Strong in Weakness

Pentecost 6

First reading: 2 Sam. 5:1-5, 9-10 • Ps. 48 Alternate: Ezek. 2:1-5 • Ps. 123 • 2 Cor. 12:2-10 • Mark 6:1-13

“God rides the lame horse,” wrote Luther, “and carves the rotten wood.” Indeed, the heroes of Scripture’s great drama include some unlikely stars in the leading roles. Aged Abraham becomes the father of a multitude. Moses the murderer leads God’s people to freedom. Peter the denier preaches the banner sermon of Pentecost.

But God’s messengers in today’s lessons hardly fit the bill for “lame horse” and “rotten wood.” They are the golden boys of Israel, the firstborn, talented, well positioned, destined for success. To be sure, God raised up Ezekiel in a troubling time, as the defeated people groped to make sense of their faith and future along Babylon’s canals. But he is a priest, eloquent, well-accustomed to the things of God. St. Paul studies the Scriptures deeply, is a master rhetorician, and a community organizer with a dazzling conversion story. And the Savior of the world, the only-begotten: he is who he is, the eternal Word of the Father.

God sends out Ezekiel to prophesy “whether they will hear or not hear.” And not hear they do — or, perhaps, they do not try to understand. God loads the dignified cleric with a baffling message, harsh, and frequently obscene. And he commands him to deliver it through the antics of a circus clown. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides could hardly stomach the sum of Ezekiel’s exotic visions: “God is too exalted to turn his prophets into a laughingstock … by ordering them to carry out crazy actions.”

But isn’t that just like God, after all? Paul was also blessed with exalted visions, a glimpse into the “third heavens,” yet God sent him a “thorn in the flesh.” His reticence keeps us guessing about its nature, but it was surely a trial. Perhaps Paul feared it would compromise his mission; it certainly kept him from being “too elated.” Three times he begged the Lord to take it away, but God assured him it was for his own good, a reminder that he too must hang upon the gift: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Jesus must tread this same path of misunderstanding and humiliation. His fame spreads quickly and he returns, radiating, to his people. He had learned the Torah at their knees, and they knew his kindness and integrity. Yet they could not hear (or did not try), and God gave him few miracles to awaken resistant faith. “Prophets have no honor among their own,” our Lord declares — a truism less about prophets than about the God who gives them a word.

Barriers and misunderstandings are graven into the divine plan, on the way to grace. “Woe unto you when all men speak well of you,” says Jesus another day, with the pathos of experience. Easy acclaim, resounding success get in the way. Israel did not need another eloquent charmer amid exile. Without his thorn, Paul might have got on too well with the first church he founded and left half the Mediterranean world without the Gospel. And what if Jesus had married the rabbi’s daughter, opened a little clinic off the side of the synagogue, and dabbled in local politics, rather than dying, rising, and ascending, to sit at the right hand of the Father?

Look It Up
Read 2 Cor. 4:7-12. Why is a thorn an appropriate image for Paul’s divinely given affliction?

Think About It
Those who keep you “from becoming too elated” are God’s gift.

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