+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown.
Attending Romey’s ordination as a deacon yesterday, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own ordination, and of the time leading up to it. In particular I remember the difficulties I had proving that I had been baptised.
You see, I was baptised as a teenager, not in the Church of England by law established, but in the United Reformed Church, and the particular congregation has long since sold the church building, and their records reside in the garages of various church members.
And of course I had lost my baptism certificate.
I remember phoning up the lady who was roughly equivalent to the PCC secretary, to see if there was any way that they could find a record of my baptism. When I explained to her why, namely that I was training for ordination in the Church of England, she was flabbergasted. So shocked was she that she was unable to conceal the fact that the idea of my being ordained in the Church of England did not sit easily with reports she had heard of the sort of person I was.
It seems that some rather exaggerated reports of my misspent youth had been circulating in the town which was once my home, but which I have seldom visited since I went to university.
It was a little upsetting, as my brother and I had been very dutiful members of that church, often the only children there, and even through our teenage years had contributed in many and various ways.
But it was also not a little amusing, and if tales of my really very ordinary youthful missteps lent a little excitement to the good members of that rather beleaguered congregation in that small Somerset town, well who could begrudge them that? After all, as Oscar Wilde put it, “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.
Today’s psalm is a short and simple plea to God for help. “Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt”. But it includes language that is both extremely touching, and also a little uncomfortable:
As the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God.
The imploring eyes of the domestic servant, utterly dependent upon their master or mistress, provide the psalmist with images to describe the relationship between God and God’s people. That sort of relationship of power and dependence in a human context we have good reason to find troubling, such relationships can all too easily become compromised and corrupt; but with God, whose purposes are loving, and who stands in need of nothing from us, we need not fear manipulation or exploitation. The psalm is so short that there is no real clue as to its historical context; we do not know what particular collective humiliation the psalmist is asking for God to redress. We do know at least that it is one of the “Songs of Ascents”, songs sung by pilgrims climbing to the Temple Mount, following immediately the much more famous “I was glad” of Psalm 122.
As so often in the gospels, with Jesus things are turned on their heads. It does not appear to be tales of a misspent youth that prejudices minds against Jesus, but rather His social status, or lack of it. Whilst the psalmist appeals to the conventional hierarchical relationships of their society to find an image for the relationship between God and God’s people, and it is a moving and touching image, in Jesus this image is utterly subverted. “Is this not the carpenter?”, they ask.
Jesus was not a domestic servant, but He certainly did belong to that class of people who made their living by the work of their hands and the sweat of their bodies, the class of people who in most human societies find themselves at or at least towards the bottom of the pile, the class of people who live not by what they own or by what they know but by their labour to satisfy the needs of others. God visits God’s people not as a master nor as a mistress, but as the carpenter, the son of Mary.
Jesus returns to His hometown to teach and to heal, He comes to proclaim good news, but the people are unable to see beyond their preconceptions and prejudices.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on the people of Nazareth. Assigning people to categories is a pretty ordinary human thing to do; it simplifies life for us greatly if we can think of this or that person straightforwardly as a certain sort of person, without having to engage too much in details – he’s the carpenter, and so we can expect this of him, but we can’t expect that of him; she’s the schoolteacher and so we can expect this or that of her. Taking each individual entirely on their own merits, disposing of every sort of preconception that we have, this takes an awful lot of effort and in the end is probably more-or-less impossible. Of course that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try; just that we should be gentle with ourselves and others when we catch them slipping into this sort of thinking, and we shouldn’t be too embarrassed about admitting when we get things wrong, because we all do it at least some of the time. As the people of Nazareth found, it is genuinely difficult to completely upend your thinking when you have got an ingrained idea about what a particular person or sort of person is like.
We shouldn’t be surprised about any of this. Whilst the psalmist uses the hierarchical conventions of their society to describe the relationship between God and God’s people, very often we find just the opposite in the bible. God confounds expectations for example in choosing David, the youngest of the sons of Jesse, to be the shepherd of God’s people. From Balaam’s donkey to Judith slaying Holofernes, in the Old Testament God frequently chooses to act in ways that defy norms and expectations, that confound prejudices, that shake people out of conventional ways of thinking.
And all of this points to its fulfilment in Jesus Christ, the carpenter, the son of Mary, in whom God visits and redeems His people. As St Paul puts it in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “…God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.