Today’s readings: Jeremiah 1, 4-5.17-19; 1 Corinthians 12, 31 - 13, 13; Luke 4, 21-30.
On January 25, some of Europe’s most prominent intellectuals signed and published a manifesto that warns that Europe is in peril from populist forces – false prophets – that now threaten democracy everywhere. Europe is being attacked by false prophets, they claim, who are drunk on resentment and delirious at their opportunity to seize the limelight.
This reminds me of the book by Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times. Arendt, a German philosopher and political theorist, is widely considered one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century. She believed that even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances.
How does religion come in all this, especially when our mainstream religion is of the soft, moralistic and individualistic brand, even aloof from political involvement? It is this perception of religion that is showing clear signs of decline everywhere today. What actually is in decline is the cultural or sociological Christianity which in its soft form no longer holds ground for many.
Reading St Paul’s ode to love from his letter to Corinthians in today’s second reading shows that this crisis of religion is cyclic and surfaces from time to time. It happened already in the early Christian communities. Paul speaks of a religion emptied of its inner force and source of energy: having eloquence but no love, having faith to move mountains but no love, being generous but without love. This is only “a gong booming or a cymbal clashing,” says Paul.
God’s word is provoking. There is a power within it that needs to be unleashed in a preaching that cannot be of the moralistic type or merely with a false spiritualistic and individualistic slant. As with the case of Jeremiah’s call in the first reading, God’s word “braces us for action”. Jeremiah’s call is linked to the issues surrounding the crisis of Israel of AD587, helping the community to face the loss of the old world of king and temple and to receive a new world as indicated by Yahweh.
The prophet, as biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, is emboldened to perceive and articulate reality well beyond the categories and perceptions of the ruling elite. His experience is not simply a soft religious experience but an authorisation. Jeremiah is practically asserting the deep conflict between the government of God and the royal-temple establishment in Jerusalem.
The way Jeremiah speaks, like Jesus in today’s text from St Luke, makes him an unwelcome voice, out of tune with established religion and hence seen as threatening social stability. The issue, for both Jeremiah and Jesus, is the conflict between the true word of God and the fanciful messages of the false prophets.
As long as Jesus was reading the sacred texts in the synagogue with due deference he was acclaimed and admired. The moment he touched the ground and questioned their perception of religion and challenged their religious arrogance they became enraged against him. This was already the prelude to his end.
All this brings us back to the manifesto of the European intellectuals and to Arendt. As long as our religion is confined to the cosiness of our interiority with no impact at all on the social and political reality surrounding us, nobody will be noticing its demise. If our listening to God’s word does not brace us to action, our civilisation is in peril and our humanness at risk.
Paul’s opening to his ode to love are the words: “Be ambitious for the higher gifts.” The opposite of being ambitious may be mediocrity, which should have no space in religion. Love is a higher gift than all forms of complacency. It makes us bold enough to refuse to resign ourselves to all that is looming over humanity now.
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