God's followers live and minister within the limits in which God places them. Were one to put off ministering until those limits were removed, there'd be no ministry. True disciples learn to do God's work in the midst and in spite of restrictions.

Of course, there are limits and then there are limits. It's easier to appreciate the difficulty which Paul faces in the second reading (2 Cor 12: 7-10) than it is to understand the problems which occupy Ezekiel and Jesus in the other readings.

Though homilists often hint at something sexual when they try to explain Paul's "thorn in the flesh," modern scholars believe such an interpretation is probably rooted more in our preoccupation with sex than in good biblical exegesis.

Strength

Given the geographical areas which Paul evangelized, it's quite possible he contracted malaria during his journeys. This affliction lingers for years and springs up when one least expects, its fever and chills rendering the victim helpless. It must have been torture for someone with Paul's "Type-A personality" to have to endure such a "thorn in his flesh."

Yet, the message he receives when he asks the Lord to take the illness away not only reveals the mystery which lies at the heart of Christianity, but it also sets the theme for our other two passages: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."

Yahweh warns Ezekiel (Ez 2: 2-5), "hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you." Ministering during the Babylonian Exile, this prophet will never deliver his message to a receptive audience. He'll rarely speak to anyone eager to discover and carry out God's word. He'll be limited by the people to whom he ministers.

Yet, no matter the results, "whether they heed or resist," Yahweh promises, "they shall know that a prophet has been among them." A prophet's success is never measured by the response his or her audience gives to the prophetic message. It's gauged only by whether or not the message has been given. As with Paul's insight, the more powerful the message, the more powerfully it will be rejected.

We must hear the Gospel (Mk 6: 1-6) against this background. Accustomed to regard Jesus as the all-powerful, divine Son of God, we're taken aback when we listen carefully to what Mark actually says about His disastrous return to Nazareth.

Impotence

We can handle the people's amazement and question, and we often quote Jesus' reflection that "a prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kind and in his own house!"

But, we have problems with the statement, "He was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying His hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith." According to Mark, Jesus' ministry, like Ezekiel's, is limited by the faith of the people to whom He ministers.

Matthew, who had a copy of Mark lying in front of him when he wrote his Gospel, finds such restrictions on Jesus a little too binding. So he changes the "not able to perform" to "did not work many mighty deeds." (He also takes away Jesus' "restrictive" occupation by changing the crowd's question, "Is He not the carpenter?" to "Is He not the son of the carpenter?")

Matthew's alterations of Mark start a pattern: the tendency to downplay the historical Jesus' limits. By the time we get to John, it's hard to find any restrictions. Yet, no matter how much later evangelists were reflecting on the unlimited power of the risen Jesus, we can't ignore the fact that the historical Jesus achieved His death and resurrection in the midst and in spite of huge restrictions.

It's something we should remember when we're tempted to give up because "it just isn't working!" We're never more powerful than when we reach our weakest level.

(07-06-00)