Harrowing Of Hell
July 7, 2024

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Susan Pitchford, Lay Preacher

To watch the sermon click here.

Why is it so hard to see things we’re not expecting? Why is it so hard to change our minds?

There’s a mystery in today’s gospel. Jesus has been teaching, healing, casting out demons, gathering disciples. He’s even raised the dead—the daughter of Jairus, administrator of the Capernaum synagogue—though he’d ordered those present not to tell anyone about that. Celebrity, as Jesus knew and countless others have learned since, can quickly get out of control. 

But his reputation is growing. So he visits his hometown, and preaches in the synagogue. And you’d think the story would be, “Local boy makes good,” and the people of the town would be carrying him on their shoulders, putting wreaths on him and singing “Hosanna.” 

But it doesn’t go like that. Instead, they start questioning: “Where did he get all this wisdom? Where did he get this power? Isn’t this the tecton?” which is translated as “carpenter” and gives us the word “architect.” But it can mean anything from “skilled craftsman” to “construction worker.” And more: “Isn’t this the son of Mary?” Now, this is debated but it could be that they’re actually insulting Jesus here, hinting at old stories of his suspicious birth, and Mary’s questionable virtue. Because normally one would say “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” 

Regardless, his old neighbors take offense at him: the Greek word is skandalon, meaning “stumbling block”; we can hear the word “scandalized” in it. They hear Jesus teach and are scandalized. The mystery is: why? Why wouldn’t they take pride in him? Why wouldn’t they be putting up plaques saying “Jesus Christ taught here”?

Now, Jesus pulls no punches. He doesn’t say, “People are never honored in their hometown.” He says “Prophets are never honored in their hometown.” He’s not going to deny his identity just because it makes them uncomfortable. (That’s a good lesson, by the way.) 

So why were they scandalized by him? In Luke’s version, we get the content of his sermon, which implies that they’re not as special as they think, and that God’s loving plan includes even Gentiles. But here in Mark we don’t get that, nor do we get the little detail about them running him out of the synagogue and trying to throw him off a cliff. Still, in Mark’s account, they’re offended by him. Why?

Well, put yourself in their shoes: Here’s this guy who they’ve watched go from a young child to a grown man. They knew him; at least they thought they did. He’d sat in that synagogue for years. Was he remarkable? He’d reached age 30 without marrying, which was unusual but not unheard of, especially for one whose vocation wasn’t exactly compatible with marriage and family.  

Also some rabbis married late, because they were busy studying—it was kind of like grad school. I got a lot of useful advice when I was a graduate student, but the most useless advice I got was “Don’t fall in love in grad school. You don’t have the time or the energy.” Since the person who gave me that advice has now been my spouse for almost thirty years, I guess you could say I didn’t really listen.

Anyway, the people’s comments suggest Jesus is seen as an ordinary guy: “We know his parents, his family, his trade.” Not “We’ve been watching him be sinless all these years.” Plus, Nazareth is not exactly a place that would have been expected to produce a prophet, let alone the Messiah. 

First of all, it was tiny. It had four, maybe five hundred people—I’ve taught classes that size! And then, it was in Galilee, which for Jews was a provincial backwater. It was primarily Gentile territory, with scattered Jewish towns and villages. It was a site of occasional Jewish unrest and insurrection, which the Romans didn’t greatly appreciate. Even among Jews it wasn’t held in high regard: once, when Nicodemus is sticking up for Jesus, other Pharisees give a withering response: “Are you also from Galilee? Search the scriptures and you’ll see that no prophet comes from Galilee.” It’s kind of like being a New Yorker and saying,“Nobody important comes from Alabama.” 

But they should’ve known better, because Isaiah had written about “Galilee of the Gentiles” as the place where “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (9:1-2). And in spite of Nathanael’s contempt (“Can anything good come from Nazareth?), the name “Nazareth” itself had a big hint in it. It came from the Hebrew nétser, meaning a branch, stem, or shoot. Think back to Isaiah again (11:1-2): “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding…” This is a messianic prophecy, which Jesus—descendent of David, son of Jesse—would fulfill. 

But in spite of all the signs pointing at Jesus, they missed him. Utterly missed him. They couldn’t see who he really was, because they thought they already knew. And as the psychologists tell us, once our opinions are formed, we will do anything, go through all kinds of mental gymnastics, to avoid having to revise them. You can hear them at it: “He doesn’t have the right credentials. He didn’t go to rabbi school. Where did he get all this?” Et cetera.

All they could see in Jesus was an ordinary guy who was making extraordinary claims. In Luke’s version, Jesus begins by saying that the passage from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” has been fulfilled in him. And although they’d been praying all their lives for the Messiah to come, they hadn’t imagined him coming from their town, or maybe not being a military hero—Just somebody they’d known all his life. So in spite of all the teachings and miracles, they just can’t get their heads around it. And they reject him.

Do you hear the logic of addiction in this? (Stay with me!) “I loathe the status quo, I’m stuck, I want so much to change.” But when the reality and demands of change are before me, I just can’t bring myself to accept it. And I cling to what I know. It’s a vicious trap. 

It’s so easy to look back at the members of the Nazareth synagogue and think, “How could they have been so blind?” But they were just doing what we all do: assuming their assumptions rather than examining them. It’s hard to get outside yourself, look back in, and say: “Wow, that’s totally wrong.” Hard, and threatening. There’s no real mystery here after all: the people of Nazareth rejected Jesus because he was not the messiah they were expecting. 

And that makes me wonder: How often does Jesus come to us in ways we don’t expect? And how often do we miss him, or even get scandalized and reject him? Many of us are used to the idea that we should look for Jesus in the faces of homeless people and drug addicts. You can recognize Jesus in them if you’ve learned to look. But what if Jesus came to us as a Republican? Or a Democrat? What assumptions would we make that would keep us from recognizing Jesus in them, and hearing what he had to teach us? 

I believe that the best way—maybe the only way—to get enough distance from our own assumptions to examine them critically is to listen, really listen, to people who are different from us. To hear their stories, to take them, and their point of view, seriously. Not deflect, diminish, minimize, gaslight, or any of the other bias-y things we usually do. 

We need each other to do that; we need the community. Let’s be that community, that sharing, listening kind of community. Then maybe when Jesus visits us, we’ll be blessed instead of blind.