Readings: Ez 2:2-5; Ps 123:1-4; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Mk 6:1-6
“He was amazed at their lack of faith.” So we are told about Jesus’ reception in his hometown. This week’s gospel is helpfully compared to last week’s reading, where Mark tells us about two miraculous healings. With the desperate woman who seeks Jesus’ help simply by touching his cloak, we see that she is praised for her great fullness of faith.
Jesus’ ministry is an occasion of division precisely along these lines. Moralists in the Christian tradition have often argued over whether Jesus brought any “new moral teachings,” as if his announcement of the Kingdom of God was simply an occasion to impart a new moral wisdom. Far too often, such a reading of Christ has an anti-Jewish tinge to it, as if Jesus is rejecting the rich moral patrimony of Israel. But today’s first reading makes clear that it is not Jesus that rejects the moral law, but rather the “rebels who have rebelled against me, says the Lord.” There is in fact deep continuity between the Testaments, as Jesus comes to fulfill and not abolish the law. Jesus does not come to teach some new, enlightened moral principles. The prophet comes to recall people to the Law, not to surpass it.
Yet even this debate about “newness” should be seen as missing the point. What is called for, more than anything, is not new moral teaching, but faith – faith specifically in God’s merciful action in the person of Jesus. The people of Nazareth are somehow unable to respond to this. Why? This is a difficult question. There is a history of the rejection of prophets that Jesus recalls in his comment. But the specific rejection at Nazareth looks like a matter of over-familiarity – they cannot recognize Jesus because they already have a set of preconceptions about him. They “know” him already, and so they are unable to “believe” in him.
Like so many Gospel stories, this one then becomes an invitation to us. In what ways do we think we already “know” Christ? In what ways is Christ so “familiar” to us that it blocks our ability to have real faith in him? Our preconceptions are likely to differ from those of the Nazareans. But they may be rooted in an analogous tendency to look at familiar worldly categories, like work and family, and assume them to be definitive ones. After all, earthly categories like family and work are easy ones – they are visible and we organize our thought world around them, in similar ways to organizing our world around visible identity categories that we use in the service of power. All these categories can obscure seeing the real Jesus. But even more deeply, inside of us, they can give us the illusion of control, an illusion of understanding that blocks the virtue of real faith. Christian morality is ultimately founded on this, on faith in the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. Will we make that the real root of our lives and judgments? Or will we let our everyday social categories, which are so much more manageable, get in the way?