Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Truth from familiar faces

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the January 17, 2013, 2013 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky Christmas is greeted now in the past tense. The tree, the decorations, and charm of the season are packed away in a closet down the hall or the corner of the basement. On with ordinary time….

And so it is as the Church liturgically has us trek with Jesus once again as he makes his way to the glories of the Cross and Resurrection at Jerusalem. Bethlehem has long been abandoned, and a journey of grace begins from the busy streets of Nazareth.

For the people of this small town in northern Palestine where he “grew up in wisdom and grace” Jesus likely was known as the “Carpenter’s Son.” Or perhaps “Mary’s Boy.” Children and young people often are identified so: by their relationship to their moms and dads. It still is the manner in which people in small towns keep tabs on the next generation and track their activities. Seemingly, nothing misses the watchful eye of the neighbors. In small villages like Nazareth of old – and similar towns today – everybody knows everything about everybody, or they think they do. Somehow this knowledge often seems to give them a divine right to offer an opinion about the affairs of everyone else.

This is the cultural environment in which Jesus grew and matured into young adulthood. Nazareth was not a very large place. Nor were the several tiny fishing villages which dotted the Sea of Galilee just down the hill from his hometown. During his adolescent years Jesus most probably was well known in Nazareth – not because he was the neighborhood miracle-worker, but just because he was part of a small population. His presence was very familiar. He could be seen in the marketplace, chatting with the grownups. He could be seen helping Joseph in the carpenter’s shop. He could be found kicking the ball in the dusty streets. And, faithful to his Jewish upbringing, Jesus often could be found in the synagogue learning from the Torah and the prophets. In a sense, he blended with the environment. Perhaps he was known as “a nice kid” – as so many youth tend to be called by their observant elders.

Yet when this young man begins his ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom of God, he encounters the barbs of gossip and detraction that anyone who stands above the crowd endures sooner or later. Seemingly Jesus’ inaugural teaching in the synagogue got him into the biggest trouble. His style did not model itself on the theological tradition of the rabbis (theologians of his day). These learned men had to establish their credibility by quoting their predecessors before offering their own opinion about the Word of God. Theirs was a more or less a comfortable position, since the maintaining of the status quo subtly became the object of their teaching. Little by little, what gained emphasis and importance was living under the rules of the tradition – the comfort zones of the culture – and not living radically under the ever-pressing Word of God.

When Jesus does not appeal to the theological tradition of the rabbis but to God alone, the congregation is stunned. Out come the tempers and the battle ensues – interestingly, right in the synagogue where the people of God gathered to acknowledge and adore the very source of their being. Yet their reaction to Jesus and his preaching is a clear indication that they were not worshipping the true God of Israel but the god of their opinion and the gods of their culture – which no one dared challenge. Their gossipy remarks are betraying: Where did he get all this? We know his clan members. Isn’t this (just) that carpenter’s kid? Who does he think he is – God’s hatchet man? Who does he think he is to tell us what to do!?

Somewhere along the way, Jesus had changed from being the familiar kid on the block to standing in the tradition of the prophets. No longer was he the soccer player in the streets, but one who spoke forth the Word of God with courage and conviction. Rather than humble themselves before God and accept the truth of the Kingdom from the lips of one so very familiar, the people revolted in protection of their kingdoms of imagination and pretense. Practitioners of religion though they were, they were not true believers in the tradition of Abraham. For them the truth of God’s Kingdom was reduced to the level of opinion. They had theirs – confirmed by the safety of the crowd – and Jesus had his. Jesus, the “nice kid” down the street quickly became the odd man out, and a disturbing one at that. He had to be eliminated. Perhaps then the message would go away and opinion would reign free of challenge.

Any religion which has been on the human stage for a couple thousand years clearly runs the danger of responding to and defending its own home-made traditions. It is so easy to exchange the means for the end, defending the psychological and sometimes physical monuments which become intimate parts of life’s comfort zones. It is so easy to be one who practices religion and not one whose believing heart hungrily searches for the kingdom of God. Certain comfort zones of religious practice and theological opinion can settle in and the Kingdom can get locked out. When someone challenges our comfort zones and calls us to radical openness before the Word of God, a fierce spiritual battle can ensue.

This is especially true when the Word of God is brought to us by someone we think we know well and have positioned neatly in the opinions of our mind. Just let a son or daughter, mom or dad, brother or sister, teammate, classmate, or work companion point us in the direction of God’s truth and see what happens – especially when the issue is that of moral values. Let one of these supposedly well-known children of God assume the role of prophet. We shut our minds and (if we can) toss them out the door of our lives. Repeating the gossipy banter of Nazareth, we wonder, “Who do they think they are, anyway?!” We chop down to manageable size these prophets with broad swings like “Well, that’s your opinion.” “What makes you so perfect?” “Hey, get with it; this is the new millennium!” “You don’t really believe that anymore, do you!” Perhaps the most telling chop is, “Who do you think you are? Jesus Christ himself?!”

As if they would listen to Jesus! The scene in Nazareth would indicate otherwise....

The longer we practice our religion, perhaps the more we run the danger of duplicating the opinionated hardness of heart of the people of Jesus’ hometown. Religion is not God. Although it may be divinely inspired, it basically is man-made. We create our rites and rituals; we develop our theological perspectives. Yet God’s truth is not so easily captured and controlled. The living God of Israel – the “Father” of Jesus – is not the protector of tradition and the defender of opinion. God’s truth is God’s truth. Our stance before that truth must always be one of radical openness and a readiness to grow, to change and to be on the move into the way of the Kingdom that God opens before us. Even looking for truth in familiar faces.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of the parishes in Oakesdale, Rosalia, St. John, and Tekoa, and serves the diocese as Moderator of the Curia.)

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