14th Sunday B
The expression familiarity breeds contempt is as old as the hills. We find it in works ranging from Aesop’s fable of ‘The fox and the lion’, to the tale of Melibee in the Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer says, over-greet hoomlynesse (or familiarity) engendreth dispreisynge (engenders contempt). We all know from experience what the reality of this expression can mean in our lives. We get used to people and assume we know them. We take them for granted and can be blind to their good qualities. We become dismissive and are quick to find fault. We lose a sense of wonder.
In today’s gospel we hear of Jesus’ return to his home village after a period of preaching and working miracles around Galilee. No doubt news of his activities found its way back to Nazareth and on the Sabbath he is invited to teach in the local synagogue. Initially the people are astonished and they recognize in Jesus something out of the ordinary. Where did this man get all this, they ask, his wisdom and his power to work mighty deeds? We don’t know what Jesus said but the initial astonishment quickly sours and gives way to hostility and rejection. Who does he think he is? We know him. He grew up among us. He is just the local carpenter. We know his family. He is no different from us. How mistaken they are! Yes, familiarity breeds not just contempt but unbelief. Jesus says as much when he tells them, ‘a prophet is not without honour except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.’ And he is taken aback at their lack of faith.
Today’s gospel suggest that a great obstacle to faith is familiarity, hoomlynesse: a refusal to believe that God’s presence could possibly come to us in so familiar a form as the person next door; a resistance to recognise that God might have sent us a prophet in someone who, to our eyes, does not quite fit the bill. We can be like the locals of Nazareth who had fixed ideas as to when and where and how the Messiah should come to Israel. The local carpenter, the son of Mary, did not measure up. And they really missed out.
In today’s second reading St Paul draws our attention to another type of prophet that God sends into our midst, one to which we also turn a blind eye and even ask him to take away. Paul calls it ‘a thorn in the flesh’. All sorts of suggestions have been made as to the nature of this thorn in the flesh of the Apostle but that is not the point. For Paul it was the discovery that this thorn, the abiding personal weakness that he shunned, could be a channel of God’s grace, an opening onto the mystery of the cross of Christ. ‘I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me.’ Shutting the door will not do, he tells us, for the God who came to us in the flesh meets us there in the flesh of our experience, all of it, all of our self and our world.
Growth in the Spirit almost always shows itself in the capacity to recognise Christ more and more in the ordinary, the everyday. The great saints never ceased being filled with wonder at the mysterious presence of God. ‘The Word became flesh’ not only means that the Son of God became a human being, but that he took human form in a town as ordinary and insignificant and out of the way as Nazareth. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? For sure, it can! But can we identify the Nazareth in our own selves, in our families, in our community and open the door to the Heaven in ordinarie that is in the place we would least expect it to be?
Fr Senan OSB