Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Is not this the carpenter's son?

When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.

He came to his home town and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?’ And they took offence at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.’ And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.

- Matthew 13:53-58

Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, and he teaches in the synagogue. We know that he has had great success with his ministry elsewhere; in fact, so much notice has been taken of him already that he has enemies among the religious leadership who have begun to plot against him. But, here in his hometown, he encounters an obstacle. Those who know him as a part of a particular social system already reject his identity as a teacher and as a prophet.

My study bible notes: "Even in his own country, Nazareth, Jesus finds not acceptance but rejection. In their envy, although they can find no fault in his words and miracles, the Nazarenes dismiss him on the basis of the unimportance of his family." We are also referred to John 1:11: He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

So, there are different elements at play here. How do we discern between a "worldly identity" - designed for us by where we fit into a family, social or economic system (for example), and a spiritual identity? The verses following John 1:11 read as follows: Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. The verses in John 1 we usually take to mean human creation, in a general sense, as "children" of Christ the Word. But we can see how, helpfully, my study bible's reference to this passage gives us an idea of its application in a very specific sense in this example. "His own did not receive Him." And it is because they are stuck in a worldly perception of "natural descent" (or, as it says literally in the Greek, "of blood") rather than having spiritual eyes to see and ears to hear. They cannot discern Jesus' spiritual identity, his spiritual reality of the kingdom. We note the hierarchy of the worldly values at work: Jesus' neighbors say, "We know his family and who he is" and they are not of the significance necessary for them to treat even his teachings with respect. My study bible tells us that this is envy at work, the great archetypal sin behind yet another archetypal event, the rebellion in heaven.

The poetry in the gospels once again strikes us in this example of the profound and absolute, and the specific and humble. We have the depth of archetypal realities: the great notion of the Word and His Creation - we, as creatures of this world, after all, are the children who crucified Him. The "accuser," the "enemy" we read about in recent parables such as the parable of the Wheat and Weeds, commits his rebellion out of envy. And yet, we return to the simple and the humble, the things of this world down to its tiny daily details - with which we are so familiar: the scene in the synagogue, the neighbors who've known him all their lives, the carpenter's son. "Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?"

I've been reading about the lives of saints lately. I'd like to share a quotation from the official biography of Thomas Merton (Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton): "Merton praised 'Kierkegaard’s remarkable intuition that the greatest and most perfect saints are those whose saintliness cannot be contained except beneath some exterior that appears totally mediocre and normal, because it is an incommunicable secret.' " And yet, Jesus calls us, through the gospels, to have the eyes and ears to see and hear saintliness, to perceive what is holy, what is of the Spirit, to understand a spiritual truth and presence of the kingdom. What I think is important to realize about being born of Spirit is precisely that we cannot predict the form of holiness we may find around ourselves, and we cannot take for granted what holiness or saintliness looks like. We cannot define it via our worldly expectations. It cannot be contained in the hierarchies we seek to assign in a worldly sense. Over and over again, as in this poignant example from Jesus' hometown of Nazareth (that surely bears a great resemblance to home for all of us), the great error is confounding worldly expectation with the brilliant revelation of the kingdom. Those that do so in the gospels are blind to the brilliance of what is in front of them, the "kingdom of heaven that has come near" to them. We learn the lesson repeatedly that spiritual envy is born of limitation, on so many levels.

Jesus has also told us that the servant is not above his Master: whatever he has experienced in the world, so will his followers. I think this applies as well to this blindness. He is the Master. We accept his identity as Christ. But as his followers who seek to be reborn in Spirit, we also share something of all of those characteristics his earthly life teaches us. We must learn the benefit of humility. We don't know exactly where holiness will reside. Just as his recent parables and teachings on Judgment tell us that we grow together with the weeds, with those who bear resemblance to the good wheat, so we need discernment to see the good, the exceptionally beautiful, the reality of spiritual values that may be hidden to us because of our reliance on our more mundane capacities for perception, our reliance on worldly values. And the same may be true about our expectations of ourselves and those around us: the influence of this birth in Spirit may bring out reality, values, conditions, a blossoming and potential that a worldly perspective cannot encompass, cannot broaden itself to receive. So, just as with scripture, we must have the right perception - or the means of perception - to see things that may be hidden to us, that unfold out of what we take for granted or for certain, or can see and touch and feel with our worldly senses, the things that "break in" upon our assumed reality. "Hidden" behind the reality we know is yet another dimension, something of endless depth that may reveal itself - if we seek the means of perception. That is, if we seek to become His mother and sister and brother.

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