The Gospel today picks up where we left off last Sunday. Jesus is in the synagogue of his native town of Nazareth, where he has read a passage from the scroll of Isaiah. After the reading, he sits down and makes an astounding claim: that this very passage, a prophecy of the Messiah, “is fulfilled in your hearing.” At first, his neighbors respond positively: “all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But soon their reaction turns from amazement to resentment. By the end of today’s Gospel, they swing to the opposite extreme: “they were all filled with fury… and led him to the brow of the hill… to hurl him down headlong.” What could possibly cause such a violent reaction?
The turn in his neighbors’ attitude starts when they comment that Jesus is merely the son of Joseph, a carpenter from their village. It is a case of familiarity: Jesus grew up with them and lived among them; therefore he cannot be anything special. This thought process is an example of the popular saying, familiarity breeds contempt. Jesus anticipates what his neighbors are likely to say next. Because he is so familiar to them, they will expect him to do what they want. Contemptuous familiarity is inclined to become imposing.
Jesus goes on to tell the people that “no prophet is accepted in his own native place.” In saying this, he is identifying himself as a prophet, thus revealing that he will not subject himself to their expectations. A prophet does not answer to popular demands; rather, he answers to God, the one who sends him. A prophet is not accepted, even by the very people to whom he is sent, precisely because he speaks in the name of God, not in the name of the king or the culture or the clan. Jesus is building on the tradition of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, who did what God sent them to do, and brought divine aid even to foreigners.
Today’s first reading recounts the call of another man who was not accepted in his native place, the great prophet Jeremiah, whom God appointed “a prophet to the nations.” God warned Jeremiah from the very beginning that he would face opposition as he prophesied “against Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and people.” The prophet’s strength to fulfill his difficult mission comes from the Lord, not from human approval. It is the Lord who will make Jeremiah “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass.”
The violent reaction of the people of Nazareth shows us why a prophet needs such powerful fortification from the Lord. When they hear Jesus imply that their ideas about their exclusive rank before God are too narrow and selfish, their fury boils over. It is one thing for a carpenter to take on airs, it is another for him to question their religious superiority. God gives Jesus the same consolation that he provided for Jeremiah. He does not leave his prophet “crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them.” Instead, “Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.”
The appalling example of the seemingly faithful, religious Jews of Nazareth gives us an opportunity to ponder the danger that familiarity breeds contempt in our hearts – not only contempt for a prophet, but even for God himself. Might we be growing so “familiar” with God that we start to impose our expectations on him? Because I am a Christian, I deserve to be saved. Because I pray, I deserve to be heard. Because I go to Mass, I deserve all the best blessings…. The danger is a kind of familiarity that is focused on the self – on what we can get, on what we want to do.
St. Paul in today’s second reading teaches us what genuine familiarity with God brings about in us, a transformation of our life through love. He says that he used to “talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child” – here he is referring to his former way of life, when he was like the self-righteous Nazarenes. But when he met Jesus Christ, he met Love incarnate, and he realized he had to put childish self-centeredness aside. Love chooses what is good for the other. Love is not primarily focused on the grand things we can do, such as speaking in human and angelic tongues, uttering prophecies, or moving mountains. These are good, but if in doing them we are focused on ourselves rather than on others, then they are without true value. Paul says, “If I do not have love, I am nothing…. I gain nothing.”
St. Paul’s famous hymn to love, then, gives a precious instruction to anyone who is serious about the life of faith, anyone who is dedicated to growing ever more familiar with God. We can do many good religious things – including reading meditations in The Anawim Way. We may be intent on spending quality time pondering the word of God and entering daily into the liturgical life of the Church. This is all good. But we need to examine deeply whether this familiarity with the Lord is just making us more self-centered and self-righteous. The familiarity that the Lord desires with us is not only about us. It must make us more other-centered. The evidence of genuine maturity is the growth of faith, hope, and love – and, as St. Paul says, “the greatest of these is love.”
Today’s Gospel Acclamation reminds us that the mission of Jesus Christ, which he announced last Sunday, is “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives.” This is the mission he shares with us as we draw closer to him. His love for others, especially the poor and the oppressed, becomes our love for them. As we become more familiar with the Lord, we learn to follow his way of loving kindness, allowing ourselves to become instruments of his salvation for all.
How do I react when I hear others speak the truth? When do I become too familiar with God that I start to impose my expectations on him? As I come to know the Lord more, how am I becoming more other-centered?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.