As a deacon I get asked a lot of questions – questions about the Church, questions about God, questions about morality…what’s right and what’s wrong and why. And, you know, most of them are good questions, questions asked by people who need answers, who are honestly searching for the truth, questions that come straight from the heart.
But occasionally the questions I’m asked come from a different place. Occasionally they come from anger, or from pride, or from hatred. And it’s those questions I have a hard time answering. It’s not so much that they’re hard to answer; it’s that those asking them don’t want to hear the answers.
“How can a loving God be so cruel? Why did He kill all those innocent people in that earthquake?”
“Isn’t the Church against abortion just because it gives women control over their lives?”
“Why didn’t God answer my prayer? I told Him what I needed again and again.”
“How come the Church hates gay people?”
You see, in each instance it’s pretty clear they’ve already made up their minds. They already have their own answers, answers that support what they want to believe. What really bothers them is God’s unwillingness to conform to the divine image they’ve created. And they want His Church to support that image.
Those questions, as different as they might seem on the surface, really boil down to one question: “Why doesn’t God agree with me?” In other words, the creature tries to assume the role of the creator – by creating a god in his image.
Of course, this is nothing new. It’s been around from the very beginning. That first sin, the sin in the garden, was a sin of pride: Adam and Eve wanting to be like God. And we also see it in evidence in today’s Gospel passage from Luke.
|Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth|
At first the townspeople look at each other in amazement, overcome by wonder and pride. Isn’t Jesus one of their own? Isn’t He the same one who grew up with their own children, played with them, went to synagogue with them? Isn’t He the young carpenter? Isn’t this the son of Joseph? How is it He speaks with such wisdom?
Nazareth was likely a pretty quiet place — a small village on the road to larger, more exciting places. I suspect nothing much ever happened in Nazareth. And yet, on this day, in sleepy Nazareth, the people heard the Word of Isaiah – the Word of their Fathers – claimed to be fulfilled in their hearing. Isn’t this the son of Joseph?
Oh, they’d heard the rumors of miracles in Capernaum. They’d heard talk of healings and crowds and signs of God’s favor. And most of them probably hoped He’d do the same in Nazareth – maybe even more…much more. But they kept thinking: Isn’t this the son of Joseph? One of our own. And if He is a prophet, if He is a miracle-maker, then shouldn’t His own people be the first to benefit? After all, we’re his people! His family! His friends! He should do something special for us, perhaps some wonderful miracle, or some healings. God knows we have enough sick people in town. If He’d do that then we’d know God’s power is here, right here in Nazareth, this little town in this forgotten corner of Galilee.
|Elijah and the widow|
And no healings. Instead of healing the sick of Nazareth, Jesus speaks of the prophet Elisha and the leper God sent him to heal, a man called Naaman, a pagan from Syria — and this when there were many lepers in Israel [2 Kgs 5].
The people of Nazareth gathered in the synagogue to see and hear Jesus, this son of Joseph who was apparently doing wondrous things throughout Galilee. They hoped to be amazed by His words and to marvel at His mighty deeds. Yes, they wanted the hometown boy to bring them signs of God’s favor. They wanted a prophet who would do their bidding, not God’s.
But instead, Jesus told them stories of God’s grace poured out not on Jews, not on friends and neighbors, but on aliens, on unbelievers. And this infuriated them. Jesus is certainly not their kind of Messiah. And so they rose up, drove Him out of town, to the brow of a steep hill, hoping to hurl Him off the cliff.
Yes, we meet these Nazarenes across a vast gulf of time and traditions and language and experience… and although these differences are great, perhaps we’re more like them than we know. After all, don’t we also sometimes yearn for a God we can control, one who will do our bidding? Don’t we sometimes want a God who will reward us, His friends, and punish our enemies?
Oh, yes, we want a just and merciful God, as long as we’re the ones who benefit from his justice and mercy. It’s okay if God plays favorites so long as we’re the favored ones. We ask for forgiveness when we fail to do God’s bidding, and then we demand that he do ours.
Most of the time, we’re not particularly comfortable with a truly omnipotent and omniscient God. We prefer our God in a box with well-defined limitations, one who conforms to our vision of what God should do. We want a God we can tame. And so did the people of Nazareth.
For on that day Jesus reminded his friends and neighbors that God’s ways are not our ways. God’s grace cannot be constrained by our boundaries or controlled by our prayers. When Jesus spoke in the synagogue, he gave notice that his ministry would embrace the stranger and include the outsider. His message would be as confrontational as it was comforting. His teaching would be sharp and hard and often difficult to accept, or even hear.
This is why so many today find Jesus and His Church just as unacceptable. I remember walking with thousands of others on a “walk for life” in Boston some years ago. It was a peaceful event. And as we walked down Commonwealth Avenue in support of the unborn, the silence was broken only by the prayers and hymns of the participants…until we reached one corner. There we were confronted by a small group of protesters who fouled the air, screaming obscenities and blasphemies aimed directly at Jesus Christ and His Church.
You see, brothers and sisters, Jesus’ Word can be hard, and those who can’t accept and embrace it may find themselves filled with fury and standing on the brow of a hill ready to hurl him, and his message, headlong off the cliff.
Jesus didn’t go elsewhere because he was rejected; he was rejected because he intended to go elsewhere. That elsewhere beckons us, too; or at least it should, for we too are called. We have heard God’s Word. It has been fulfilled in our hearing. We are called to travel on hard paths, and to take up our cross, carrying it with us as we go.
This is our God – our crucified and risen Lord, the God who lives, still bearing the wounds of His love. This is our God, not a God to be tamed or controlled, but a God to be loved, a God who demands our complete trust. This is our Christian calling, to abandon ourselves in trust, to abandon ourselves into His hands, allowing His will and not ours to be done in our lives. To the world it appears to be weakness; but believe me, it can be the hardest thing you will ever do.
The question is: Are we willing to do it?