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How to answer “belittling questions”

Views James Martin, S.J. / July 7, 2024 Print this:
Jesus at the Synagogue in Nazareth. (Photo from the Lumo Project)

This essay first appeared in our weekly newsletter on July 6, 2024.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth to preach in the synagogue. The custom held that any Jewish layman could preach to the crowd if invited by the synagogue officials.

By the way, when I sent the manuscript of my book Jesus: A Pilgrimage to a few scholars, I was corrected by all of them on a big mistake: calling the synagogue in Nazareth a “temple.” There is only one Temple, my scholar-friends reminded me: the one in Jerusalem. In fact, in synagogue at Nazareth, due to the town’s small size and relative poverty, was most likely outdoors.

So I always imagine Jesus addressing a crowd sitting under a simple structure, with branches and leaves interwoven to keep the hot Galilean sun off those in the synagogue.

The parable resonates with the struggles that many LGBTQ people face in finding acceptance within their families and communities.

Sounds like a homey scene, doesn’t it? Jesus has just returned from Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee, where he has been preaching and healing. Already in this sixth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has exorcised a man in the synagogue at Capernaum, healed both Peter’s mother-in-law and a paralyzed man, chosen the 12 apostles, preached many parables and stilled a storm.

So the news of his preaching and his “works of power” would have surely reached his hometown of Nazareth, where presumably they would have been delighted to welcome him back. After all, who knew him better than his fellow townspeople, with whom he had lived alongside Mary and Joseph (and his “brothers and sisters”) for 30 years?

But their familiarity with him only makes it harder for them to accept who he is. In this, the parable resonates with the struggles that many LGBTQ people face in finding acceptance within their families and communities.

For the record, I’m not implying, nor do I think, that Jesus was gay. The point is that the townspeople’s familiarity with Jesus made it impossible for them to believe in what he’s doing and, more importantly, understand who he is.

In Luke’s version of this story, based on Mark, the people in Nazareth are so angered by his apparent presumption and his subtle scolding of them for their disbelief that they try to kill him, chasing him out of the town to throw him off the brow of a hill (Lk. 4:29). Mark’s narrative includes no such violent action, but focuses instead on what the Sacra Pagina commentary calls “a series of belittling questions.”

The belittling questions pile up: “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 Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” In other words, “Who, him?” Or, more pointedly, “Who does he think he is?”

Jesus does not waste his time arguing with people in his hometown, who show no belief in him.

This will not be the last time that Jesus will face “belittling questions.” And it’s important to see how he responds. First, he observes, “No prophet is without honor except in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house.” That is, first Jesus acknowledges what’s happening. (Remember that just a few chapters before, in Mk. 3:20-35, Jesus’s own family thought he was “out of his mind” and came to “arrest” him in Capernaum.)

Then he simply continues to be who he is and to do what the Father has called him to do. Jesus does not waste his time arguing with people in his hometown, who show no belief in him. Rather, he moves on to places where he meets people who believe in him.

What’s the best way to deal with people who are “hard of face and obstinate of heart,” as the first reading, from the Book of Exodus, says? First, be yourself. Then live the life God calls you to live.

James Martin, S.J.

James Martin, S.J., is the founder of Outreach and the editor at large of America Media.

All articles by James Martin, S.J.

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