As in everything, here too what we need to do is to look to Jesus. In today’s Gospel we find him preaching in the synagogue of Nazareth, his home town. Admittedly, in America this day we celebrate Labor Day, and we will turn to that theme in a moment. But first we do well to look at the labors of Jesus. His public ministry for three years was filled with such preaching – with interpreting the Scriptures for His people, with finding just the words they needed to hear. He preached in order that they would be able to understand and receive Him as the Father’s greatest and definitive gift, a gift far surpassing their highly treasured Torah and in fact its completion and perfection.
After reading a passage from Isaiah about the Messiah, He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” The reception that He received would have been gratifying to any of us: “And all spoke highly of Him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from His mouth.” Whether they really understood all that He was implying about being that Messiah, they apparently delighted in His explanation that He was sent “to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” He noticed, however, that tongues started clucking: “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” How could a home-grown lad like this offer such promises?
When He addresses that point, they turn sharply against Him and are even ready to stone Him. Reminding them of the rejection that the prophets Elijah and Elisha received at home and the confinement of their miracle-working to the widow at Zarephath and to Naaman the Syrian, He insists that their very rejection of Him ironically confirms Him a true prophet, for no prophet is accepted in his own place. He then escapes from the hands ready to hurl him over the cliff on which the town was built only by staring them down as He walks through their midst.
What does all this have to say about the preacher, let alone the laborer on this Labor Day? Surely it does not imply that the preacher ought to go out of his way to annoy or anger his congregation! But it does suggest that he should not simply aim always to leave them comfortable. What Jesus proclaimed in His messianic interpretation of the words of Isaiah was not a year of worldly consolations, but a year acceptable to the Lord. The glad tidings that He envisioned for the poor were surely not just nice words but real charity. The liberty He envisioned for captives was presumably not just the release of those unfairly detained in prisons but the liberation of those enslaved to their sins. The recovery of sight He envisioned no doubt included the wonderful miracles He would do for the blind but also the illumination of dark and dull consciences. The oppressed for whom He envisioned freedom would encompass those weighed down both by the material conditions of their lives and labors and by the memories of wrongs they themselves had done or suffered from others.
The preacher has to labor to find the words that will challenge as well as the words that will console. To imitate the preaching of Jesus means to discern what it is that his people need to hear, not just what they might like to hear. To be sure, not words that will discourage, but words that will point the way toward the real source of true encouragement. As St. Thomas Aquinas so often said, “Whatever is received, is received in the manner of the receiver.” We do well to ponder again and again just how Jesus spoke – how He encouraged, how He challenged, how He showed Himself gentle to those who most need gentleness, and how He showed Himself stern to the hypocrisy of Scribes and Pharisees.
But there is a further dimension to this. What we do at work is not limited to the things we produce. It also includes the way we carry ourselves, the way we treat our fellow workers, our employees, and our employers, and all of our conversations in the course of our work lives. One preaches not only from pulpits. Now, neither the preaching that we do from pulpits nor from anywhere else should ever be “preachy.” Far better to find a way to imitate Jesus in everything. It may well be that we sometimes have to challenge others in fraternal correction, or to take the less than comfortable paths of practical charity. But by doing so we can give additional meaning to our normal and necessary labors, the meaning that comes from doing them in the service of Jesus our Lord.