“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house” Mark 6:4
The ancient Greek storyteller, Aesop, was a keen observer of human nature. Six hundred years before Christ, he wrote a collection of fables -- short tales, often with animals as characters, used to teach moral lessons. For centuries Aesop’s fables have delighted children the world over. Probably, his best known fable is “The Tortoise and the Hare,” the moral of which is…………slow and steady wins the race. A less well-known one entitled “The Fox and the Lion” helps explain why in today’s gospel Jesus is rejected as a prophet in his home town. Here it is.
When first Fox saw the Lion he was terribly frightened, and ran away and hid himself in the wood. Next time however he came near the King of Beasts he stopped at a safe distance and watched him pass by. The Third time they came near one another the Fox went straight up to the Lion and passed the time of day with him, asking him how his family was and when he should have the pleasure of seeing him again; then turning his tail, he parted from the Lion without much ceremony. Moral of the story? Familiarity breeds contempt.
Today’s gospel reading from Mark takes place at the height of Jesus’ success, a year or so after the beginning of his public ministry. In it, Jesus, who has been teaching, healing, casting out demons, even bringing a dead girl back to life, returns to Nazareth, accompanied by his disciples. Energizing and inspiring people throughout Galilee, his reputation as a prophet, a messenger of God, precedes him. As was the right of any devout Jew, especially someone of his stature as a holy man, Jesus preaches the homily in the local synagogue that Sabbath evening. The townspeople are amazed. They’re astonished at the wisdom of his words and at the reports of miracles he’s been performing.
And they’re even more amazed because they think they know who Jesus is. After all, they know his relatives; they remember him growing up; they used to watch him play kickball with his pals in the town square. He’s Mary’s boy, the carpenter’s son. Surely, there’s nothing special about him. He puts his tunic on one arm at a time, just like everyone else. But because they think they know him, they’re reluctant to accept him as a prophet. They see the outward person, but he’s not saying the words they want to hear or he doesn’t fit their preconceived notion of who ought to be saying them, so they don’t take him seriously. Familiarity breeds contempt.
As a result of the townspeople’s rejection and lack of faith, Jesus, Mark tells us, “could work no miracle there apart from curing a few who were sick.” How sad that even a savior’s gifts and abundant grace, not welcomed, unacknowledged and unaccepted, might be rendered virtually powerless. How frightening to think that God’s plan for salvation could be thwarted by human obstinacy and disbelief. Come to think of it, that’s the moral of the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, isn’t it?
We’re not much different from the people of Nazareth two thousand years ago. The same thing can and does happen here. “People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening,” is how singer/songwriters Simon and Garfunkel described the phenomenon in their 1960’s pop classic “Sounds of Silence.” God is constantly speaking to us through people we know, through things that happen to us, through the ordinary circumstances of life. Yet, again and again we don’t recognize God’s voice, because God is speaking through someone we know too well, or someone different than us, or someone who’s a total stranger or a foreigner. So, we either reject the message because we don’t like the messenger; or we discredit the messenger because we don’t like the message; or we simply tune out the message and messenger altogether.
In 1960 a religious persecution broke out in the territory of Sudan in Africa. A Christian black student named Paride Taban fled the danger and went to Uganda. While in Uganda, he studied for the priesthood and was ordained. When things settled down in Sudan, young Fr. Taban returned to his homeland and was assigned to a parish in Palotaka.
But his African congregation found it hard to believe that he was really a priest. Fr. Taban says: “The people looked hard at me and asked, “Do you mean to say, black man, that you are a priest? We can’t believe it.” These people had never had a black priest before. They had always had white priests who gave them clothing and medicine. Young Fr. Taban was from the Madi tribe and had nothing to give them. He was poor like them. To make matters worse, Fr. Taban had to introduce them to the changes of Vatican II.
These changes bothered the people greatly. They said to one another: “This young black man turns our altar around and celebrates Mass in our own language. He cannot be a real priest.” Only after a great deal of difficulty did the people of Palotaka finally accept Fr. Taban. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Young brothers and sisters in high school, when you were little, your mom or dad had all the answers and could fix just about any problem, right? Did your opinion of them change when you reached adolescence? Mark Twain is reputed to have said: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Familiarity breeds contempt.
Traditionally, Old Testament prophets like Ezekiel of the first reading and New Testament prophets like St John the Baptist and, of course Jesus himself, have met with resistance, hostility and even violent death. Isn’t it strange that messages urging truth, love, justice, freedom and peace can arouse such hostility, hatred and violence? But it happens all the time, including today in the Middle East, as people kill each other daily in the name of the same God -- the God of Abraham, the God of three of the world’s major religions. In the last century, modern day prophets like Dr. Martin Luther King died for promoting equal treatment of people regardless of race. Mahatma Gandhi died because, as a Hindu, he was friendly with Muslims. Bishop Oscar Romero died for denouncing exploitation of the poor and Dietrich Bonhoeffer died because he attacked the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany. And the list goes on and on.
Now here’s a sobering thought. All of us are called to be prophets. At baptism, we were commissioned to spread the message of the Gospel, in our families, in our work places, among our friends, and in society. Whatever’s going on anywhere in the world, we have to be ready to proclaim and defend truth, love, justice, freedom, people’s rights and dignity. There are certain positions over which we cannot compromise; there are certain times when we cannot keep silent.
And there are times when we may be afraid or when we may feel incompetent or inadequate to play the role of prophet like taking an unpopular stand on certain aspects of the war on terror or on what to do about illegal immigrants in our country. At those times we can take encouragement from St. Paul in the second reading when he describes his duty to spread the gospel as a “thorn in the flesh.” He begged God to take away this affliction, as did other reluctant prophets in the bible, including Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, all of whom asked to be excused from performing that role.
So too should we not be discouraged by our own shortcomings – spiritual, psychological, social or physical. God will also stand by us and give us what we need when we need it. Familiarity, you see, doesn’t always breed contempt. Familiarity with Jesus, plus faith and grace, if we welcome, acknowledge and accept them, breeds commitment -- commitment to live like a believer which, in turn, yields eternal life. That, after all, is the moral of the greatest story ever told.
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 9, 2006. (Cycle B)