They say that “familiarity breeds contempt”, don’t they?
Well, it is certainly true for Jesus in today’s gospel. You would think that his fellow townsfolk in Nazareth, having heard about all the amazing miracles and healings he had been doing in other towns and seeing the crowds following him, would have been proud of him – “local boy makes good” and all that sort of thing. But obviously not!
We are told that Jesus was “amazed at the unbelief” shown by the people in his hometown, and could do hardly any healing miracles there. You would think Jesus should have been ready for their rejection. After all, a quick read of Israel’s history would have told him that this was always the fate of those who spoke in the name of God – they got persecuted, ridiculed, rejected, thrown out of town. Think of Ezekiel in our first reading today. God as much as tells Ezekiel that, though he is sending him to preach in his name to the people of Israel, his words will fall on deaf ears, because they are a “stubborn and impudent people”. Or take Jeremiah, alternatively put into the stocks, thrown into a deep pit, locked up in jail – all because he spoke the truth of God to those who did not want to hear it. But are we any different, brothers and sisters, am I? How many times have we shut the door in the faces of those who have tried to reach out to us in the name of Jesus, or stopped our ears when a family member of friend wanted to share faith with us? So why does God persist in sending his spokesmen to reach out to us when he knows full well we will not want to listen? Two reasons really. One, and the most important reason, is that God loves us so much that he cannot bear to think of us going to hell, and being eternally separated from him. So he will persist in sending people to us in the hope that eventually we will open up to faith and salvation How many of us, myself included, have reason to be grateful that God did not wash his hands of us, or give up on reaching us, but patiently kept on knocking on the door of our hearts until we finally opened to him and let him into our hearts and our lives?
The other reason why God persists in sending his prophets to a rebellious people is given in that first reading at the end: ”whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know that there has been a Prophet among them.” When it comes to the moment when we stand before the judgement seat of God, to await our fate, no-one will be able to say to God, “I didn’t know. No-one ever told me about you or what you wanted from me.” God will take us through our life and we will see clearly all the opportunities afforded to us to come to faith and salvation and all the times we refused to listen. Think of all the sermons we heard in church or on TV, of all the Christians who knocked on our door or handed pamphlets to us on the streets,or all the signs we saw on church property as we passed by, and these are just a few examples.
But to get back to our gospel, where we are told that Jesus was “amazed at the unbelief” of the people listening to him. It sounds as if Jesus wasn’t expecting their rejection. But wasn’t Jesus the Son of God? Doesn’t that mean he knows everything? He should have known his own people would reject him, shouldn’t he? Well, no, not so much. St Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, tells us that Jesus, though equal in majesty to his heavenly Father, when he came to earth as a human being, deliberately chose to “empty himself” of that divine glory, and, while retaining his divine nature, nonetheless, chose to forgo some of its attributes, such as omnipotence, having the power to do anything he wanted and omniscience, that is having the ability to know everything that will happen (Phil 2: 5-7). So Jesus may well not have known at first that he would be rejected. It is the task of all the gospel writers to try to explain how the people of Israel, having been prepared for centuries to expect God to send his Savior, the Messiah, should fail so badly to recognize him when he finally came to them, despite all the miracles, despite all the fantastic preaching. St John expresses the bewilderment at this blindness on behalf of Israel very well when he writes: ”He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1: 10-11).
We had this discussion at our bible study last Monday. Why do some people accept the message of Jesus, and others do not? Does God give the gift of faith to some and not to others? Well, some Christian denominations, such as the Calvinists, believe that God has pre-destined some people for salvation, and others for condemnation. But that is based on a distorted reading of some passages in Saint Paul’s letters, and it certainly is not the Catholic position. God is just, he is also loving. No way would he create some to be saved, and some to be lost. After all St Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy that: ”God desires that everyone be saved and come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), and Jesus is the Truth, as well as the Way, and the Life (John 14:6).
So the gift of faith is offered to everyone, regardless of who they are. But not everyone chooses to accept the gift. Why? Well, there you have the mystery. A mystery that has endured since the beginning of human history. Why did Adam and Eve fail to reject Satan’s temptation in the Garden of Eden? Why did Cain choose to kill Abel? Why did Lot’s wife ignore the angel’s command not to turn back to look as she and her family fled Sodom and Gomorrah, and got turned into a pillar of salt as a result? Why did the Israelites build a golden calf to worship, when the God who had saved them from slavery in Egypt was talking to Moses at the top of Mount Sinai? Why did some people believe in Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the other prophets’ message, but the vast majority of Israel rejected it and brought disaster on themselves? Why did Israel, after God had brought them back from exile, turn once again to the same sins that had brought them into exile in the first place? Why did Judas, having been chosen to be one of Jesus’ apostles, turn away from Him and go into the darkness? Why did Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea believe in Jesus, and all the other Pharisees not, even though they had seen the same miracles and heard the same preaching? Why are you and I the only ones in our families to hold onto our Catholic faith, while the others have turned away from that faith and no longer go to Church, despite our best efforts to bring them up as Catholics and sent them to Catholic schools? Why, why, why?
There are many answers offered to those questions, but the mystery remains. The mystery of what goes on in the human heart when the Holy Spirit comes knocking. The mystery of human stubbornness and self-will, the mystery of a fear of getting close to God, of letting him come into our hearts. And perhaps rather than worry ourselves sick over these questions, we should do better to concentrate instead on the mystery of God’s will, of his love for each one of us, and his desire to save us at all costs, even from ourselves. The mystery of how he will seek to safeguard our free will, and yet at the same time will persist to the very end of our lives to get through to us and keep on reaching out to us to save us. “Behold I stand at the door and keep on knocking,” says Jesus in the Book of Revelation: ”If anyone hears my voice and opens to me, I will come in to them, and sit down at table with them” (Revelations 3:20).
Remember the handle of the door of our heart is on our side only. Let’s not keep Jesus waiting.