This Sunday’s Gospel is again about faith but instead of the positive examples of faith we saw last week, this week it is primarily about the failure of faith to take hold in our hearts. This week’s Gospel passage is an empty row with no germination of faith.
The passage ends with this amazing summary that Jesus “was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them” Think how strongly this is worded-- Jesus was not able to perform any mighty deed there.
Why would this be? The passage concludes. . . that Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith.” The implication seems to be that Jesus allowed himself to be limited by their lack of faith. In this sense, he required their faith to perform the might deeds. Clearly our faith matters to Jesus.
Jesus desires more than anything else to see faith grow in our hearts. In light of this passage I would like to point out three things that are barriers to our faith that are revealed in this passage.
The first of the three barriers to our faith is not giving up our control. Remember a seed must actually die before it grows.
When Jesus returns for the first time in this Gospel to the village of Nazareth, the people aren’t willing to accept him in his new role as prophet. In this tiny village of a few hundred people they don’t want to allow things to change. If we are not careful, our petty human traditions can also become a serious barrier to our faith.
The second barrier to faith is the problem of thinking we know better. My mind is already made up, don’t confuse me with the evidence. The people in the tiny village of Nazareth, were unwilling to learn from Jesus. They thought they had it all figured out.
Are we completely self-reliant? Are we wise in our own eyes? As St Peter reminds us, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (I Peter 5:5). Is it possible that even very religious people are guilty of this kind of thinking?
I would like to use a modern example of this problem. In today’s Gospel the villagers reply concerning Jesus, “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”
The Catholic Church believes that The Virgin Mary remained perpetually a virgin, before, during and after the birth of Jesus. Jesus, therefore, has no biological brothers or sisters. This is a dogma of the faith at the highest level of belief.
I have met modern Catholics, however, who have read about Jesus’ brothers and sisters in their English Bible and immediately assumed that they know better than the Church. I fact they assert that only a dummy would believe otherwise since it is clear and obvious in their Bibles. Let’s be fair at first glance this does seem to be a problem.
The words brother and sister are in the Bible of the ancient Church as well, but our forefathers didn’t think this was an obvious problem. In the ancient Church, no one even dared to suggest that Mary had other children until the 4th Century and that person, named Helvidius, was immediately condemned as a heretic.
If the New Testament so clearly highlights Jesus ‘brothers’ how did the Church interpret this?
In the Eastern church there is a tradition, in the Protoevangelium of James, that Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, married as young man to a woman that was not the Virgin Mary and he raised a family. Then after his first wife died he entered a second marriage, as an older man, to the young Virgin Mary of Scripture.
If this is the case no one who knew Joseph would assume that Joseph’s children were actual brothers of Jesus bythe Virgin Mary, but rather would realize they came from his previous wife.
In the Western Church we answered this question differently. We have always assumed the persons named as “brothers and sisters” were in fact cousins of Jesus. Semitic languages did not make a clear distinction between bothers and cousins.
I am reminded of a time when I was employed as an English as second language teacher in a public school. I was doing a language exercise with group of Punjabi boys and I asked each of them how many brothers and sisters they had.
Young Harpinder Singh* answered me with an absurdly high number like twenty and the other boys began to laugh.
The other boys said something to him in Punjabi and he immediately changed his answer and said “Oh, three brothers.” Punjabi apparently doesn’t distinguish clearly between cousin and brother.
Perhaps the writers of the New Testament were thinking in Aramaic but writing in Greek and mixed up the notion of cousin and brother as did Harpinder.
What seemed obvious at first is less clear after examination. Either one of these answers is a reasonable explanation.
A final barrier is simple prejudice. I mean this is a very general sense. In many cases we assume that our way is better, or more correct than everyone else. But we don’t stop there we also look down on anyone acts or who thinks differently than we do.
Perhaps we should say that acts differently than our friends or family do, because prejudice is a social vice which is shared with others. This is especially true if there is a click or a group of people who have built their identity around a certain view.
Today’s Gospel presents us with a challenge. We each need to examine ourselves and ask: Do I have these barriers to faith? Are we reluctant togive up our control and to allow God to have his way? Are we overly self-reliant and wise in our own eyes? Are we open to learn new things? Do we take time to study and learn about our faith? Finally, are we part of click or a group of people who have built their identity around a certain view? Do we look down on others? Could this be prejudice?
Once again, the antidote remains the same as last week. Have we spent time getting to know Jesus in the Scriptures and in prayer? Have we examined who our friends are and the influence they are having on our spiritual life? As I asked last week: Is Jesus in your boat? And Who is in the boat with you?
*a realistic but fictitious name