by Br Julian McDonald
“I am most happy, then, to be proud of my weaknesses, in order to feel the protection of Christ’s power over me.” 2 Corinthians 12, 7-10
“Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given to him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands? Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” Jesus said to them: “A prophet is despised only in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house.” Mark 6, 1-6
In 2012, a children’s book called Wonder was published in New York. It was written by R.J. Palacio, pen-name for Raquel Jaramillo, mother of a young child. In six years, the book has sold more than 5 million copies. It’s the story of August (“Augie”) Pullman who was born with a severely disfigured face, the result of a genetic disorder known as mandibulofacial dysotosis or Treacher Collins Syndrome. What sparked Ms Jaramillo to write the story was a combination of her own child’s distress at seeing the face of another child with Treacher Collins Syndrome and her hearing a song called Wonder, written and sung by Natalie Merchant. (The song and the lyrics are readily available on You Tube.)
Augie Pullman is labelled is a “monster” by some of his fellow fifth-graders, rejected by many of them and bullied by others who regard themselves as superior. Yet through his personal courage and integrity and his insistence in speaking the truth, he eventually wins the support and respect of his peers. In those respects, he acts as a prophet, despite the fact that he is only a child in years.
Difference often triggers prejudice in others. Moreover, we all know from experience that “familiarity breeds contempt”. In today’s gospel reading, we see how Jesus is a victim of both prejudice and familiarity. Because of his personal integrity, he dares to be different and he is insulted by his own family members and by those among whom he grew up, because they had categorised him as nothing more than the local carpenter. They even resorted to attributing to him the ultimate insult in describing him as the “son of Mary”. Rarely, if ever, in Jewish society was a man referred to as the son of his mother, even if his mother had been widowed. Referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary” was a deep insult, a slur on his origins. Those who knew him from his childhood couldn’t cope with the fact that he had changed, so they reduced him to his former occupation and his family origins.
Today’s reading is the culmination of a theme that Mark has been weaving into his Gospel. Recall, for a moment, the start of the reading we had for the Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Members of Jesus’ family were so embarrassed by what Jesus had been saying and doing that they thought he had gone crazy. They turned up to apprehend him and take him away by force: “When his relatives heard of this, they set out to take him in hand, convinced that he was out of his mind” (Mark 3, 30). Clearly, Jesus resisted them and went on to say that membership of his family and community was not based on blood lines or kinship: “Whoever does the will of God is brother and sister and mother to me” (Mark 3, 35). Towards the end of Chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel we read how Jesus calmed the storm when the disciples were terrified that their boat would sink. At the conclusion of that story, we are told that the disciples kept saying to one another: “Who can this be, that the wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4, 41). So, we have two examples of family members and the people of Nazareth dismissing Jesus as a nobody or as someone who has gone crazy. In fact, they effectively say to one another: “Who does this carpenter, whom we have known since he was a kid, think he is? Whom is he trying to impress?” At the same time, his disciples are seriously trying to come to terms with who he really is. Meanwhile, Jesus is clearly saying that he’s someone on a mission to wake up the world to the mercy, compassion and kindness of God: “Whoever does the will of God is brother and sister and mother to me.”
While we ourselves have no desire to reduce Jesus to the level of someone out to make a name for himself or as the kid from down the street trying to make an impression, there are probably times when we are unable to see Jesus present in the ordinary and not-so-ordinary people we encounter every day of our lives. Do we ever think that Jesus is present in the people fleeing the terror of warfare and violence in South Sudan, Iraq, Syria or Palestine? Do we recognise Jesus present in the alcoholic who confronts us for the money for a cup of coffee and in the beggars from Ghana, Nigeria and Ethiopia standing outside our supermarkets? Do we assume that we have nothing to learn from the discards of modern society. The ordinary people of Nazareth and members of Jesus’ extended family were convinced that they understood who Jesus really was. They took offence at him because they concluded that he was full of his own importance. They failed to recognise that in the person they had seen grow up God was really present. Familiarity does indeed breed contempt, over-familiarity can blind us to the presence of God in our very midst.
While today’s gospel gives us an excellent example of how we can all unfairly read faults and limitations into others, today’s second reading from Corinthians is an invitation to look at our own limitations. In real life, we are constantly struggling with the call to confront our own faults and limitations and the inclination to magnify the limitations and faults we want to see in others. Paul admits to being afflicted with “a thorn in the flesh” to stop him from becoming uppity about his spiritual growth. The metaphor he uses suggests that he is prone to a recurring moral lapse. But he ends up boasting about his moral fragility. Initially, that left me wondering. I suggest that the key to understanding him lies in his disclosure that he took his weakness to his prayer and did not pretend to God that he was anything other than weak. In doing that, he came to appreciate that God loved him so much that he did not have to earn God’s approval by living and acting flawlessly. Paul came to realise that God loves us even when our behaviour is less than it could be, even when our integrity is somewhat off centre.
Paul reveals that the Lord’s response to his prayer was: “My grace is enough for you, for my power is at its best in weakness.” By implication, that same principle refers to Jesus, whose human limitations were no obstacle to the Father’s boundless love for him. All too easily, we gloss over the humanity of Jesus. Remember, he did get angry. When he was on the Cross he asked if God had abandoned him. When the people of his home town rejected him, he could not believe what he heard. There was no calm objectivity in his declaration that, like so many other prophets, he was not accepted where he anticipated a receptive audience. He found the locals so limited in their trust that he just dropped them and went elsewhere. Resignedly, he seems to be saying that their loss is not going to prevent him from expressing his own integrity. So, when others dismiss us, contradict us, undermine us, we can say with Paul: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” I suspect that Jesus would agree.