This homily, based on Luke 4:21-30 and 1 Corinthians 13:4-13, was delivered at St. Agnes Catholic Church.
Things went very wrong rather quickly at this homecoming. Jesus shows up one morning in his hometown, and he is greeted by a huge turnout in the synagogue: Family and friends have come to hear one of their own, now a minor celebrity in his own right. They are amazed at his wisdom, and they are all praises for this son of Nazareth.
All right, maybe for about five minutes. Then it begins.
First, they ask one another, eyebrows properly raised: “Wait, isn’t this the son of Joseph?”
The other versions of the same event leave no doubt as to what Jesus’ own people mean by that question. In Matthew, they are quoted as saying: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?”
In other words, “We know this guy! His family lives right next door. We can even name all his cousins! It’s only Jesus! How can he possibly be that amazing?”
It’s a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt.
In his account, Mark portrays them as even more contemptuous, muttering among themselves: “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” That’s significant because during Jesus’ time, to be identified as the son of your mother is to insinuate that you’re not your father’s son–i.e., a bastard. Simply put, how can someone with such a checkered past possibly be a prophet of God?
And of course, as though to make matters worse, our Lord picks that precise moment to tell them what they don’t exactly want to hear: that they, his childhood neighbors, aren’t so special, after all; and in fact, now that you mention it, the Jews in general–God’s so-called “Chosen People”–won’t exactly enjoy exclusive preferential treatment either.
To prove his point, Jesus quotes Scripture: Did not the prophet Eijah, at the time of the great famine, practically ignore all the worried and starving Jewish mothers in the land, opting to give bread to–of all people–a Gentile widow from Sidon instead?
Did not that other prophet Elisha, during a particularly serious leprosy epidemic, neglect to heal the numerous Jewish lepers, but made an exception in the case of–of all people–Naaman, a Syrian?
And now, likewise, Jesus himself–a prophet unaccepted in his own native place–announces in no uncertain terms that he will perform no miracle for them there in Nazareth.
It is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. After that, all hell breaks loose. Whatever iota of faith they may still be harboring secretly for this homegrown prophet has by this time evaporated. Whatever hope in miracles that Jesus might work for them has all but shriveled up before their very eyes. And any remaining love for this returning son of Nazareth has just morphed to murderous hate.
Surely this is utterly heartbreaking for our Lord: to see the rage of the very people he has grown up with directed against him, to have them shove him out of the synagogue and actually attempt to throw him off the cliff. But as we know, it is only the first of many more rejections he will experience in his life. Our Lord is no stranger to rejection. All his life he will face rejection–until his death on the cross.
This Gospel story teaches us something about the faith, hope, and love that St. Paul talks about so beautifully in his first letter to the Corinthians. Jesus’ experience of rejection in his own town shows us what lack of faith, lack of hope, and lack of love look like and what they sound like.
We’ve often been told that the the opposite of faith is doubt, the opposite of hope is despair, and the opposite of love is hate.
Maybe, but maybe not all the time.
Contrary to what we think, doubt is not always the opposite of faith: After all, doubts sometimes give rise to questions that need to be asked, questions that can actually eventually lead to a much stronger faith.
Neither is despair always the opposite of hope: Sometimes it is at the brink of despair, when we are running on empty, that we ironically find hope: A hope of the most resilient variety, the hope we need when we think there is no more hope, the kind that enables us precisely to” hope against hope.”
Finally, hate isn’t always the opposite of love; rather, hate is sometimes the other–albeit less pretty–face of love. I think we are capable of hating only those we love, those nearest us, those dearest to us. The others we simply don’t care enough about to hate. And sometimes it is only in its aftermath of our hating do we realize–much to our surprise–how deeply we actually love these people.
The enemy of faith, hope, and love isn’t always doubt, despair, or hate; I think it is something much less obvious and much more insidious. The real poison that kills faith, hope, and love is what we find in the hearts of those neighbors and childhood friends of our Lord in Nazareth; it is excessive certainty and over familiarity: When we think we’ve already seen it all, when we tell ourselves that we’ve “been there, done that,” and when we have categorized God with convenient little labels and put Him away neatly in some box or shelf.
The family and friends of Jesus have been way too confident that they already know Jesus; in the process, they have allowed their familiarity with him to reduce the very Son of God to their own limited previous experiences and perceptions of him.
The townspeople of Nazareth have been way too certain that they already know the God of Israel. Despite God’s track record of surprises and His consistent refusal to be predictable, they have failed to be open to His mystery. They have put God in a box, forgetting that it’s exactly the very last thing you should do–or can do–with God.
But as St. Paul reminds us: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror… At present we know partially…”
Nothing kills faith, hope, and love like excessive certainty and over-familiarity. On the other hand, nothing nourishes them like the humility of knowing we know only partially, and therefore, openness, awe, and the willingness to be surprised.
Now, what applies to God also applies to the people in our lives and even life in general: Faith, hope, and love have no chance of surviving when we’ve given up being surprised by God, by the people in our lives, and by life, when we no longer allow ourselves to be awed by them and to recognize their mystery. The problem is, no matter how much we think we already know them, God, life, and people are–and will always be–great mysteries. It’s just what they are.
So here are a few questions for us today as we examine the state of our faith, hope, and love–not just towards God, but also towards life and towards the people in our lives: Do our familiarity and certainty about them somehow get in the way of our faith, hope, and love for them? Can we exert just an extra effort today to get rid of our labels and boxes for them? Let’s give faith, hope, and love a chance by saying these words–to God, to life, and to the people around us, especially those nearest us and dearest to us:
“You are much more than what I think I know about you. I accept your mystery. Here I am: Surprise me!”