of Joseph, a widower from an earlier marriage. This is acceptable and was supported by some Church Fathers. It is based on a 2nd century gospel excluded from the New Testament. It is this background that led artists to depict St. Joseph, spouse of the Virgin Mary, as an old man. Third theory: the ‘brothers and sisters’ are close relatives, first cousins (on his mother’s side of the family!) This view was vehemently defended by St. Jerome, (died 420). This is the most accepted Catholic Christian interpretation. There is some evidence in John’s gospel. If Jesus had fully biological brothers, why would he commend his mother to the care of the Beloved Disciple, “Son, behold your mother?” In the absence of DNA to the contrary, we profess with the creed, “born of the ever-virgin Mary.”