Prophet Without Honor

SJF • Epiphany 5c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.+

Once, long ago, there was a great city named Troy. And a Trojan prince fell in love with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, and stole her from her Greek husband. This led to a great war, the Trojan War, as it came to be called. Helen was the woman whose face launched a thousand ships — and it had nothing to do with whacking them with bottles of champagne! No — these were warships sailing from the Greek “coalition of the willing” to lay siege to the great city across the sea in Asia Minor, in a war that would drag on for a decade — and stop me if is beginning to sound familiar!

In any case, you probably remember the famous strategy by which the Greeks won the war. After nine years of fighting, they pretended to give up, and left a giant horse as a peace offering. The Trojans took the bait, and wheeled the horse into their fortified city. That night, the Greek soldiers hidden inside the horse crept out, opened the gates, and let in the rest of the army — who had just been a few miles out to sea — and the city fell in flames and destruction.

Now, what made this particularly tragic is that the people of the city had been warned in no uncertain terms, but they paid no attention to the warning. The Trojan king had a daughter, Cassandra, who was cursed with a terrible gift: she could foretell the future, but only on the condition that no one except one old man would believe her — and no one believed him either. So while Cassandra yelled from the highest parapet of the city, warning her people not to be fooled about that horse — Beware of Greeks bearing gifts! — no one believed a word she said. They thought the Greeks had gone, and they had won. What they thought was a trophy turned out to be a weapon of mass destruction — and they hauled it themselves right into their city.

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In today’s Gospel we also witness doubt and destruction turned against the prophet himself. Jesus is in his hometown. The people have heard of the wonders he’s done in other towns and can’t quite believe it. Someone starts the word going around, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

Imagine the buzz and whisper through the crowd. “Isn’t this the same Jesus we used to see playing with mud-pies when he was a little boy? Isn’t this the same Jesus who had to be taught how to read and write on this very synagogue porch? Don’t you remember his Bar Mitzvah? And remember the first time he tried to make a chair in his father’s workshop? And that time that he gave his parents grief, when he got lost in Jerusalem and ended up in the Temple?” And in that buzz and chatter, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ — who has just delivered the message of salvation, that the hope of Israel has dawned; that as we saw last week, that the words of Scripture have been fulfilled in their hearing — by means of wagging tongues this Jesus is whittled down to a little boy with muddy hands, an awkward youth trying to handle a saw, a nervous boy reading a Scripture passage for the first time, or a bad little boy lost in the big city, and causing his parents grief. Instead of receiving his message that the Scripture is fulfilled in their hearing, it’s as if all the congregation can find to say in response to this divine revelation is, “My, doesn’t he read well. What an improvement from when he was a boy!”

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No, no prophet is honored in his hometown. Cassandra couldn’t get her people to listen to her warning. “She’s the king’s daughter; naturally she’s over-excited about these things, worried about the war in which her whole family is involved — after all, her brother started it all when he ran off with Helen!”

And as for Jesus — he would not find ready hearers among the people of his own hometown. So he would carry his mission elsewhere, to other towns, to people who hadn’t known him, people free from preconceptions and expectations, from prejudices and the familiarity that breeds contempt — to people ready to hear because not only was the message new to them, but the messenger as well.

Saint Paul had a similar experience. His own people largely rejected him — even the rest of the Apostles were clearly uneasy around him, and though Peter and he shook hands, it was only so as to agree to go their separate ways: Paul would spend most of his ministry preaching and teaching Gentiles in the same Greek cities that centuries before had banded together to launch those thousand ships.

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Why is it that people can’t seem to accept the word of salvation from those closest to them? Why are missionary churches so often more vital and vibrant than those that are domestic?

I mentioned the old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” But it also breeds expectations. We think we know what those we know best are going to say, so we don’t really listen to them, we don’t really hear them even when they say something we don’t expect to hear. Expectations drown perceptions, and when they do, it becomes impossible for us to see what is right before our eyes, to hear what is being shouted in our ears.

An old friend of mine, a print shop manager, used to keep the front page of a copy of the Daily News on the bulletin board up behind his desk. And whenever he interviewed people for proofreading jobs, he would ask them to read the banner headline aloud. And most would read the simple three-word headline, in letters four inches high, “Liz Taylor robbed.” And they wouldn’t get the job. Because what the headline said, was “Liz Talyor robbed.” T-a-l-y-o-r. A typo! How could anyone — from the original typesetter to the publisher of the Daily News — miss a misspelling in letters 288 points high? Simply because it wasn’t what they expected, and expectations, even the expectations of skilled proofreaders, can drown their perceptions.

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John the evangelist, in the prologue to his Gospel, said, “Jesus came to his own, and his own received him not.” They couldn’t hear what he was saying to them, because they knew who he was, and where he came from; or thought they knew where he came from. They couldn’t accept the good news he tried to tell them, because they thought they knew it all already, just as they knew him already.

In our gospel from Luke, Jesus tried to show them the way out, that they needed to become like foreigners, like a Phoenician widow or like a Syrian general if they were truly to understand the amazing grace of God. These were stories from their own tradition, from their own Scriptures, and they knew them backwards and forwards, but they had missed the point until Jesus made it — and when he made it they didn’t like it, if they even understood it. For the people of Nazareth didn’t want to become like foreigners in their own country! Instead they became enraged and hustled Jesus off, ready to throw him off the cliff. But they couldn’t lay hold of him with their hands, any better than they could lay hold of his message with their ears. He passed right through the midst of them, just as his teaching had gone in one ear and out the other, so he passed through the midst of them and went on his way, on to the other towns, on to new ears better tuned to hear a new message, and to be astounded by the authority with which he spoke.

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Can we here at Saint James Church become, as it were, foreigners in our own land, strangers in our own church? Can we be willing to hear the message of Jesus regardless of who it comes from — from one of our own or a stranger? How often has Jesus passed through our midst but not been seen? How often have we passed him by in the street without knowing it? How often have his words slipped past our ears, or in one ear and out the other, because we’ve treated them as the same old story instead of hearing them as the good news?

On a more personal level, can we hear our spouse or child or colleagues, really hear them, really pay them the respect we should pay to even a stranger, a messenger with important news, and not face them with a kind of “Oh-I-know-what-you’re-
going-to-say-already” attitude — talk to the hand — that misses the heart of the matter? Who knows what gracious word may come when you least expect it? Who knows what familiar voice may speak a word of salvation in your ear.? We dare not say, “It is only a boy... or my wife... or someone I’ve heard a thousand times.” For the word of God is always new, whoever it comes from, and it can pierce the soul and light up our hearts if we will allow it to do so.

Let us pray. Dear Lord, be at home with us in exile here, as our own familiar friend, and help us hear your good news, whether it comes from neighbor or stranger; open our hearts and minds and ears, to hear you when you speak, to embrace your word in our hearts, to love and serve you all our days, until we come to our true homeland, where with the Father and the Holy Spirit, you live and reign, one God for ever and ever.+