A Prophet Is Not Without Honor Except in His Native Place

SCRIPTURES & ART: A look at the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time through the eyes of a Flemish artist

Maerten de Vos, “Jesus Is Rejected at Nazareth,” 16th century
Maerten de Vos, “Jesus Is Rejected at Nazareth,” 16th century (photo: Public Domain)

Today’s readings focus on the theme that a prophet is not accepted at home. Ezekiel, in the First Reading, relates God’s message to the prophet: go and speak my Word to them because, whether they accept or reject it, “they shall know that a prophet has been among them” (2:5b). Mark, in the Gospel, details Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth. 

Yes, they heard his Word. Their reaction to his teaching was astonishment (Mark 6:2). They are clearly amazed, because they call what they are hearing “wisdom” (v. 3). “Wisdom” in the Bible is not book-learning. It is not acquired by diploma, credential, or even taking out student loans. It comes from God and it is about knowing how to live rightly and, since for Biblical man “living rightly” means “living according to God’s Will,” wisdom is about being right before God. (That’s why the “fool” is not someone unlettered but someone who thinks he can live as if God did not exist: see Psalm 14:1.)

The crowd identifies two key qualities of Jesus’ message: the “wisdom” of what he says and the fact that is corroborated by “mighty deeds … wrought by his hands” (Mark 6:3). Both those facts should suffice to confirm his prophetic word.

They don’t.

Are you surprised? Jesus’ miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead elicited two contradictory responses: “many who … had seen what Jesus did believed in him” (John 11:45) but, for the Sanhedrin, it was the last straw that sets into motion their plot “to take his life” (vv. 47-52). Same deed, diametrically opposed responses.

Elsewhere, Jesus’ good works elicit the logically inconsistent blasphemy that he is in league with the Devil. (Mark 3:20-30, where some of those some relatives mentioned in today’s Gospel come to “take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’”). 

Jesus’ wisdom and works produce not faith but ad hominem arguments. Who’s he think he is? The carpenter’s kid? The kid that grew up on our streets? Him?

There’s an amazing quality to people about running themselves down. I come from Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Perth Amboy in my youth was an industrial town, typical of the New Jersey rust belt. 

In 2000, I was in Scotland and took a side trip to Perth, the town after whose Earl my hometown was named. I remember driving into the city limits but not knowing what was particularly worth seeing. I saw some locals sitting by a bus stop, told them why I was there and asked their recommendation. To my surprise, I got the same “run-down-your-town” response I would have heard from many back in New Jersey. In a thick Scottish accent, this man looks at me and says, “you mean you came all the way from America to visit this dump?”

It was hardly a dump. The Stone of Scone, on which Scottish (and now, British) monarchs are crowned, came from nearby. The Scottish royal family lived in Perth from time to time. Even today, it’s “the Gateway to the Highlands.” It’s an attractive little city.

But old habits die hard. In Perth Amboy. In Perth. And in Nazareth.

Throughout Ordinary Time this year, we have been reading Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus’ teaching is often accompanied by “mighty deeds” — particularly physical cures and exorcisms — to prove Jesus’ credentials. But, “amazed at their lack of faith,” Jesus performs few mighty deeds in his own hometown. It’s not because Jesus is powerless, but because his works are intended to elicit and support faith, not just promote public health in Galilee — and the former is what’s missing.

Jesus does not deny the importance of roots: the Gospels are clear that he is “son of David, son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). But Jesus’ word and deeds speak for themselves, except to those who willfully make themselves blind and thus accrue guilt (John 8:39-41).

Surprisingly, Mark’s passage appears rarely to have been depicted in art, which is why I borrow an analogous scene. Jesus’ rejection in his hometown is illustrated by the 16th-century Flemish artist, Maerten de Vos. The woodcut actually depicts the scene from Luke 4:14-29, in which Jesus comes to Nazareth, agrees to read Isaiah (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me”) at the Sabbath service, declares “the Scripture fulfilled in your hearing” which elicits a fight about his origins, results in “no prophet is accepted in his hometown” and an attempt to kill him by throwing him off a cliff. In the Lukan passage, Jesus also implicitly offends the Nazarenes by noting that earlier prophets (Elijah, Elisha) found their message accepted not in Israel but by foreigners (the Zarephath widow, Naaman the Syrian). 

De Vos’ “Nazareth” bears an uncanny resemblance to a late medieval/early Renaissance European city, with city walls and high buildings. The city on the right frames the center of action on the left, to which the eye is led by the ascending path along the hillside. The danger of the path is accented by the little fence barricading the steep path: there is no fence at Jesus’ feet. A mass of at least five men have hands on Jesus, pushing him to the edge. The “concern” in their faces belies their otherwise sinister intent. Back near the fence, another clutch of men is talking, one pointing to Jesus (again, refocusing us on the center of action), presumably explaining why Jesus is receiving such a “warm welcome home” in Nazareth. It’ unclear whether the third group, near the wall, is also discussing Jesus or something else.

The jagged rocks and relatively bare countryside below may perhaps just be de Vos’ idea of the topography of the region and/or may also allude to Jesus’ temptation in the desert (which in Luke’s Gospel immediately precedes the episode in Nazareth). Remember that in Luke’s second temptation, the Devil “led him up to a high place” to show him the world’s kingdoms and, in the third, he is tempted to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple. Death by fall is a clear diabolical priority … in more ways than one. The sparse fauna near Jesus also more or less bend downwards under the pull of gravity.

De Vos (who had become a Protestant before returning to Catholicism) made an artistic career for himself in the Counterreformation. The Netherlands had embraced the more radical form of Protestantism represented by Calvinism and, during the Beeldenstorm (“image storm”) of the 1560s, Calvinist iconoclasts had destroyed much religious art. De Vos was among those commissioned to replace the vandalized works and was quite prolific in his output.

De Vos’ works — including the one commented on today — found their way into Nadal’s 1593 Evangelicae Historiae Imagines, a Counterreformation work in Europe and the Spanish Americas that was originally commissioned by St. Ignatius Loyola. 

Today’s Gospel teaches us an important lesson for today. Truth is the mortal enemy of anti-truth, which is why the former cannot simply be ignored. It — and those who speak it — must be canceled, lest Truth assert itself. The mortal threat of such a worldview is apparent in De Vos’ illustration.