By Father Joseph Brando
In modern times, the relationship between church and state is complex and difficult. The complication is due to multiple factors, including the migration of peoples, race, military power, the attitude of the people, and the power of one or more ethnic groups in the nation, among many other factors.Things were much less complicated in the ancient world. When states were starting up there was a simple organization that solved the problem successfully. There were two individuals who held power, one in the post of chief of secular affairs and the other as the prophet or priest who was the chief religious figure.
The king was, by himself, the leader of the executive, judicial and executive department of government. He (and it was a post mostly filled by a male, with few exceptions) was in charge of everything with two exceptions. He would generally not intrude with religious affairs. Besides that, the ‘high priest’ would name the king’s successor and could depose the king if he proved incompetent. One great example would be Samuel in the Old Testament. With God guiding him, Samuel named and anointed Saul as the first King of Israel and replaced him with David after Saul proved unable to fulfill his duties.
We can learn a lot by looking at these two positions as choices that Jesus could make as he became a human being to be God’s living word to us. In a sense he had only one choice. Being born as a son of Judah, Jesus was in the class of kings. Joseph, his step-father, bent over backwards to get Mary to Bethlehem before she gave birth to Jesus so that he could rightfully take on the name of the son of David. That put the Lord high in the line of succession as king of Judah and of Israel should the high priest see him as a viable candidate. Maybe that was the thought of the 12-year-old Jesus, who opted to dialogue with the priests in the Jerusalem temple rather than go home to the small northern town of Nazareth. Also, Jesus seemed to prefer the title of son of David even to the end. That also can help explain why Pontius Pilate posted (perhaps, aware of his birthright) as the reason for Jesus’ crucifixion that He was the King of the Jews. Yet, Jesus was called a prophet by many of his followers and he seemed to enjoy that role more than king.
This month’s liturgical readings give us a brief overlook of the roll taken by four different prophets. We could look to see how Jesus related to each of these. Then we can take the Gospel passages of the four Sundays of June and see how Jesus seems to view himself. Finally, we’ll peruse I Corinthians and Ephesians to see what St. Paul thinks Christians, as the Body of Christ, ought to consider as our place in contemporary society.
The four prophets (one for each of the Old Testament readings of Sundays of July) will be Ezekiel, Amos, Jeremiah, and Elisha. Each, in a way, foreshadows Jesus. Ezekiel, in the first reading of the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time (the first Sunday of July), is called the “Son of Man” and is sent to the northern country of Israel. (After King Solomon’s death, 10 tribes of Israel seceded and formed the ‘Kingdom of Israel.’ The two remaining southern tribes [Judah and Benjamin] formed the Kingdom of Judah.) Their task was to bring the Word of the Lord to a ‘rebellious house’ for the sake of letting them know a real prophet has been among them. That is to say he will most probably resist his preaching. Jesus referred to Ezekiel when he proclaimed “the Spirit went into me and set me on my feet.” Jesus, too, preached mostly in what had been the country of Israel. It had been destroyed 500 years earlier by the Assyrians. So, there is some resemblance of Jesus to Ezekiel.
The very next Sunday, we look at the prophet Amos. He, too, preached in Israel. Here we see the conflict between two different types of prophets. One belongs to a brotherhood of prophets. They lived in community and helped each other and were identified as belonging to that community that considered themselves in the school of a departed prophet such as Isaiah, much like present-day Franciscans or Dominicans who make St. Francis’ or St. Dominic’s ideas active in our present day. Amos is challenged by the leader of one of those fraternities of prophets. He is accused of prophesying in their territory. Amos responds that he is not a prophet but a simple farmer sent by God to speak His word to the people of Israel. Once again, Jesus can identify with Amos.
The third Sunday of July presents us with Jeremiah. Jeremiah came to correct the misunderstanding of the prophets of his day, accusing them of scattering God’s sheep. He predicted that one, sent by God, would reunite God’s flock. Truly, it can be said that Jesus saw himself in the revelation of Jeremiah. He was to unite the flock; but not without much contention. However, Jeremiah also predicts a righteous shoot to David; as king he will reign and govern wisely. These prophetic words would have led Jesus to be a king rather than a prophet.
The last Sunday of July aims its spotlight on Elisha. He was the companion of and the successor to Elijah. Elijah was the prophet who challenged the Queen Jezabel in her quest to change Israel into an entirely pagan country like her native Sidon. Elijah was a patriot as well as a prophet. He wanted to return Israel to the Lord. He well-nigh succeeded. It was up to Elisha to finish the job after Elijah was lifted up to heaven on a fiery chariot. In the event narrated in the reading from the second Book of Kings, he foreshadows Jesus in multiplying 20 barley loaves for 100 people. This miracle was meant to remind them what God did for his people as part of the covenant he made with Israel in the desert. He fed them with manna. No matter how much a family would gather each day, when they got home each person had exactly the same weight as everyone else. Under this covenant, everyone was equal under God’s rule. Israel had become a theocracy. Looking back, those days seemed ideal and became the benchmark by which all forms of government were judged.
The Gospel readings of the month present highs and lows of Jesus’ public ministry. Returning to the first Sunday of July, Jesus returns to his ‘home town.’ He meets disaster. All his old friends and even members of his extended family, after listening to a great sermon in the synagogue, admitted that his words were wise. However, they still questioned his ability and degraded him as a mere carpenter and no better than anybody in the town. This rendered Jesus unable to perform any mighty deed there because of their lack of faith. What a welcome back to the North and to Galilee! This had to be among the lowest point in his life here on Earth.
On the following Sunday, the Gospel shows that Jesus bounced back. He turned the tide by sending out the 12 two by two to other towns near Nazareth. They proclaimed Jesus as the person he really is. They even performed miracles in his name. The rebound was amazing. People were now coming to Jesus quickly and in great numbers. What made the difference was the people’s belief that came through the preaching about repentance. Those who listened could see the world in a new light filled with the grace of God.
On the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we find Jesus calling the 12 to gather in a secluded area to debrief them privately. That plan joyfully fails as a huge crowd catches up to them. So Jesus puts plan B into action and embraces the crowd. He has pity on them. He shows them his divine mercy. Jesus makes himself the one who gathers these ‘sheep’ together as Jeremiah had prophesied. He becomes a shepherd.
On the last Sunday of the month Jesus goes to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Another huge crowd gathers around him. Here, perhaps quite near the place where Elisha multiplied barley loaves, Jesus feeds not 100 but 5,000 men starting with five barley loaves and two fish. The disciples collected 12 baskets of leftovers. The crowd’s reaction was to shout, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” And, adds John, “they were going to come and carry him off to make him king.” Jesus’ answer was to withdraw to a mountain alone. In a sense, the people wanted Jesus to be both prophet and king. That’s a position one man can’t handle. The only way to do so is to die so as to enter into each human heart and soul and be personally our king and prophet.
Finally, we come to the New Testament readings. The first Sunday of July’s reading is taken from II Corinthians and the other three from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. In the first reading, Paul warns us that having Christ alive in us leads to elation and joy. However, it also includes weaknesses, as, for example, Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Such weaknesses hurt. Yet, Paul concludes that “power is made perfect in weakness.” That is to say the combination of God’s glorious grace within us combined with our natural weakness produces a person who is a sign of God’s presence in the world. It is solid and reliable. That’s the choice Jesus made. His death and resurrection makes it possible for Him to reign in our hearts. Since Christ’s presence heals us from our weaknesses, it can be recognized as truly divine. This grace within us will draw others to come near and eventually desire this divine presence in their own lives.
In the New Testament reading for the second Sunday of July, Paul explains some of the process he wrote about to the Corinthians. We, Christians, receive “every spiritual blessing in the heavens.” We become holy (that is called by God to be close to Him) and in a loving relationship with God. We are redeemed and forgiven. All of this makes baptized Christians a sacrament of Jesus. We become the pulpit from which Christ speaks the Word of God to the world.
On the third Sunday, Paul tells the Ephesians that Christ is our peace. He makes our relationship with Christ. In his blood, the barrier of our flesh is removed allowing us to be one with God. We form one new person. Our king has eliminated the need for the laws of the Old Covenant. All we need to be is one with Christ. We will have only one will and that is joined to Christ’s. He is our law, our king. And, we are one with Him.
On the last Sunday of the month, Paul sums up what all this means for us. We are to live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience bearing with one another through love, trying to preserve the unity of the Spirit.”
So, what did Jesus choose? Was he a king or a prophet? Or, is he neither? Actually, he chose to be the Lamb of God. He will always accept our invitations to dwell in our lives and preach to the world from each of our lives that have become one with him through the sacraments. Together with Christ, we share his role as the one who takes away the sins of the world. In Him, we become sons of the Father, filled with the Holy Spirit and uniting the world as one in Christ. He is the Messiah, our Savior.
Father Joseph Brando is a retired priest in the Diocese of Knoxville