On Father’s Day, I spent the afternoon with friends of mine whose son will be one year old at the end of this month. At one point, the infant reached up with both arms, as infants do, indicating that he wanted me to pick him up. I did so, only to learn that he was not interested in being held; rather, he was interested in grasping my sunglasses. He grabbed the sunglasses, shook them wildly, laughed, and then pulled them apart like a wishbone from a turkey.
That experience afforded me some familiarity with the infant’s personality. From now on, I’ll avoid getting too close to him while wearing sunglasses. Today’s Gospel reading contains another instance of the differences between being familiar and being close.
Today’s Gospel reading says that Jesus “came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples.” (Mk. 6:1) In Mark’s Gospel, the phrase “his native place” refers to Nazareth (in Matthew’s Gospel, the same phrase is used to refer to Capernaum). In this event in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus went home to the town in which he had grown up. Evidently, he wanted very much to proclaim the Good News to his family and former neighbors.
Unfortunately, he did not receive the sort of welcome for which he had hoped. The Gospel says, “they took offense at him.” (Mk. 6:3) This means that, based on his preaching in the Synagogue, they judged him to be pretentious. Jesus, in turn, judged them to be faithless. He “was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mk. 6:5-6)
The Gospel leads us to believe that it was his former neighbors’ opinions about him that prevented them from putting their faith in Jesus. Jesus’ neighbors were familiar enough with him to know that his father was no longer around. The Gospel says that they asked one another, “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mk. 6:3) The absence of a reference to Joseph probably indicates that Joseph was dead at this point in time.
As Jesus’ former neighbors were very familiar with him, we might wonder why they were so unwilling to believe that he had been chosen by God to proclaim a renewed Covenant. Although it might sound like an academic exercise in semantics, I’d like to suggest that there can be a very great difference between being familiar and being close. His family and former neighbors were familiar with Jesus, but they lacked the closeness to him that led his disciples to put their faith in him.
Catechism lessons, religious formation, and even movies can afford us a familiarity with Jesus. I would guess that many atheists have some familiarity with Jesus. Familiarity alone is insufficient. Each of us should pay attention to the difference between being familiar with Jesus and being close to Jesus. Familiarity can be gained through reading or absorbing cultural values; the closeness of faith is something that is gained only by following Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus’ teaching are well known to us. We are to remain faithful to God, forgive our enemies, give to the poor, do good for our persecutors, and reconcile sinners. This Gospel reading points to a further action that will keep us close to him. The Gospel says that he “was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.” (Mk. 6:5) Although he was able to do only a little for a few people, he did not hesitate to do so.
Each of us has experienced trying to help someone who refuses to be helped, of offering forgiveness where it is not welcome, and of doing good when it seems to have little effect. In these situations, remaining close to Jesus requires that we do the little that is possible in the situation.
Familiarity with Jesus might lead us to lament those who refuse our help but remaining close to Jesus requires us to offer help even when it is rejected. Familiarity with Jesus might lead us to judge harshly those who refuse forgiveness but closeness to Jesus requires that we offer forgiveness even if it is not accepted. Familiarity with Jesus might lead us to regret that we are able to do only a little good in the world; remaining close to Jesus will lead us to do good even when it seems not to have great effect.
There can be a very great difference between being familiar and being close. It’s the latter, not the former, that constitutes faith. Familiarity, on the other hand, can exist side by side with a lack of faith. Remaining close to Jesus requires that we embrace his wisdom and imitate his healing deeds even when we cannot see the immediate results of our good actions.