“Familiarity breeds contempt” goes an old aphorism. It seems to ring true in the gospel passage for today taken from Mark 6:1-6. In this startling incident, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and begins to teach in its synagogue on the Sabbath. Instead of being dazzled by Jesus’ words, his neighbors react negatively. “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands! Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” As the gospel narrator sadly notes: “And they took offense at him.” The Greek verb eskandalizonto used here literally means “they found him an obstacle.” In other words, all they could see was someone they thought they knew and they were offended that he might pretend to be someone greater and more mysterious than they knew. Jesus laments their negative reaction: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” So distressing is their rejection that Mark’s Gospel amazingly notes: “he [Jesus] was not able to perform any mighty deeds there,” except for healing a few of the sick.
This was not the only time in Mark’s Gospel that those close to Jesus are unable to recognize the depth and beauty of who he is. Earlier, his own family had come to take him back home believing that he was so engrossed in his mission that he was “out of his mind” (see Mark 3:20-21). And throughout the gospel, Jesus’ own disciples often seem baffled by Jesus and prove unable to understand who he truly was, with Peter even trying to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem and giving his life for others (see Mark 8:31-33).
There is more than one level of meaning in this gospel passage. On one level, it reminds us of the mystery and depth of Jesus’ true identity. Mark portrays Jesus as both human and transcendent—a neighbor from Nazareth but also one filled with God’s Spirit and able to heal and cast out demons, powerful enough to walk on the water and to quell the stormy sea. So, from one point of view, it not surprising that Jesus’ family and his neighbors in Nazareth should struggle to understand who truly is. This is the struggle of faith to fully comprehend Jesus in which we all share. Jesus posed this question himself to his confused disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?”
But on another level, the failure of the people of Nazareth to accept Jesus reveals how our preconceptions and prejudices can keep us from appreciating the beauty and truth of the people and events that surround us every day. We can fail to recognize the dignity and talents of the people with whom we live and work. We can turn a deaf ear to the sufferings and joys of the people close to us. How sad that the people of Nazareth did not recognize that among them lived Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God. How sad for us if we take for granted members of our own family or become indifferent to the joys and sorrows of those close to us.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.