As a priest of eleven years in the ministry, one of the most challenging moments in my priesthood is to deliver a homily, facilitate a retreat or recollection, conduct seminar, and correct gently in charity people such as my relatives, neighbors, friends and classmates and teachers who have known me and my background since childhood.
Usually in moments like this, I feel I am unworthy and apprehensive of what will be their attitudes and reactions of what I ought to say and do knowing that they knew me very well and I know them too. Behind all these, deep within me, I am fully convinced, that familiarity breeds contempt. And no critics are more severe than kin and neighbors who have known me since my childhood.
This is what happened to Jesus in today’s Gospel. Jesus suffers the bias, prejudices and antagonism instead of warm welcome, hospitality and generosity of his town mates when he returned to his home town, not simply as the carpenter’s son, but now as a rabbi with disciples. This led him to exclaim, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and in his own house” (Mt 13:57).
Jesus “native place” is Nazareth, which he has already left to make Capernaum, by the sea of Tiberias, his homebase for his Galilean ministry. “Native place may also apply to the whole country – Israel – for the rejection at Nazareth mirrors the rejection of the wider territory of the Jews. The “house” refers to his immediate and extended families. It can also apply to the household of God – Israel – the chosen people.
It was customary for Jesus to go weekly to the synagogue to worship and on occasion to read the scriptures and comment on them to the people. His hometown folks listened with rapt attention on this occasion because they had heard about the miracles he had performed in other towns. As they listened, his town mates were surprised to what they see and hear saying, “”Where did he get this wisdom and these special powers? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?” (Mt 13:54). The Jews were really surprised to hear him speak so well in the synagogue. Surprised because for them Jesus was just a son of Joseph, and had practiced the trade of carpenter himself for some years since Joseph’s death. Not as prophet or teacher as they now see and hear.
Their amazement instead of leading them to repentance, conversion and discipleship, they took took offense at him and refused to listen to what he had to say. They despised his preaching because he was a workingman, a carpenter, a mere layman and they despised him because of his family.
Worst of all, according to some versions of the Gospel, Jesus was promptly expelled from the synagogue and almost killed at the outskirts of Nazareth, causing him to remark, “Indeed no prophet is accepted and honored by his townsmen, relatives and friends”. What he really wanted to convey was: Prophet is only accepted and honored by a person who believes. Because of their lack of faith, Jesus was not able to perform any mighty deeds there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands of them. Indeed familiarity breeds contempt. Jesus could do no mighty works in their midst because of their stubbornness of heart, ignorance and unbelief.
The Nazarenes’ surprise is partly due to people’s difficulty in recognizing anything exceptional and supernatural in those with whom they have bee on familiar terms. Hence the saying, ” No one is a prophet in his own country.” These old neighbors were also jealous of Jesus. Where did he acquire his wisdom? Why him rather than us? They were unaware of Jesus’ conception; surprise and jealousy cause them to be shocked to look down on Jesus and not to believe in Him: “He came to his own home, and His own people received Him not” (John 1:11).
At the annunciation the angel already identified the Jesus the son of Mary as the ‘Son of the Most High’ and the ‘Son of God’ (Lk 1:32, 35). The demons called Jesus ‘Holy One of God (Mk 1:24)0, ‘Son of God’ (Mk 3:11), ‘Son of the Most High’ (Mk 5:7). At the foot of the cross the Centurion acknowledged, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” The doubting Thomas acclaimed Jesus: “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20: 28). And the Father himself at the baptism (Mk 1:11) and at the transfiguration (Mk 9:7) claimed Jesus, “This is my beloved Son.” Can you still remain skeptical like the doubting Thomas and the people of Nazareth? Will you still hesitate to put your faith in Jesus? “Do not be unbelieving, but believe” (Jn 20:27).
As we continue the celebration of the Mass, let us pray for the gift of faith. Let us always entrust ourselves wholly to God and believe absolutely all that He says for He is God who neither deceives nor can be deceived. Jesus has done so much for us that we may repent, believe and be saved. Let us, therefore, live, grow and persevere in the faith until the end by nourishing it with the word of God and the sacraments; begging the Lord to increase our faith (see Mk 9:24; Lk 17:5; 22:32); and lastly by making our faith working through charity, abounding in hope and rooted in the faith of the Church (see Gal 5:6; Rom 15:13; cf. Jas 2:14-26).