A recurring theme in the gospels is the rather shabby reception that Jesus got in towns that should have known him well. In chapter four of his gospel John writes that in Galilee Jesus could expect no honor. Elsewhere, in equally familiar places, he could do no wonders. I don’t know that I have a satisfactory answer for this, but perhaps his neighbors couldn’t possibly see Jesus in any other role than as the son of Mary and Joseph. Or perhaps the village mentality asserted itself. It’s the knee-jerk reaction of us all when we confront some young upstart who shows the potential to disrupt our cozy little worlds. Whatever the reason, Jesus got no respect from his neighbors, as all the gospel writers attest.
Still later in chapter four John introduces a messenger from Capernaum, the city where Jesus had moved after leaving Nazareth. In this episode an official has sent word, asking Jesus to heal his son. The request is so matter-of-fact that it’s the equivalent of calling a pharmacist, and the rudeness irked Jesus just a little bit. He did heal the son, but not before he had pointed out the presumption of the offical. People in Capernaum, like people everywhere, enjoyed a good show of signs and wonders, noted Jesus. But they expected this demonstration before they would believe. If Jesus wanted their acceptance, then he had to jump through their hoops first. Then and only then would they believe. Maybe. That’s what rubbed Jesus the wrong way.
Two questions popped into my mind as I thought about this. First, why did the evangelists feel compelled to include in their gospels all sorts of stuff that was unflattering to Jesus? A modern publicist would edit the tale very differently, and so would I. I, for one, would have a roar of hosannas greet Jesus at the gate of every town in his triumphant tour of Galilee. And I’d have people begging him not to leave. Meanwhile, all that business about pushing Jesus over the cliff wouldn’t survive the first draft. That’s how I’d like to see it; but that’s also why the Holy Spirit never asked me to write a gospel. My sanitized and happy tale is not the story that Jesus meant to tell.
Then there’s the dogged determination that Jesus showed when he returned to all those hostile places. Did he really have no place else to go? I doubt it. But the fact is, Jesus did go back, again and again, despite it all. And you have to wonder why he even bothered with those people. Why didn’t he just shake the dust from his sandals at the edge of town and then call down an air-strike of fire and brimstone? That’s what I’d do if I were in his shoes.
We may wonder why Jesus obsesssed with the people of Galilee, but there’s a very good reason: those people are us. For better and for worse, the population of Galilee did not exhaust the world’s supply of narrow-minded people, and in these gospel passages they do an excellent job of standing in for us. That, in a nutshell, is why these ugly incidents are in the gospels. These neighbors of Jesus remind us that people have scarcely changed in the last 2,000 years, and we’re in their number.
Like the people of Galilee and all the others who gave Jesus a chilly reception, we do the same sometimes. We too expect Jesus to jump through our hoops. Only after we’ve put our fingers in his wounds or seen him do his wonders will we get up from our bench on the sidelines. Only after Jesus makes the first move will we respond. And only after he meets us three-quarters of the way will we show some initiative. And we do that to Jesus, because that’s how we often treat one another.
As we approach the home stretch of Lent, Christians have a fundamental option to consider. Will we always be observers in the story? Will we always stand on the sidelines, looking for the trend lines, before we commit to something? Or will we choose to act, despite all our imperfections? To be blunt, will we reach out and help to carry the cross of Christ? If we do, we’ll discover that we’re doing Jesus no big favor, because the cross he carries happens to be our own.
In retrospect I’m glad that the gospel writers included the stories of the neighbors who gave Jesus a rough time. But they didn’t do it to stir our pity for Jesus, because he wasn’t welcome in his home town. Rather, they told these stories to remind us that the Galileans represented us when Jesus, time and again, entered their villages. And if we think that Jesus was crazy for going back, then I’m glad he was crazy. Afer all, if Jesus came back for them, then it’s quite possible that he’d come back for me as well.
+On March 16th I taught a class in monastic history to the novices of the monastery. Later that morning I presided at the Mass for the students of the School of Theology/Seminary, and then at 5:00 pm I presided at the Mass in the Abbey. I did it on the theory that if a sermon is good enough to give once, why not give it twice?
+On March 19th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
+On March 20th I flew back to Minneapolis. I had managed to have smooth flying throughout the winter, so it was only appropriate that on the last day of winter my luck would run out. My morning flight was delayed by snow in Philadelphia, but I eventually got back to Minneapolis on a different flight. Then my car decided to punish me for being gone so much. I thought the battery was dead, but after a bit of work the people from AAA announced that the car’s security system did not recognize my key anymore. Did I have a second key with me? Of course I didn’t. Who carries two sets of car keys with them? So I left the car in the airport garage, simply because I had no other choice. My car is still sitting there, pouting. But two can play this game, as I have unfortunately discovered.
+On March 21st Abbot John presided at the Eucharist as the monks celebrated the feast of the Passing of Saint Benedict. The pictures in today’s post are medieval frescos from the Abbey of Subiaco, where Benedict began his monastic life as a hermit.