The Surprise of Jesus
Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Recently Suzanne and I were talking with friends here at St. John’s about our first impressions of this beautiful church. I remember being here for the first time, over 16 years ago, and being amazed at the beauty of this church in comparison to what we had been used to before moving to this area — gymnasium-style churches built in the 1960s that looked like they were designed by people who didn’t know what churches look like.
To our children, who grew up here, this is just what church looks like. The hymns we sing here are just what church music sounds like. They’re so familiar with St. John’s in one way that the kind of appreciation that comes naturally to those of us who first came here as adults may not come as naturally to them.
That’s a mild example of a principle at work in a much darker form in today’s Gospel.
What surprised Jesus
“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place, among his own kin, in his own house.” People say familiarity breeds contempt, but sometimes what familiarity breeds is blindness. In other words, we know something or someone so well in one way, or we think we know them better than we do, so that it becomes hard to really see and hear them. Sometimes a stranger sees and hears them better.
“We know this guy — the carpenter. Who does he think he is?” Jesus is always amazing people, but what’s really surprising, if we aren’t dulled by familiarity, is that in this Gospel the amazement is a two-way street. Not only are the people astonished at Jesus’ words, Jesus is amazed at their lack of faith.
Can you imagine Jesus being amazed? I’m not sure I can. It doesn’t happen often in the Gospels. Only twice we read that Jesus was amazed. The two things that amazed him were the unbelief of his neighbors at Nazareth and the faith of the Roman centurion with the sick servant.
You remember last week Jairus the synagogue leader asked Jesus to come to his house and lay his hands on his daughter and heal her. But do you remember what the Roman centurion said?
“Lord, I’m not worthy for you to enter under my roof — and you don’t have to. I know how authority works. When I tell one of my men to do something, I know it’ll be done. If you just say the word, my servant will be healed.”
That’s the faith that amazed Jesus, especially finding such faith in a foreigner, a commanding officer of the pagan Roman empire.
What surprised the Nazarenes
Today Jesus is amazed for the opposite reason, because of the unbelief of his fellow Nazarenes. And he knows how a prophet is never honored at home! He knows these people as well as they know him, or think they do. He grew up here! And yet he’s amazed.
Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said that caused such a stir, but Luke tells us that when Jesus went to Nazareth he announced the fulfillment of prophecy from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord … has anointed me to preach good news to the poor … release to captives … sight to the blind … liberty to the oppressed.”
Then he reminded them of two Old Testament stories about the prophets Elijah and Elisha miraculously helping two foreigners — the widow of Zarephath, who was Phoenician, and Naaman the leper, who was Syrian. These weren’t God’s people, and there were lots of widows and lepers among God’s people, but God didn’t send Elijah and Elisha to them! Just these two foreigners.
This is what most outraged Jesus’ neighbors: this hometown boy telling them not only that the God of their people, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, loved and cared about foreigners too, but in some cases foreigners might be first with God, like the Roman centurion, and good Jews like them might be last.
Not long before his crucifixion Jesus was challenged by Jerusalem’s chief priests and scribes. And he told them that people who were considered the worst, the scum of society, prostitutes and tax collectors — who were often slaves and considered traitors — were entering God’s kingdom before them.
Sinners. Foreigners. Unclean. Dogs, they were sometimes called. Animals. But not to Jesus. He had come to preach liberty to the oppressed, which isn’t always a popular move with the ones doing the oppressing. The people who assume they’re the good ones, who are in danger of being rejected.
Are we Nazarenes?
It’s easy for us to shake our heads at Jesus’ Nazarene neighbors and their unbelief. What’s wrong with these people? Hard of face and obstinate of heart, like the first reading from Ezekiel tells us.
Perhaps sometimes we’re more like them than we’d care to admit. We hear these Gospels week after week our whole lives. We aren’t often surprised by them, and sometimes we’re in danger of thinking we get them, thinking we get Jesus, better than we do.
A few years ago a certain ex-president said that in his opinion Jesus would approve of gay marriage. What would make someone say something like that? Obviously this man approves of gay marriage — and he can’t imagine Jesus disagreeing with him!
More recently officials in our government quoting the Bible defending taking children away from undocumented immigrants. They’re sure God is on their side. It couldn’t be that God is on the side of the foreigners and they’re the oppressors whom he opposes.
Jesus and idols
Everywhere you turn people are claiming Jesus’ personal support for whatever it is they believe. Jesus is a Republican. He’s a Democrat. He supports gun rights. He supports gun control. He’s whatever I see when I look in the mirror.
You know what that is? That’s an idol. A false god, made in our own image. A mask for another idol: gay rights, border control, my party, my view on guns. We turn the Alpha and the Omega into a team mascot, a sock puppet who agrees with whatever we say. No wonder it never surprises us!
Sometimes you hear people say “God wouldn’t want me to suffer like this.” Tell it to St. Paul with his thorn in the flesh. Three times he prayed that it would be taken away. But God said, “My grace is sufficient for you. Power is made perfect in weakness.”
Lord, let us be weak before you. Make us willing to be surprised by you. Smash our idols. Break through our dull familiarity. Teach us to pray not to what we think you are, but to what you know yourself to be. Amen.