Little Johnny watched, fascinated, as his mother smoothed cold cream on her face. “Why do you do that, mommy?” he asked. “To make myself beautiful,” she said. After another minute she began removing the cream with a tissue. Johnny looked a bit perplexed as she went about it, then asked, “Why are you giving up so soon?”
Jesus tells us in John’s gospel that the “truth will set us free,” and yes, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The truth is our shield. God is truth. But what I’ve discovered is that for the most part, we don’t want to hear the truth about ourselves and many times we can’t handle it. Our gospel reading is a perfect example about not liking the truth.
To understand it we must remember that the Jews of Jesus’ time were expecting a messiah, but the messiah they expected was something along the lines of a military king. One who would release them from the captivity of the Romans or in a more derogatory sense, one who would release them from those unclean, uncouth, uneverything gentiles, which was everyone but the Jews. These were the Jews in Nazareth that Jesus was speaking to in our gospel.
You see, Nazareth was primarily a Jewish community, where as Capernaum where Jesus lived and where he had already performed many miracles was primarily a gentile community. In fact, there was a large Roman garrison in Capernaum consisting of some 3,000 Roman troops; so when the Jewish people in Nazareth call out to Jesus saying, “perform the same miracles here in Nazareth that you performed in Capernaum,” they are in a sense saying, “perform for us – the Jewish people, God’s chosen, the “It” crowd – the same miracles and even more than those you performed for those unclean, uncouth, uneverything gentiles.” And It is here that Jesus begins speaking the truth that these Nazarites are not going to want to hear.
He begins with that famous line, “no prophet is welcome in his home town,” but then Jesus tells this Jewish crowd about two separate incidents. First, “there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, but, Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon” This story that Jesus is referring to is from First Kings and it would be a familiar one to the crowd. In the midst of a life-threatening drought, God sent Elijah to Zarephath to ask a poor widow for water and bread. When he did, she protested that she had just enough for one loaf for herself and her son, and then they were going to die. Elijah asked her to obey in faith and promised, “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The widow responded as requested, and was duly rewarded. Later her son died, and Elijah prayed successfully that his life might be restored. When Jesus reminded the crowd of this lovely story, they would see only one major problem: the widow at Zarephath was not Jewish. She was one of those unclean, uncouth, uneverthing gentiles.
Jesus then reminds them of the second incident: “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” This incident is from Second Kings and would have been equally familiar to the crowd in Nazareth, but the same major problem exists, Naaman was also an unclean, uncouth, uneverything gentile. Not only that, but Naaman was the commander of the Syrian army and at that time, it was the Syrians and not the Romans that were oppressing the Jewish people. Jesus just reminded the crowd that not only did God through the prophet Elisha save a gentile, but he saved a gentile who was their greatest enemy.
During the time of Elijah and Elisha, the Lord had turned his hand against the Israelites because they were doing so much evil in his sight, and so when the Lord acted, it wasn’t to save the Israelites, but the gentiles in the land instead.
The Jews in Nazareth asked Jesus to “perform for us – the “It” crowd – the same miracles and even more than those you performed for those unclean, uncouth, uneverything gentiles,” and Jesus response, “You are acting no better than the Jews did in the time of Elijah and Elisha and therefore God has turned his hand against you and is once again reaching out to the gentiles instead.”
Now don’t misunderstand, this isn’t a slam against the Jewish people. Jesus was a Jew and there were many Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. For starters, all twelve apostles were Jewish and for many years after the death of Jesus, Christianity itself was a sect within Judaism, but as a people most of them rejected Jesus and in the end called for his crucifixion. This incident in Nazareth was part of the beginning of that final rejection and it came about because Jesus spoke the truth. Yet, as the saying goes, To hear truth and not accept it, does not nullify truth. And as we know, many times we don’t want to hear the truth and we can’t handle the truth. Let me give you a modern day example.
In 2003, about 200 mourners gathered in the sanctuary of St. Patrick Catholic Church in a small town in New Mexico for the funeral of one Ben Martinez who died at age 80. Chances are, these mourners expected to hear the priest, Rev. Scott Mansfield, eulogize Martinez as a lifelong Catholic who served his community as a town councilman. Instead, according to members of the Martinez family, Fr. Mansfield stamped their recently departed loved one’s passport to hell. Once they got over their shock, the Martinez family did what millions of Americans of many faiths would do in this day and age, they sued. They claim Fr. Mansfield described Martinez as “lukewarm in his faith” and “living in sin.” Most graphically, the priest reportedly added that, “The Lord vomited people like Ben Martinez out of his mouth and into hell.” The case was dismissed under the 1st Amendment – freedom of speech – and perhaps Fr. Mansfield needs to retake some classes in how to properly care for people (if not completely reconsider his vocation all together) but pretty much everything he said about Ben Martinez was the truth, but folks didn’t want to hear it and they couldn’t handle it.
So the question is, what about you? How do you respond when the Lord speaks the truth to you? Like the Nazarites, do you want to throw him off a cliff in order to shut him up or do you prefer the more modern methods such as suing? I think most of us are much more subtle and employ the tactic of selective listening, only hearing what suits you, the rest of the time, “La la la la! I can’t heeaar youuu.” We all have our tricks; however, to hear truth and not accept it or to pretend to not hear it, does not nullify truth. The proverb is correct, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid.”
Therefore, is there a truth that God is trying to speak to you, that you refuse to hear? Could it be that he is asking you to use those gifts that he has blessed you with, but instead, you can’t be bothered? Don’t have the time? Etc. Etc. Etc. Could it be that he is convicting you on some aspect of your life, but instead of confessing you choose to ignore his promptings? Or perhaps its something much simpler. Perhaps all he is asking you to do is apologize for a wrong you committed, but your pride stands in the way of reconciliation?
I don’t know what it might be, but you do, so the question is, when the Lord reveals these truths to you, do you respond appropriately? As we’ve seen, there are numerous ways we can respond, but there is only one correct answer and that is to humbly bow our heads and accept what he teaches.
In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, he tells us not to forget the exhortation that addresses us as God’s beloved children. He writes, “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him, for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves and chastises every child whom he accepts. Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children and he disciplines us for our good in order that we may share his holiness.”
Let us pray: God, my Father, may I love You in all things and above all things. May I reach the joy which You have prepared for me in Heaven. Nothing is good that is against Your Will, and all that is good comes from Your Hand. Place in my heart a desire to please You and fill my mind with thoughts of Your Love, so that I may grow in Your Wisdom and enjoy Your Peace. Amen.