A Faith That Does Justice engages The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola[i] (Exercises) to discern God’s will and live faith in action on behalf of all God’s people. When appropriately adapted they offer a way for all people of good will to do the same.
The contemplations of Jesus’ public ministry help us come to know him, love him and join him in the unfinished work of the kingdom of God. This Exercise presents Jesus’ Return to Galilee (Mk 1:14-15). As with the other contemplations of Jesus’ public ministry, we also end this one with the triple colloquy (conversation) of A Meditation on Two Standards.[ii]
Jesus’ Return to Galilee
After Herod Antipas arrested John the Baptist (Mk 1:14; Mt 4:17; Lk 3:19-20), Jesus left Judea to begin his public ministry in Galilee (Mk 1:14-15; Lk 4:14-30). John would never fully realize his impact as the one who had prepared the way of the Lord (Mk 1:3), nor that his violent death would foreshadow a similar demise for Jesus (Mk 6:17-29) and many of his disciples (Mk 8:34-35).[iii]
Mark announces the beginning of Jesus public ministry with a simple, but profound, proclamation.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mk 1:15)[iv]
The kingdom of God implies a reign of God over creation where God’s love will be experienced by all people, where God’s compassion at the sight of human suffering will be felt by those in need, and where God’s justice will extend from the depths of the oceans to the outer reaches of space. Galilee had a special resonance for Jesus as the appropriate location to proclaim that the kingdom of God had irrupted into history. It was not only the place of his upbringing; it was a locus of unjust suffering and oppression in first-century Jewish Palestine. José A. Pagola describes the Galileans of Jesus’ time in this way.
“In these Galilean villages lived the poorest and most marginalized people, dispossessed of their right to enjoy the land God had given them; here more than anywhere else, Jesus found the sick and suffering Israel, abused by the powerful; here is where Israel felt the harshest effects of oppression. The powerful lived in the cities, along with their diverse collaborators: managers, large landowners, and tax collectors. They did not represent the people of God, rather the oppressors, the cause of the misery and hunger of these families. The coming of the kingdom of God must begin among the most humiliated people. These poor, hungry, afflicted people were the ‘lost sheep’ who represented all the dispirited people of Israel. Jesus was very clear about this. The reign of God could only be proclaimed out of a close, direct contact with the people who most needed breathing space and liberation. The good news of God could not come from the splendid palace of Antipas in Tiberius, or from the sumptuous villas in Sepphoris, or from the wealthy neighborhood where the priestly elites lived in Jerusalem. The seeds of the God’s reign would only find fertile soil among the poor of Galilee.”[v]
Luke offers a more detailed account of Jesus’ return to Galilee (Lk 4:14-30). He transposes and redacts a later scene from Mark’s gospel (Mk 6:1-6) as a way to foreshadow the rejection Jesus will experience, beginning in Galilee and ending in Jerusalem. For Luke, what is most important to convey about Jesus is the Spirit’s presence upon him, even if he omits several features essential to Mark’s version of this scene.[vi] Nevertheless, it is a dramatic beginning to Jesus’ public ministry.
“Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” (Lk 4: 14-15)[vii]
However, when Jesus came to Nazareth the reception he had previously received changed. There, after entering its synagogue on the sabbath day, an attendant handed him a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus unrolled it and read the following passage (Lk 4: 16-17).
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Lk 4:18-19; Is 61:1-2, 58:6)
After Jesus finished reading, he rolled up the scroll, returned it to the attendant, and sat down. Then, with the eyes of all fixed upon him, he announced,
“Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing (Lk 4:21).”
Jesus had proclaimed himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. It was a profound message of liberation, not only from sin, but from the socio-economic structures of society that oppressed the Galilean people.[viii] While his fellow Nazarenes praised him, Jesus reacted negatively to their support. He sensed in their joy a desire to claim him as a prophet of their own and thereby assume a sense of entitlement towards whatever benefits his ministry might produce. In fact, Jesus’ message of liberation would not be exclusive to the people of Nazareth, or even to Israel. It would reach out to all of creation. To the surprise of his fellow Nazarenes, he responded,
“Truly, I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” (Lk 4:24)
Jesus then spoke of God’s infinite love and predilection for people of authentic faith. He recalled how in an earlier time Elijah did not offer food to the widows of Israel during a famine of three-and-a-half-years, but only to a pagan woman at Zarapeth in Sidon because of her profound faith (1 Kgs 17:8-24). He also recalled how Elisha did not heal the many lepers of Israel during his time of prophecy, but only Naaman, the Syrian (2 Kgs 5:8-14), for the same reason. With these implicit denunciations of his own people, they became filled with fury.
“They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Lk 4:29-30)
Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth would not be the last time he fled from a town or village because its people would not accept his liberating and salvific message. Authentic faith is verifiable. It puts aside self-interest and seeks God’s will above all else. Moreover, it is realized in action on behalf of God’s people. For Christians, it leads to accompanying Jesus in the unfinished work of the kingdom of God.
In truth, the growing presence of the kingdom of God cannot be maintained in history without the commitment of each succeeding generation of believers to incarnate the values of love, compassion and justice in this world. Gerhard Lofink affirmed this reality when he said, the failure to see the growing presence of the kingdom of God in history occurs “not by God’s hesitation but by the hesitance of human beings to turn their lives around.”[ix]
Ultimately, to live discipleship with Jesus requires the inner freedom to live with indifference to created things in order to discern God’s will and then act upon it in the ordinariness of our lives. Moreover, it requires the courage to accept the pushback and rejection of those who seek to undermine the values of the kingdom of God, so often at the expense of innocent people. However, for those who do commit to discipleship with Jesus, a pathway to self-fulfillment and salvation are set before them.
We end this contemplation with the triple colloquy of a Meditation on Two Standards as mentioned above. In doing so, let us pray we might not be deaf to God’s call to authentic discipleship with Jesus, trusting that despite the hardships we encounter along the way, we will one day know the fullness of God’s love in the kingdom of God.
[ii] Puhl, L. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1951), Section 147. See also https://www.faith-justice.org/the-spiritual-exercises-of-st-ignatius-of-loyola-second-week-a-meditation-on-two-standards/
[iii] Boring, M.E., Mark: A Commentary, (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 49–51.
[iv] Ibid., 51-53. Boring states, the kingdom of God has a threefold perspective: 1) the eternal rule of God – independent of all human action; 2) the present rule of God – in the individual lives of those who are obedient to God; 3) the future rule of God – that will triumph over the present rebellious state of the world. There, God will reestablish God’s rule over all of creation, bringing the world and history to an end, and restoring creation to its unity under God’s sovereignty. See also, Meier, J.P., A Marginal Jew, (New York, NY: ABRL, Doubleday, 1991), vol. 2, pages 237-88; Byrne, B., A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008), 41.
[v] Pagola, J.A., Jesus: An Historical Approximation, (Miami, FL: Convivium Press, 2015), 598.
[vi] Fitzmyer, J.A., The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), 522, 529. These features include John the Baptist’s imprisonment as the reason for Jesus’ return to Galilee (Mk 1:14; Mt 4:12); Jesus’ announcement of the proximity of the kingdom of God, and his call to repentance and belief (Mk 1:14-15). Interestingly, Luke mentions John the Baptist’s imprisonment only later in his gospel (Lk 3:19-20).
[vii] Ibid., 521-22. Fitzmyer describes Lk 4:14-15 as a Lucan summary statement, or overview, of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. See also, 4:31-32, 40-41; 6:17-19.
[viii] Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 2 page 492. Meier doubts Jesus’ “inaugural sermon” (Is 61:1-2) as described by Luke is historical. While it mirrors Isaiah’s message of hope to the returning exiles from Babylon, it is likely a redaction of Mark’s version of Jesus’ early presence in Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6). Interestingly, the full passage of Isaiah ends with the statement, “to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord and a day of vindication by our God…” (Is 61:2, italics mine). Luke omits any sense of God’s coming vengeance. Instead, he emphasizes God’s love for, and fidelity to, God’s people. See also, Byrne, B., The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 56-61.
[ix] Lohfink, G., Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), 32-34.