Strength in Weakness
July 6, 2003
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Paul ends today’s second reading with a paradox, a seeming contradiction. He says, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” What does that mean? It seems to make about as much sense as saying, “Whenever I am sad, then I am happy”, or “Whenever I am short, then I am tall.” Yet our inability to understand Paul is part of his purpose. Because Paul, much like Jesus before him, would often use a contradiction to seize our attention, and to force us to think more deeply about something that is important.
What Paul wants us to think about is something that all of us have in our lives: a combination of both strengths and weaknesses. Paul is convinced that in knowing Christ, we will approach both our gifts and our shortcomings in a dramatic new way.
Let’s start with the obvious: no one of us is good at everything. Each one of us has certain gifts, certain relationships in which we excel and other ones in which we struggle. We are proud of what is strong in our lives, and rightly so, for there are few things in life as satisfying as knowing that we have a strength that we can use effectively. We rightly take pride in saying, “I’m a good listener,” or “I know how to communicate with people,” or “I have the ability of motivating people or making them laugh.” We take pride when we can claim that we have relationships that lift us up, or when we know that we can bake well or make something beautiful with our hands. Each one of these things is a strength in our life and it is something that we willingly place before others.
Our weaknesses are different. Our weaknesses tend to embarrass us. It’s difficult for us to say, “I am often impatient,” or “I frequently overeat,” or “I am poor at protecting myself against the demands of others,” or “It’s difficult for me to admit I’m wrong.” It is not easy to admit, “Despite my best efforts I can never get along with that person.” These are our weaknesses, and each one of us knows what our weaknesses are. We know the things that trip us up, and it is difficult to look at them. We want to hide them.
But that is what is so shocking about Paul’s words in today’s second reading. Paul says that he wants to boast in his weaknesses. Now why does Paul want to boast in his weakness? Because Paul knows that his weakness can lead him to Christ. Our strengths tend to lead us to ourselves. Our weaknesses lead us to Christ. For when we have to face something that we are poor at, something that we know it is difficult or impossible for us to do, it is in that moment that we know that we must turn and ask help of another. When despite our best efforts we do not improve in certain areas, and certain things keep tripping us up, those very weaknesses become the opportunity where we can turn to the Lord and say: “Lord, you need to help me here, because I’m very poor at this, and it never goes well.” Once we make that request, we must trust and believe that Christ will answer.
Now none of this is magic. When we ask for help it does not mean that suddenly all of our weaknesses will evaporate, or the people we find difficult will suddenly become our best friends. People who are difficult in our life tend to remain difficult, and the weaknesses in our life tend to live on. But when we approach our weaknesses in faith, instead of depressing us and paralyzing us, they can provide an opportunity where we let go of the things we cannot handle and hand them over to Christ.
Paul was like us. He looked at his weakness, the “thorn in his flesh,” and he prayed, “Jesus, take this away.” Christ’s response was, “No. I’m not going to take it away. But my grace is sufficient for you. Even though your weaknesses will remain, they will not destroy you because they will provide an opportunity for my power to become manifest.” That is why Paul could boast in his weakness. His weakness provided the opportunity for him to trust in a higher power. If we allow our weaknesses to do the same, then we will be able to say and understand what Paul said and understood: “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Hurt in Nazareth
July 9, 2006
Today’s Gospel is strangely disturbing, but it also carries a thread of consolation. This passage from Mark’s gospel is the only passage in the gospels where Jesus is said to be unable to act. The text is very clear about this. It says that Jesus was unable to perform any deed of power, so distressed was he by lack of faith. We believe that Jesus has the power of God, so how is it possible that he is rendered helpless?
Although we could spend hours discussing why Jesus was unable to act, it is more useful to ask what does this strange impotence of Jesus have to do with us? For we believe that all the passages of the scriptures not only tell us about Jesus, but also apply to our lives. So what does Jesus’ inability to act mean to us? The answer to that question can be found when we realize where it is that this scene takes place. It was in Jesus’ own hometown. He had no problem doing deeds of power in Capernaum or at the Sea of Galilee, but when he came to Nazareth he was helpless. He could wow the crowds in Jerusalem, but when he came to his own town, he was too local to be taken seriously. This rejection of Jesus in Nazareth points to a truth in our lives: sometimes it is the people who are closest to us who do not understand us and will not support us.
This painful truth is a part of the human condition. It is proverbial. In fact, Jesus cites a proverb in the gospel. He says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their own hometown, among their own kin, and in their own house.” How painful it is to have our gifts and talents accepted by many, but not accepted by those who are closest to us. How hurtful it is to wait for the approval of a mother, father, or grandparent; to wait for the acceptance of a brother or sister, and yet, never have that acceptance or that approval come. How debilitating it is when we find that those we are related to by blood or by marriage do not accept us. Instead they are jealous of us, dismissive of us, or even manipulate us. We usually can overcome rejection by a stranger or by those with whom we only have a business relationship. But when it comes to rejection by family that rejection cuts deep.
This is the disturbing truth of today’s gospel. But in this scene there is also a thread of consolation. If Jesus himself was unable to avoid rejection by those who were closest to him, then why should we be surprised if such rejection happens in our life? If Jesus who was Son of God nevertheless found himself helpless when his family refused to accept him, then certainly he will know our pain if we are denied acceptance.
It hurts deeply when those closest to us refuse to love us. Jesus endured that hurt. He also showed us how to respond to it. The last line of the gospel says, “Jesus made his rounds of the neighboring villages and continued to teach.” When he was rejected in Nazareth, Jesus did not let that rejection undermine his identity or value. He did not reject his calling. He did not wrap himself in self-pity. He moved on. He moved on to the neighboring villages and there continued to teach to those who would listen and to those who would respond. In the same way if we were to experience rejection by those who are closest to us, we too are called to move on. We cannot make anyone love us, but we can refuse to allow rejection to dictate our future. We still have gifts to give. We still have people to love. We must believe that our gifts and love are real. So if the people who are closest to you all support you, be thankful. That is a tremendous gift. But if you find there is someone close who will not extend love to you, follow the example of Jesus. Move on. Give your gifts to those who will receive them. Share you love with those who will respond to it. Believe that there still is life and love to be found, even if it is not in your own hometown.
Negativity and Thankfulness
July 5, 2009
A man of Italian descent always had a dream of visiting the city of Rome and of meeting the Holy Father. So he saved up money and put together a trip to the holy city, believing it would be the trip of his lifetime. The day before he left he went to his barber for a haircut. He told the barber about his plans. “Rome,” said the barber, “it’s over-rated. I’ve been there. How are you getting there?” “Well,” the man said, “I’m flying Alitalia.” “That’s a mistake,” said the barber. “That airline is a loser. It’s always late. And the food—you can’t eat the food. Trust me; you won’t eat a thing. Where do you plan to stay when you get there?” “Well,” said the man, “I have reservations at the Hotel Michelangelo. It’s supposed to be very good.” “I’ve stayed there,” said the barber. “It’s over-priced. It’s a dump. When you need something, you can’t find anyone. What do you plan to do when you get to Rome?” “Well,” the man said, “my heart’s desire is to meet the pope.” “Forget it,” said the barber. “The pope is very busy. He only has time for wealthy and important people, not ordinary people like you and I. Trust me. You will not even get close to him.”
A few weeks later the man returned to his barber. The barber greeted him and said, “I bet you never made it to Rome, did you?” “Oh yes, I did,” said the man. “I flew Alitalia. And not only did we arrive thirty minutes ahead of time, but they bumped me up to first class and I ate like a king. I stayed at the Hotel Michelangelo. And they were nice enough to send a car to the airport to pick me up and give me a room that had a beautiful view of the city. The service was impeccable. But most of all,” said the man, “I had a private audience with the pope in his own apartments.” “No,” said the barber. “I’m amazed. I can’t believe it. Well, what did you do when you saw the pope? Did he say anything to you?” “Oh yes,” said the man. “I was brought into his apartments and I knelt down to kiss his ring. He looked down at me and said, ‘My son, where did you get that terrible haircut?’”
It is very easy for us to become negative. And it is even easier to become negative about the people and the things which are closest to us. This is what we see happening in today’s gospel. Jesus comes to visit his own hometown. Now for months Jesus has been traveling around Galilee with huge crowds singing his praises. But when he comes to his own hometown, to the people who know him the best, all that he receives is criticism about his person and his mission. This lack of belief so unsettles him that he can do no work of power there. The negativity of the people of Nazareth was an obstacle to God’s grace.
Now there is a certain appropriateness that this gospel about negativity falls on this weekend of July 4th, because one of the things that we are closest to and are capable of being negative about is our country. All of us one time or another complain about the policies, the decisions, and the laws of our country. We can do this with some justification because our country is not perfect. Are there politicians who make decisions based upon their own advantage rather than the good of us all? There are. Have decisions been made to use our military power in a way that is unnecessary and at times destructive of others’ rights? That has happened. Are there laws which have been passed which are unfair to the weakest among us, the most vulnerable, and at times placed unnecessary burdens on all of us? That also is true. But despite these reasons for negativity and criticism, none of us should deny the tremendous blessing that is ours for living where we do.
Recent events in the elections in Iran, and the coup in Honduras only emphasize the point. With all the faults of our country, our government is still responsive to the needs of the people rather than the desire of a few leaders who would use their power for their own ends. As much as we can criticize the greed and the corruption and the lack of governmental control which resulted in the present economic crisis, few of us here would be willing to exchange our standard of living for the circumstances of so many in our world. Even though we can complain about our trade policies, we live in a land that is so abundant and can still produce food and resources that support our country and our livelihood.
From a perspective of faith all of these things are not simply good luck for us. They are God’s blessings. We believe that it was God’s will that we were born or that we came to live in this place, in this blessed place, where we can live a fuller life than so many other places in the world. For all of these gifts we must always be thankful.
This is why negativity is so dangerous. Negativity can not only cover over our gratefulness. It can also paralyze us. When we are negative, when we are filled with criticism, it causes us to give up. A negative attitude encourages us to throw in the towel. But when we are thankful, we are motivated with energy to make our country even better. Therefore, the patriotic pattern is also the Christian pattern. It is not a pattern of negativity and paralysis, but one of thankfulness and action—action to make the country we live in more just and more attentive to the needs of all.
So on this holiday weekend, let us be sure to put aside the negativity that frustrated Jesus at Nazareth. Instead let us be people of thankfulness, thankfulness for this place and for our freedom. Then let us use our thankfulness to correct and to improve the country that we love.
About Jesus’ Brothers
July 5, 2015
There is a knotty problem in today’s gospel, and I would like to focus on it. I think if we do, it will tell us something about the Bible, something about the Church, and something about ourselves. Some of you may have already guessed the line in the gospel to which I am referring. The inhabitants of Nazareth describe Jesus as “the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon.” Now, there is no doubt about what the text says: these four men are brothers of Jesus. But although we are clear about what the text says, we are not clear about what the text means. There are a variety of ways of interpreting this line. Let me offer three of them to you.
One possibility is to see James, Joses, Judas, and Simon as real brothers of Jesus—children of Mary and Joseph who were conceived after Mary gave birth to Jesus as a virgin. Second, these four can be stepbrothers of Jesus—children of Joseph by a previous marriage. Third, they can be cousins of Jesus. We have this option because the Greek word for brother can also mean cousin. So here are three possibilities of what this text means. They all work well in terms of the Greek language and the history of Jesus’ time. To understand this passage we have to choose which one is correct.
This leads to a conclusion about the Bible: the Bible does not interpret itself. The Bible must be interpreted. This is important because sometimes you hear religious preachers say, “We are a Bible-based religion and the only thing that is important is that we do what the Bible says.” Fine and good. But what does the Bible say? Oftentimes, the Bible is unclear and someone must decide from several possible meanings which one we are going to follow.
Who decides such things? Churches do. Now I know we can, as individuals, read the Bible and say, “This is what this passage means to me.” But that’s risky business.
So, from the earliest days of Christianity, Christians have come together in groups and together have come to the conclusion that “this is what this passage means to us.” This, of course, means that different churches will read the Bible in different ways. Returning to today’s gospel, the Catholic Church (because it believes that Mary was always a virgin) will not accept the first possibility: that James, Joses, Judas, and Simon were real brothers of Jesus after Jesus was born. If you are Catholic, you have to choose between the four being stepbrothers or cousins. Some Protestant churches, however, do not believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. They choose the first option: that these four were real brothers of Jesus.
Churches decide what at the Bible means. This, of course, means that churches can change their decisions over time. If you open the Bible today, you will find a passage that says, “Slaves, obey your masters.” At one time, Christians believed this was a way of keeping slaves in line. But today no Christian reads the Bible that way, because we all now understand the slavery, as an institution, is immoral. If you open your Bible, you will find a passage that says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands.” Today, understanding marriage to be an equal and mutual partnership, we read that passage differently than they did previously in patriarchal times when husbands could and did tell their wives what to do.
The Bible needs to be interpreted and churches decide what the Bible means. What does this have to do with us? It calls us, as believers, to be humble and open. We believe that the Bible is God’s gift, God’s word. But that does not mean that we have all the answers. We must humbly try to understand the Bible and be open to reading it in new ways.
Pope Francis has called a synod to discuss issues about family life. You can bet that in that synod there will be lively debates about the biblical passages concerning marriage and divorce. The synod will seek to decide how the Catholic Church will understand those passages. This is all as it should be. We, as members of the Church, should be humble and open to prayerfully discern what God’s biblical word is saying to us today.
July 8, 2018
I hope you did not miss the remarkable line that concludes today’s gospel. Jesus comes to his hometown of Nazareth. People question his credentials and his mission. Then the evangelist Mark tells us that Jesus was not able to perform any deed of power there. He was amazed at their lack of faith. Jesus could not work a miracle in his own village. How is that possible? We believe Jesus to be the divine Son of God. Does not God have the power to do everything? God is almighty. But God chooses to exercise his power in deference to the creatures he has made. And God has made us with free will. We have the power to accept what is good or to reject it, to receive what is offered or to ignore it. God will not force anyone to believe. God will abide by the choices we make.
If Jesus was unable to work a miracle in Nazareth, we should not be surprised that at times we will be unable to attain the good we desire. We may deeply wish that a child, grandchild, or friend develops a belief God. Yet despite our prayers and encouragement, that person remains blissfully immune to God’s presence and love. We may strive to reconcile with someone who has hurt us or we have hurt. But in spite of many overtures and suggestions, that person shows no openness to healing. We might passionately wish to build a better world, to raise awareness of the threat to our environment, the needs of the poor, or the injustices of our economic or political systems. But those who we address turn the other way and focus on their own goals and priorities. They freely choose not to listen. And we, like Jesus at Nazareth, are rendered powerless before them.
It is in that powerlessness that today’s gospel calls us to persistence and hope. When Jesus was rejected at Nazareth, he did not cancel his ministry. He continued to preach the gospel to all who would listen. So we must persist in our efforts to do good, to encourage faith, forgiveness, and justice in all our relationships. We should persist in hope, because the same freedom that allows others to say “no” today may allow them to say “yes” tomorrow. Moreover, we believe that God is at work in our world, that God’s grace abounds, and God’s grace has the power to influence and change human hearts. So we persist in hope, believing that a time will come when others will freely choose faith, forgiveness, and a passion for what is good and just. And when they do, we will be able to join with them in building the Kingdom of God.