Local Man Makes Good?

(The Nationalist, 07 July 2006)


There’s an account in the gospel of how Jesus returned on one occasion to Nazareth, his hometown, and spoke there in the synagogue. Although those who heard his teaching were astounded, their sense of wonder soon turned to rejection. Instead of pride in the local man who makes good, it sounded like, ‘Who does he thinks he is? He’s getting beyond himself. He’s no better than the rest of us’.

The gospel says that Jesus ‘could do no deed of power there’. Not, ‘he did no deed’, but ‘he could do no deed’. It was not a refusal, as if Jesus were in a huff, but a simple inability. An explanation is given: ‘he was amazed at their unbelief’. The failure of Jesus to work miracles in Nazareth is like the “failure” of God to forgive those who don’t ask for forgiveness or those who wilfully refuse to admit it when they know they have done wrong. If the appropriate disposition – faith in him – had been present in his audience, Jesus would have healed. But, ‘God, who created us without us, did not wish to save us without us’. (Saint Augustine)

The Nazarenes’ attitudes hardened from skepticism, to opposition, to disbelief. What was behind this? Was it jealousy? Was it the pettiness of the small town? Was it that they thought little of themselves and their town, perhaps because of hearing it said, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1.46) You can sense their feeling, ‘He’s just one of us. What’s so special about him?’

Was it a refusal to believe that what is ordinary and everyday may be a channel of grace? We find it hard to accept that ordinary people like ourselves can be anything special. We think a special person is someone from far away who looks, speaks, and dresses differently. Yet ordinary people, who are in no way perfect, who are well aware of their limitations, their stupidity, and their sinfulness, do great things.

Many ordinary people are holier than they think they are. There’s no merit in dumbing ourselves down; if we do, we’re dumbing down the grace of God at work in us.

Poets – in a different way, perhaps – have understood this. The Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, said: ‘The Holy Spirit is in the fields’. The English poet, Gerald Manley Hopkins, also, ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God…’ And the English poetess, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote:

‘Earth is crammed with Heaven
and every common bush
on fire with God.
But only he who sees
takes off his shoes.
The rest sit around
and pluck blackberries’.

A biblical character called Jacob said, ‘Surely God is in this place – and I did not know it!’ (Genesis 28.16)


For those in a hurry: ‘Prudence is ‘continual adventure, unending search, risk…. Prudence, for the Christian, is the virtue of the impossible converted into the reasonable…. It is the virtue of tireless initiative’. (Cardinal Garonne.)