“The Lord’s power is at its best in weakness”
“Home Town Familiarity”
by Fr John Horan SDB
It is said that familiarity breeds contempt. Over-familiarity is one of the great flaws in human nature. It blocks us from seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary and the deeper mystery and uniqueness in each other. It leads us to think we know everything about others; but our prejudices, assumptions and biases prevent us from seeing new depths within them. And so we’re not open to letting them surprise us any-more. We’ve imprisoned and ‘fossilized’ them in our own world view.
That’s what happened to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. He returned home to his own village and his own people, and even though they were astonished by his wisdom and news of his miracles they could not get beyond their own assumptions about him. They were certain they knew who he was. Isn’t this the carpenter’s Son, they said. Don’t we know his Mother Mary, his extended family and where he came from? Who does he thinks he is? Isn’t he the same as us. And they would not accept him. In their eyes his ordinariness cancels out his wisdom and his miracles. Nothing kills like unthinking familiarity. Perhaps it was easier for them to accept a carpenter than a prophet in their midst.
G.K. Chesterton, reflecting on how hopelessly prone we are to see things through the lens of over-familiarity, said that one of the deep secrets of life is to learn to look at things familiar until they look unfamiliar again.
Unless we do that, we think we know the other when we actually don’t.
St Mark says that Jesus’ rejection by his own people in Nazareth rendered him powerless. And so he could work no miracles there.
It’s a very destructive power we all have – the ability to disempower others and prevent ‘miracles’ happening.
Like ourselves Jesus was deeply affected by the way people reacted to him. Their lack of faith and trust disempowered him.
One way out of the danger of over-familiarity is to develop an attitude of gratitude to become aware that all is gift, all is grace and grace is everywhere.
Scripture readings: Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com
Reflections and Prayers by Fr Jack Finnegan SDB
1st Reading – Ezekiel 2:2-5
The spirit came into me and made me stand up, and I heard the Lord speaking to me. He said, ‘Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to the rebels who have turned against me. Till now they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me. The sons are defiant and obstinate; I am sending you to them, to say, “The Lord says this.” Whether they listen or not, this set of rebels shall know there is a prophet among them.’
Our first reading today goes well with the gospel. Both speak of scorn and rejection as does St Paul. The concept of Spirit-endowed prophecy begins with Ezekiel among a rebellious people. Ezekiel gives four accounts of his call as a prophet (1:28-3:9, 3:10-11,3:17-21, and 3:22-27). Ezekiel was called by God and endowed by the Spirit to be a watchman for a difficult people living in turbulent times. He came to know God who was present everywhere, even in an oppressive and foreign land, where he preached repentance to a defiant and stiff-necked people. There was nothing easy about Ezekiel’s call. No wonder he speaks of the action of the Holy Spirit in his life and mission. However, at the heart of his experience is the reassurance that the rejection of God’s word does not make it false. This is a message we need to remember in Europe today. Later in chapter 2 we read: And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious people…(Ezekiel 2:6-8). What is important is not rebellion, but that God’s word be spoken regardless of whether people listen. Are we ready to trust the Spirit?
LORD, Adonai, you called Ezekiel to be your prophet during turbulent times. You gave him your Spirit. You told him to speak your word to a stiff-necked people, a people whose hearts were hard. We live in similar times, times when people are abandoning their faith heritage. Many feel scorn in their hearts and reject your living word. Yet you want us to share your word, to plant your seeds of life in what seems like barren ground. How mysterious your ways! How amazing your wisdom and compassion! Help me sit with the paradox of a word spoken to people who do not listen. Help me identify the dark places within me that rebel against your word. Warm cold hearts today. Send angels of light into the world around us. Send labourers into your vineyard. And bring us back to you from the lands of captivity. Give us your Spirt. Now and forever. Amen.
Our responsorial psalm today comes from what are know as ‘the songs of ascent’ sung by pilgrims as they climbed to the Temple on Mount Zion. It is a cry for help. The point is made in verse 1: the pilgrims are seeking the mercies of the LORD who is enthroned on the heavens. With eyes fixed on the LORD they prayed their lament: Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt… the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud. This is a prayer many people today could easily make their own.
LORD, Adonai, help me climb into your loving presence. Help me rest with you awhile in the cave of my heart. Open my eyes. Stir up my faith. Deepen my love. Strengthen my hope. Lure me lovingly into ever deeper oneness with you. Draw me close. Wrap my heart in the warmth of your merciful and compassionate presence. You know that we live in difficult times, times of mockery and times of contempt. Be with us in these testing times. We trust in you as we seek to follow your ways of loving-kindness. Like so many who have gone before us, may your Spirit bless and encourage us as we face the world’s scorn and disdain. Grant us a share in your calm serenity. Now and forever. Amen.
2nd Reading – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
In view of the extraordinary nature of these revelations, to stop me from getting too proud I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and stop me from getting too proud! About this thing, I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me, but he has said, ‘My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.’ So I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast so that the power of Christ may stay over me, and that is why I am quite content with my weaknesses, and with insults, hardships, persecutions, and the agonies I go through for Christ’s sake. For it is when I am weak that I am strong.
Paul also suffers criticism and rejection. In today’s selection we are told of some (possibly followers of Apollos) who had been trying to sway the Corinthians away from Paul and convince them not to follow his teachings about Christ. Paul reminds them of his sufferings for the gospel and the abundance of revelations, summarised in the story of his conversion. What is the thorn in his flesh? Is it something physical? Does it refer to the persecution he experienced as an apostle? No one knows. Whatever it may have been, Paul sees it as a powerful symbol, something that keeps his eyes fixed firmly on the Lord. His pain is a window into the power of God. As he says, in the light of his thorn in the flesh, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints for the sake of Christ. Can we learn from Paul? God’s grace is sufficient. Sometimes only the grace of God suffices. Can we make Paul’s paradox our own: when I am weak, then I am strong.
Lord Jesus, Paul, too, knew the reality of criticism, the pain of rejection, the sorrow of conflict. He also knew a thorn in the flesh, something incurable that helped him find the road to self-emptying and true humility. May your love be alive in us. May your transforming power dwell in us. May your wisdom guide us. May we keep our eyes fixed on you in good times and bad. Like Paul, may your grace be sufficient for us. Like him and with you may we fathom the paradox of graced strength in weakness. Touch us with your Spirit. Now and forever. Amen.
Gospel Reading – Mark 6:1-6
Jesus went to his home town and his disciples accompanied him. With the coming of the sabbath he began teaching in the synagogue and most of them were astonished when they heard him. They said, ‘Where did the man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been granted him, and these miracles that are worked through him? This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too, are they not here with us?’ And they would not accept him. And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house’; and he could work no miracle there, though he cured a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.
When Jesus returned to his home place of Nazareth and preached in the synagogue the people, all of whom knew him, were offended by his words and actions. Instead of believing him they mocked and rejected him. ‘Who does he think he is’ they thought, scoffing at him. But Jesus is not surprised at their lack of faith. A prophet is not without honour except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house. Their lack of faith closes their hearts to what he can do and the gift of new life he brings. Even his greatest deeds bring rejection and the cross. So, after curing a few sick people, he leaves and goes elsewhere. Many seem to be taking offense at Jesus today. Many are turning away from him because of the actions of some leaders in the Church or criticism from others and shapers of popular opinion. Where do we stand? Are we ready to follow Jesus through thick and thin? If he was rejected why should we be surprised that those who seek to follow him today also face rejection?
Lord Jesus, you went home to Nazareth and found the doors closed to you. You spoke in the synagogue and your own people took offense at you. They saw you as just a carpenter. Their lack of faith amazed you but did not surprise you. They thought they knew you but did not. They thought they understood you but did not. Like so many of your disciples they failed to see your hidden glory. Help us stand with you today, Lord Jesus. Open our hearts to your light. Help us keep you company in times of rejection and times of scorn. Help us know you. Help us open our lives to your amazing presence. Help us acknowledge and acclaim you in good days and bad. Fill us with your Spirit. Fashion us to know you well and walk with you in the world. Help us come to oneness in you. Now and forever. Amen.
In Mark’s Gospel, the visit of Jesus to Nazareth concludes the first stage of his public ministry. The astonishment of the crowds at his teaching and authority gives way to incredulity. We are witnessing here a historical fact, which Mark raises to the level of a universal law. Knowing Jesus does not necessarily lead to recognising him as Christ the Son of God. Familiarity with his person does not always lead to faith. Those who know Jesus best will not become witnesses of his miracles. Knowing him too well has made them incapable of hoping for miracles from him. It would be worse if what happened to those closest to him, were to happen to us who believe in him today. If we imagine a Jesus who is “too normal”, or a God who is “too divine”, we fail to recognise the one true God who is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. If we form our own idea of what we should expect from God, we do not allow ourselves to be surprised by a God who is beyond our imagination and our dreams. And that would be a real loss!
Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
After preaching in parables and healing many people, Jesus returned to his own region, accompanied by his disciples. His fellow citizens marvelled, not at what they had heard about him, but at what they heard during the prayer in the synagogue. Their failure to understand was not surprising. Precisely because they knew where he came from, the place where they themselves were living, and who his family were, and the people among whom he lived, they were amazed and could not help asking where he got such wisdom from. The evangelist insists that the teaching of Jesus was discussed many times by the people of his home town.
They were shocked and they argued about him because they could not deny the evidence they had seen and heard. How could this townsman of theirs know so much? Only Jesus could explain what was happening. His statement made perfect sense but it led to unexpected consequences. Excessive familiarity is an obstacle to faith. Someone who is well known will never be accepted as a prophet. And where there is no faith, there can be no miracles.
If Jesus permitted some people to be cured, it was a sign of his compassion towards them, and not the result of the faith of the crowd. He healed some people, not because of the faith of his townspeople, but on account of his own goodness. Significantly, Jesus moved away from his fellow citizens because of their lack of faith. Undoubtedly, he had hoped for a better reception. He left them, because if they did not believe in him they did not deserve his presence among them, even if they were well used to having him in their midst. Not knowing him leads more readily to faith.
Meditate: apply what the text says to life
Today’s gospel passage records an episode in the life of Jesus that we tend to refer to frequently. Jesus had left his home and family, his home town and his occupation, in order to preach the kingdom of God. Then, one day, he returned to his own people. He did not come back alone, but was accompanied by the men who shared his life and his preaching. He came back to his home town, but this time as a famous person. What he had said and done caused great excitement in Galilee, and undoubtedly news of the wonderful things he had done had reached the ears of the people of his home town.
His fellow townspeople thought they knew him well, because they had known him since he was a child. It was only natural then that they were surprised at the wisdom Jesus demonstrated when he explained the Scriptures to them on the Sabbath day. They were amazed. They could not understand how one of themselves could know so much about God or could work such wonders. It was hard for them to believe in him, because they thought they knew all about him. They doubted him, therefore, because they knew him so well. He had worked among them. His relatives were still living among them. They just could not believe what they saw with their eyes – hands that worked miracles and lips that spoke with wisdom. And because they could not believe, Jesus could work no miracles among them.
Their incredulity seemed strange to Jesus, but he consoled himself with the thought that it is only among his own people that a prophet is not appreciated. It could be that we fail to appreciate the importance of this. It may seem quite reasonable to us that the people who know us best find it hardest to believe us. The closer we are to someone, the easier it is to discover their weaknesses and mistakes. For that reason we are inclined to understand and excuse the people of Jesus’ own town. Jesus did not excuse them however, and he left them on account of their lack of faith. The wonder is that we do not understand fully why they failed to appreciate Jesus, even though they knew him well. And, worst of all, something similar to what happened to them, could also happen to us.
We also think we know all about Jesus, and so we do not allow ourselves to be surprised by anything he says. We are attracted by his teaching, and we are struck at times by the radicalism of what he says, but we continue to tell ourselves that we know him so well that he has nothing new to say to us. It is true we are surprised by miracles that others receive from his hands, but we lose faith in him because he does not work miracles for us. We do not believe that miracles can come from the hands of a worker, an ordinary man like us. We know him so well that we find it hard to believe in him. And so, what happened to his own people long ago, happens again to us today. Our familiarity with Jesus, and the fact that we know so much about him, make it difficult for us to believe in him. And like the people of his home town long ago, we pay the price for our incredulity by not having any miracles worked in our lives.
For that very reason, we live the Christian life in routine manner, without surprise or excitement, because we believe that God has already said all he has to say, and has done all he promised for the world. God no longer surprises us, because we think we know everything about him. If someone says something about God that we don’t already know, we react, like the people of Jesus’ hometown, with mistrust and apprehension. We don’t believe what we don’t understand. We don’t expect to receive from God anything we cannot achieve by ourselves. We understand the importance of Jesus for others, and what he does for them, but we pay little heed to what Jesus means for us, just because we think we know all about him, and we don’t want to change our idea of God.
Because we take him for granted, we fail to get to know him better. Because we are accustomed to him, we are not open to a new and better experience. We think we know him already, so we do not go in search of him, and because we do not search for him, we do not feel united to him. Like the people of Jesus’ home town, we deprive ourselves of God, simply because we believe that God cannot be different from what we already believe, that he cannot treat us any better than he does already. We are so used to being with him that we do not allow him to surprise us, we do not expect greater things from God. If we think we know everything about God, we will never be surprised by him.
We live the Christian life without trust in God. We feel cheated by God, simply because we limit our faith to what we know. His hands work no miracles for us, because we do not allow him to touch our hearts. We are unable to form an image of God greater than the one we already have in our hearts and minds, and so we do not create a place for him in our hearts and minds. We diminish God if we do not learn something new about him every day, and we do not get enthusiastic about this impoverished God. When we know everything about God we can accept him, but we are not fascinated by such a God. He does not disturb us but neither does he surprise us. Basically, like the townspeople of Jesus, we have not enough faith. We rely on our own powers. We do not put our trust in God because he is too familiar to us.
The sad thing about all this is that, like those townspeople of Jesus, we run the risk of not witnessing his miracles. We make it impossible for Jesus to work wonders among us. We are more surprised by his wisdom than by our own needs. Maybe we ask ourselves how can he say such things, rather than why he says them. We wonder where he got all his knowledge, but we pay little heed to the fact that he knows all about us, including all our ills. Because we do not believe in him, we do not see his healing power.
It is sad that, today as in the past, Jesus still works miracles among strangers and not among those who know him. It is easier to convert people who do not know him than those who are already Christian. People who regard themselves as believers are so used to God that they have lost respect and veneration for him. We are so accustomed to what others say about Jesus that we do not make an effort to experience him personally. What happened to the people of his home town should serve as a serious warning to us. Thinking we know a lot about Jesus can be an obstacle to believing in him personally and accepting his teaching. Taking him for granted can keep us from witnessing his miracles and experiencing his power. Just because we are Christians does not always mean that we are more likely to believe in him. It would be sad if, like the people of his home town, we were to lose faith in him simply because we do not appreciate him enough. It would be sad if he were to leave us, just because we already know him well.