|2 Corinthians 12:2-10
By Paul Nancarrow
This passage is part of the call narrative of Ezekiel, specifically the moment when God commissions Ezekiel to be God’s prophet. Leading up to this call is Ezekiel’s vision of the throne-chariot of God, which takes up all of Chapter 1 of the book, and leaves Ezekiel so overwhelmed by divine glory that he collapses in a heap on the bank of the Chebar River. It is because Ezekiel is thus dazed and confused that God must begin with him by saying “O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you.”
At these words, a “spirit” (or “breath”) enters into Ezekiel and revives him; this may well indicate a physiological phenomenon of Ezekiel taking a deep breath and returning to full consciousness after a faint; more importantly, it is a symbol for the spiritual insight that Ezekiel from this time on will not be speaking simply on his own, but by the inspiration and empowerment of the spirit that has been given him. It is by this spirit’s empowerment that Ezekiel can stand on his feet, can receive God’s commission, and can find the strength to be sent to the “nation of rebels who have rebelled” against God.
The repeated assertion that Israel is “a rebellious house” is what pairs this reading with the Gospel passage for the day, when Jesus declares that “prophets are not without honor, except … in their own house.” It is to his own house that Ezekiel is to be sent, and God warns him ahead of time that it will not be easy. But Ezekiel is not to be afraid of the rejection of the people, as the text continues in the verses immediately following the lectionary selection, because Ezekiel has God’s words to speak, not merely his own, and God’s spirit/breath with which to speak them.
As we might say in process terms, Ezekiel has not only his own personal aims and ideals to enact, but is called to enact divine aims and ideals; and such enactment, even if difficult, even if inadequate in the proximate term to convert an entire community’s behavior, is nevertheless worthwhile, because “whether they hear or refuse to hear … they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”
The psalm may have been chosen to reflect the position of Ezekiel over against the “rebellious house,” where Ezekiel is presumed to lift his eyes to God “enthroned in the heavens” while enduring “contempt” and “scorn” and “derision” from the people. Still, the identification of the Israelites in Babylonian exile with “the indolent rich” and “the proud” doesn’t seem very convincing. Instead, it would be more apt for the contemporary interpreter to consider the psalm’s own original purpose as the appeal of an oppressed individual or people for divine aid against their oppressors.
Important in this interpretation is the meaning of the central appeal to God to “have mercy.” In today’s usage, we often think of “mercy” as synonymous with “pity,” as a quality of showing leniency or clemency to one who actually deserves worse (as in a defendant throwing herself on the mercy of the court). A better translation of the Hebrew here, chanan, might be “to be gracious, to show favor.” Rather than asking for condescension or escape from deserved punishment, what is actually being asked here is that God manifest grace and generosity to the faithful people.
This appeal constitutes a kind of proclamation that the way of God is exactly opposite to the contempt and scorn and derision of those who can afford to be indolent, who have so much they don’t need to do anything, to take any constructive action in the actual world, and thus look down on those who do. Indolence and contempt and scorn are not only oppressive acts against people, they set themselves in opposition over against God. God’s grace given to the servant empowers, as the spirit given to Ezekiel empowers, to stand up against the indolent and proud and to speak truth, bearing witness to the true nature of God as gracious.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
The Epistle reading rings another change on the theme of power, weakness, and grace. In this passage Paul is answering criticisms of his ministry leveled by members of the Corinthian community who have been influenced by other, later teachers who came to Corinth after Paul had founded the church and moved on, teachers who (apparently) won listeners by stressing their own mystical experiences and exceptional revelations that, they said, qualified them to teach better than Paul.
By comparison, Paul’s self-marketing seemed weak and unimpressive, and some members of the community seemed to be advocating setting aside Paul’s teachings in favor of these new “hyper-apostles” (11:5). In response, Paul refers to the hyper-apostles’ claims as “boasting,” and with more than a little sarcasm demonstrates what he could do if he stooped to such boasting as well. He could speak of revelations and spiritual journeys to heaven, where he was introduced to mysteries that cannot (or must not) be rendered in human speech — the phrase “I know a person in Christ” being a very thinly veiled reference to himself, serving the ironic purpose of recounting the vision while dismissing the motive to recount the vision.
The revelations Paul could claim are so exceptional that Satan himself must try to undercut them, Paul hints, sending him a “messenger,” a “thorn in the flesh,” to prevent Paul being “elated” or “hyper-prideful” — Paul pointedly using the same prefix to indicate the condition he must avoid and the condition of the new teachers. Instead of boasting in such exceptionalism, Paul will boast of his weaknesses — even in his prayers to God that go unanswered! — because God has “said” to him “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
This revelation, spoken in intimate terms, more than any hyperbolic and exceptionalist visions of heavenly paradises, seems congruent with the work of a God who would strengthen Ezekiel in his weakness, who would show grace and favor to servants oppressed by the indolent rich, and who would empower a son of Nazareth with wisdom and with healing and with resurrection from the shameful death of the cross. It is this transformation of human weakness by divine grace that is the true power of the Gospel, and of Paul’s preaching of the Gospel; and it is to this, rather than to any exceptional personal characteristics or experiences, that Paul would attract attention.
It is by exemplification of divine aims in his being “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ” that Paul paradoxically serves the true power of God to take up what in human life is mere wreckage and to creatively transform it into occasions of witness, compassion, justice, and love.
At the heart of this Gospel passage is Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, and his observation that “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” At issue here is another kind of question of power, weakness, and grace. By the time Jesus comes to Nazareth, he has acquired a growing reputation as an authoritative teacher and an effectual healer; many, many people in the region are moved by him and attracted to the Way he teaches.
But not everyone is so impressed. Jesus’ own family, as we read in Mark 3:20-35 in the lectionary just a few weeks ago, are bemused by this sudden strange behavior of their son and sibling, they think he’s gone out of his mind, and they try to get him to come home quietly and stop embarrassing them. The townsfolk who knew Jesus before his baptism and beginning of his public ministry have a similar reaction. “Where did this man get all this?” they say. “We know him,” they say, “We know his family, we know his origins, we know that he is one of us, not some prophet or healer or Messiah.” And they take offense at him, as if they were saying “Who does he think he is, passing himself off as some sort of teacher, as someone who is better than us?”
Instead of being welcomed as a “hometown boy made good,” they react to Jesus as a “hometown boy putting on airs”: they are so convinced that they already know everything about Jesus that is important to know, that they are incapable of recognizing in his “wisdom” and “mighty acts” the new thing that God is doing. They are so bound in the power of their preconceptions that the cannot admit to the seeming weakness of having something new to learn about Jesus and about God and about themselves; and, in not admitting their weakness, they make themselves incapable of receiving the grace of God Jesus would share with them.
Mark notes Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them”: only those who recognized the weakness of their sickness were able to set aside the power of pride and open themselves enough to receive creating and re-creating grace.
Perhaps in response to this failure in Nazareth, Jesus now expands his mission, not only preaching by himself, but sending the Twelve to proclaim his message and enact his acts. Like Jesus, the Twelve call people to repentance, metanoia, “trans-mindfulness,” transformation; and they demonstrate the reality of such transformation by casting out demons, unclean spirits, and allowing, as with Ezekiel in the first reading, more wholesome spirits to enter the healed and make them strong.
But Jesus also warns the disciples that not all will accept their message and ministry. As Jesus faced personal rejection at Nazareth, so there are those who would reject the message on less personal grounds: Pharisees, scribes, Temple authorities, among others, who know the aims and ideals of God as already given in Torah and tradition, and who are so convinced of their knowledge that they cannot let themselves be “weak” enough to accept that God is doing something graciously new in the mission of Jesus and his disciples.
Nevertheless, and though they are likely to be rejected, it is yet important that the Twelve do as Jesus does, embodying the aims and ideals of God as given them — as it was said to Ezekiel, “whether they hear or refuse to hear,” the people to whom the Twelve go will know that God has been at work among them. Whether these people can have the responsive grace to admit their weakness and make room for God’s new thing will be up to them.
As it will be up to those who read or hear — or preach — these passages in our liturgical assemblies today.