Christ Preaches in the Synagogue, Anonymous c.1350, Decany Monastery, Deçanit, Kosovo.
Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples. When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished. Mark 6:1-2
Many people are intimidated at the prospect of talking to a large group. The danger of making a fool of yourself is probably paramount, or breaking down, or simply freezing. There is no escape from such disasters, and no-one present will forget it. Hence many simply refuse any offer or request to speak publicly. It is too stressful. Jesus might well have had such qualms, but if so, there is a discrete silence in today’s gospel. It says he taught there; every preacher knows that a good sermon is, at root, a teaching. The people learn something from it, and, one hopes, will apply the new knowledge in their lives. Well, whatever Jesus said, unhappily not reported in today’s gospel, it had an impact. The reaction is any preacher’s dream come true. His audience was astonished; they saw that his words were full of wisdom; they wondered where on earth this erudition had come from. Oh that all sermons had such a result! But there was a bitter edge to this praise, because it eventually dawned on these people that Jesus was a local boy recently returned home: “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” In their minds, it was simply not possible that anyone so familiar to them could be so erudite. There was something wrong here, and they turned against him, possibly thinking he was possessed. The incident reminds me of an unhappy event in my own life. My dear mother was born Anglican, but married a Catholic boy in the 1930s, in what the church called a “mixed marriage”. She had to swear to bring up her children as Catholics as a condition to getting married in a Catholic ceremony. This she did, and my sister and I were duly brought up Catholic, going to Catholic schools, and so on. Then one day she announced she had converted. She had gone to an old Catholic priest secretly and been instructed in the faith, and was equally secretly baptized. We were all astonished. Well, several years after that she announced she had given it all up. Why? She had been taught by the old priest that she had to go to confession whenever she wanted to go to communion, and that she found herself making up sins to tell in the confessional! Now I, her son and an ordained Catholic priest, assured her that this was not so, that she was completely free to receive communion without having to do that. Confession should be done when necessary – when you have something to confess! Well, I was her son. She was never going to listen to me over the wise old priest who had told her what to do. She never did change back. I think Jesus was in the same boat. Having realized he was a local boy, they would not listen to a word he said. Jesus probably had the same feeling of frustration I had over this lamentable situation. There was nothing either of us could do. It is the same with prejudice. If you fit into someone’s idea of what is evil based on some stereotype, even you are clearly not, there is nothing you can do about it. Hence Jesus felt hamstrung by this prejudiced reception and so, as the gospel says, was unable to do any mighty deeds there.
Prejudice (“pre-judgement”) is a terrible thing. It is always based on a stereotype, a judgement placed on someone or a whole group which condemns them all. I have another personal example here, the one and only time I have been the victim of prejudice. I was working in a school in Washington DC, and I had two little flags on my desk, the Stars and Stripes of the USA and the Union Jack of the UK, the place I was born. I came to work one day and the Union Jack had gone. Stolen. I asked the dean of discipline to investigate, and he, being excellent in his job, found out who had stolen it. He told me who it was, and that the student’s family totally supported him (!). They were strong supporters of the IRA (this was years before the ending of the Northern Irish “Troubles”). I asked the dean if I could talk to them. No. Why? Because you’re British. But I am a Catholic priest… You’re British. My father was born in Dundalk in the Irish Republic. No – I was British. I was entitled to an Irish passport because my father was Irish. No matter – you’re British. There was nothing I could do or say that would allow me to address them and talk about what their son had done. I could do nothing right! It was like standing in front of an indestructible brick wall; I was powerless to do or say anything good. I could not be forgiven for the unforgivable crime of being born British.
It must be thus with all people who are victims of prejudice, just as, in its way, today’s gospel sees Jesus as such a victim. It is horrible. But I hope that such victims can see a silver lining there. It allowed me, for example, to understand the pain and helplessness of those people who are victims of prejudice because of birth or color or nationality or whatever, over which they have little or no control. In the gospel today, Jesus could not go back and grow up somewhere other than Nazareth; I could not go back and be born anywhere that wasn’t Britain and hence be acceptable to that family. Prejudice renders one defenseless. Ezekiel, in today’s first reading, probably thought that would be his lot when obeying God’s command to go and recall the rebellious Israelites to God fearing that the response would not be, shall we say, positive. Paul, in today’s second reading, describes an experience over which he had no control, not prejudice but a physical weakness. It is a fact, live with it, is the essential response from God. Through that trial, God says, you will emerge even stronger. And that is what I found as a result of my experience, and Jesus, though certainly discouraged, went on to spread his word over the land, which in time took root and eventually became the Christian way of life, a way of life that should not know or support any prejudice of any kind, as it is simply unfair, destructive, wrong, unChristian.
Doornfontein Railway Station, South Africa, Rush Hour Under Apartheid, Ernest Cole, “House of Bondage”, Random House, 1967. (This book was banned in South Africa at that time).