Jesus’ Homily in the Synagogue at Nazareth
The homily Jesus gave in the synagogue at Nazareth may be taken as the prototype or pattern for any homily (Luke 4:16-30). The Introduction to the Lectionary identifies four aims for the homily (§41) and at Nazareth Jesus addresses all four. These aims are
· to lead the hearers to an affective knowledge of Holy Scripture
· to open them to gratitude for the wonderful works of God
· to strengthen the faith of the hearer
· to prepare them for communion and for the demands of the Christian life.
How does Jesus’ homily at Nazareth meet these aims? First, he chose a text from the Book of Isaiah, the passage which speaks of the Spirit of the Lord coming to anoint the Lord’s messenger, deputing him to evangelise the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, to bring sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’, Jesus says, and we are told that they ‘wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth’ (Luke 4:21-22). Literally it means the words about grace that he spoke. The passage from Isaiah tells of the grace, or favour, of the jubilee year in which a fresh beginning makes new life possible. They are heartened and encouraged by this. Later in the Gospel of Luke we hear of disciples whose hearts burned within them as he opened the Scriptures for them (Luke 24:32) but already at Nazareth all spoke well of him.
‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’. This may be taken as the fundamental task in preaching a homily, to show how the Scripture that has just been read is being fulfilled in the lives of those who are listening. The second aim of the homily is to open people to gratitude for the wonderful works of God. These works are read about in the Scripture readings not just to recall great events in other places and at other times but with a view to showing how they continue to be effective here and now. The Word of God is ‘sacramental’, therefore, bringing to pass in the lives of believers the realities of which it speaks. We might say that it is good news only when those who listen are helped to see how the Word that has been proclaimed is working in their lives.
Jesus preaches in order to strengthen the faith of those who hear: this is the third aim of a homily. The text of Isaiah was presumably already well known to his congregation and he seeks to interpret its meaning for them. The difference in his teaching, we are told elsewhere, is that Jesus spoke with authority and with wisdom, often confirming what he taught by signs and wonders (Mark 1:27; Matthew 13:54; Luke 13:10). But at Nazareth his preaching breaks down and the situation becomes complicated.
So what went wrong? (This is presuming that something did go wrong: perhaps what happened is an example of how effective preaching can be!) Thinking of the fourth aim of the homily, we can see that Jesus is trying to prepare them for communion and for the demands of living according to his new way, but this does not go down well with them. If there is to be encouragement in the preaching of a homily there is also to be challenge. Gracious words call to generous living: to be holy as God is holy, compassionate as God is compassionate, loving one another as Jesus has loved us.
On the one hand Jesus in his homily says that the promises of God’s grace are being fulfilled even as they listen. These promises are being fulfilled in him, in his presence among them with his teaching and his works of power. Who would not be strengthened and encouraged?
On the other hand he begins to explain the implications of this time of grace by showing how it calls his listeners beyond their place of comfort to reckon with deep and demanding aspects of God’s gracious work. He reminds them of how earlier prophets brought God’s word and power beyond the confines of Israel. His preaching breaks down as he invites them to break open their hearts and lives, to be receptive once again to the grace of the Living God. The ancient text has come alive and its blessings are welcomed but its demands are not. The mood turns from wonder to anger and he must pass through the midst of them to get away.
The Evangelizing Word, Ancient and New
What might we learn about the homily and the new evangelization from this experience of Jesus at Nazareth? A first point worth pondering is that he is at home, ‘where he had been brought up’ (Luke 4:16). Home ought to be the place where he is most welcome but it becomes a place that rejects him. We can take ‘home’ to refer to places where the liturgy of the Church continues to be celebrated and where homilies continue to be given. We might think that such places have no need for the ‘new evangelization’ but are rather places from which it is done. ‘Home’ in this sense refers to countries, individuals, parishes, religious communities, and so on that have become content with their appropriation of the Word of God. When one speaks within a liturgy is one not preaching to the already converted? Won’t the new evangelization be done elsewhere, on the road, by the lake, on a mountain, on television and radio and the internet, but not in synagogues, or temples, or churches where people have already been evangelized?
It is true that the homily is part of the ordinary teaching and life of the Christian Church. As such it becomes routine and can be predictable. The Word that has found a home with us is in danger of becoming domesticated by us: we think we know what it is about, what its demands are, and what its reach is. One of the reasons why a new evangelization is needed is because people seem to have become tired of Christianity. It is aimed at individuals, communities and cultures that are ‘post-Christian’: they have heard and even tried the gospel but for various reasons have become lukewarm about it or perhaps given it up altogether. For them, the gospel message has lost its bite and its sting.
One challenge from the new evangelisation to homilists is to show how the Word with which people have become comfortable remains a two-edged sword. Another is to show how the Word to which people have become indifferent continues to offer grace, light and life.
Homilies given at liturgical celebrations of rites of passage provide opportunities to take up these challenges. People not yet evangelized will be present at such events as will people whose faith has grown weak or even died. At baptisms, weddings, confirmations, receptions into the Church, ordinations, religious professions, and funerals, as well as at Masses celebrated for graduation events, conferences, anniversaries, jubilees, and so on the one who speaks the homily has an opportunity to preach the good news to people who have never heard it and to those who might hear it afresh.
In fact the term ‘evangelize’ is used in the text from Isaiah that Jesus quotes at Nazareth. The Spirit has anointed him to bring good news to the poor. This is what the term evangelization means, bringing good news. People may fail to receive this news either because it does not seem good to them or because they do not regard themselves as poor in ways that this news can do anything about. Much effort is put into making the good news seem good again. Part of this is helping people to see how the ways in which they know themselves to be poor are in fact met and healed by the Word of God present in Jesus. It may also mean helping people to realize that they are poor in ways they did not suspect.
An essential part of the new evangelization is to keep the goodness of the gospel alive and fresh in those who already believe and have committed themselves to following Christ. All the great documents on evangelization from Paul VI to John Paul II to Benedict XVI agree that an essential element in it is the witness of vibrant and joyful Christian communities following Christ in faith, hope and love. The routine preaching of homilies is crucial in sustaining the life and witness of such communities.
The Importance of Failure
The ones most in danger of domesticating the Word of God, in whom familiarity is most likely to breed contempt, are those who handle it from day to day. Teachers, catechists, deacons, theologians, readers, priests, and sisters – all can become so familiar with the Word and so committed to particular ways of communicating it, that in them also it can lose its sting and become domesticated.
To be applauded for one’s ability to present the Word of God is a mixed blessing. Experience shows that praise is very often quickly followed by rejection or indifference: think of Jesus, Paul, and all great preachers of the gospel. This is why those moments in which preaching breaks down are to be welcomed. We have seen how Jesus’ homily at Nazareth broke down. In the Gospel of John we see that a much longer homily on the bread of life, which he gave at the synagogue in Capernaum, also ‘failed’: ‘after this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him’ (John 6:66). In the Acts of the Apostles we hear of Paul preaching at Athens and making good headway with an audience of philosophers and other intellectuals, until he began to speak of resurrection, and judgment, and eternal life (Acts 17:22-34).
The breaking open of the Word cannot happen without the breaking open of hearts and lives. This applies in the first place to those who would think of themselves as ‘evangelizers’. If the Word is true, and we believe that it is, then its grace can only flow where the barriers to truth are being removed. There are countless ways in which human beings defend themselves against truth, ways in which we are blind, imprisoned, oppressed and poor. One of the dangers for people involving themselves in the life of the Church is that they can turn holy things into obstacles between themselves and God. Saint John of the Cross speaks at length about this in his Dark Night of the Soul. The deadly sins are never more deadly, he says, than when they have our spiritual desires to work on.
So we must be ready for moments when the work of teaching and evangelizing breaks down. It is admirable and right that we engage with the movements of thought in our culture, seeking to ‘take all thought captive for Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5). But we must remain alert for the moment of breakdown. Inevitably there will be something in what we preach that people will find objectionable, offensive, extreme, ridiculous, out-dated, a threat to common sense, or infuriating for some other reason. This is the world that is within us also and this adds to the difficulty: the first people needing evangelization are those who would evangelize others.
Paul speaks about his state of mind and heart when he arrived in Corinth after his bruising experience in Athens. He came, he says, in fear and trembling, deciding that in his preaching he would not use arguments that belong to philosophy but would claim to know nothing except Christ crucified, a foolishness and weakness that are the wisdom and the power of God. There is sense in speaking of making the gospel ‘relevant’ to people’s lives, of showing how it connects with them. On the other hand the gospel is not a wisdom of this age that is passing away: if it is for this life only that we have hoped in Christ then we are, of all people, the most unfortunate (1 Corinthians 15:19). We must also, therefore, be ‘irrelevant’ because we are called to preach a gospel that does not just endorse and confirm all that we find in place but that promises a new life in a new heavens and a new earth.
Contexts of the Homily
We are considering the homily in a specific sense, to refer to preaching done within a liturgy. The Irish Dominican liturgist and theologian Philip Gleeson has written that ‘homilies are worse than useless if they do not humbly serve the celebration of which they are a part’ (p.144). He quotes the German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg who says ‘the sermon should serve, not dominate, in the Church. It should serve the presence of Christ which we celebrate in the Eucharist’. All that is involved in a good celebration of the liturgy is therefore relevant to the homily since it is the context in which the homily happens. Not everything depends on the homily, however, even for the purposes of evangelization, since many other aspects of the liturgy – the music, the symbolism, the times of quiet, the great prayers of the Church, the assembly itself – might well be more effective in calling people to gratitude and to deeper faith.
Another context of the homily is the lifestyle of the preacher. In an earlier moment of new evangelization, the beginning of the 13th century, the Order of Preachers was established precisely with this conviction: that the credibility of preaching depended not just on the knowledge and understanding a preacher might have of the Word and of people’s lives, but also on the witness of the preacher’s own life. Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks of this when he discusses the lifestyle of Jesus. How ought Jesus to have lived considering his mission of bringing good news to the poor?
The best possible form of life, Aquinas says, is the one whereby a person is called to share with others, through preaching and teaching, what has been contemplated. Jesus’ mission was to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37) and this required a public life of preaching. Jesus had to live openly among people, therefore, and not as a monk or hermit. He had to live a balanced life of prayer and preaching since preaching without prayer would be meaningless. Because he came to free people from the oppressions of sin, Jesus had to live among sinners, sharing the living conditions of the people and conforming to their circumstances. He lived among them in poverty rather than in power and wealth since poverty is appropriate to the task of preaching. Jesus taught the apostles that they must live in simplicity and detachment if they were to carry through effectively the mission he was entrusting to them.
This wider context of the homily – living among people, sharing their lives, in prayer and simplicity – was the way in which Jesus needed to live if he was to fulfill his mission, and he also lived like this, Aquinas says, ‘to give an example to preachers’. We can also say that because he passed on to them the mission he had received from the Father, the bearers of good news in any age and in any place are best advised to live like this if their work of evangelization is to be fruitful.
We have been considering the homily, a particular kind of preaching done within a liturgy. We have seen how this description applies to some of the preaching recorded in the New Testament. It may seem that preaching in this sense will more often than not be to people who are already committed to the faith and are practising it. But even routine homilies are opportunities to reach others who are not so convinced as well as to strengthen the faith of believers and challenge them to a more generous following of Jesus.
For the new evangelization it is clear that people need to understand the function of the homily and that those entrusted with it should be very well prepared. We have seen how St Thomas Aquinas says that this requires prayer, sharing people’s circumstances, and living in simplicity.
Documents of the Church on evangelization, on the liturgy, and on preaching, offer practical advice about the means through which the homily may be done well. Most recently we have the post-Synodal exhortation Verbum Domini whose section on ‘The Liturgy, Privileged Setting of the Word of God’ (§§52-71) is relevant to what has been considered in this chapter. ‘Our own time must be increasingly marked by a new hearing of God’s word and a new evangelization’, Benedict XVI says in Verbum Domini §122. The homily within a liturgy is one of the ways in which that new hearing, and that new evangelization, are done.
Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, chapter 3, II and III, §§135-159, Vatican Press 2014
Gleeson, Philip, OP, ‘The Homily: Serving, not Dominating’, in Vivian Boland OP, ed., Watchmen raise their voices: A Tallaght book of theology, Dominican Publications, Dublin 2006, pp. 135-44
Hilkert, Mary Catherine, OP, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination, Continuum, London and New York 1997