Walking hand in hand with grace: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 6:1–6:

Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples. When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands! Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” So 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.

Today’s Gospel and readings once again remind me of a modern parable about faith and cooperation with the Lord, in which a man refuses to leave his house during a great flood. The local authorities send a car for him, but he refuses, saying, “the Lord will save me.” When the flood wipes out the road, a boat comes to get him, but again the man again refuses, saying, “the Lord will save me.” And when he’s forced onto the roof, the local authorities send a helicopter only to have the man refuse a third time, insisting, “the Lord will save me!”

After the man drowns in the flood, he comes to Jesus and asks, “Why, Lord, didn’t you save me?” Jesus replies, “What more did you want? I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter!”

Our Gospel reading today is one of the more confounding episodes in Jesus’ ministry. As the Son of God, Jesus performed many miracles, some of which we learn from the Gospels and epistles, even in hostile and/or diffident contexts. In each of those cases, however, there was an element of cooperation and recognition of Jesus’ status, at the very least as a man of God. The story in Matthew 8 of the centurion who asks for healing of his servant is part of our Mass, the prayer we say before taking the Eucharist. We acknowledge our sinfulness but cooperate with His grace, allowing Him to heal us.

In Nazareth, however, Jesus doesn’t get even a modicum of cooperation, not even as a teacher. They harden their hearts to His words out of the contempt of familiarity. In that utter lack of cooperation, we are told that Jesus could do “no mighty deed there,” despite His authority as the Son of God. How can that be? Can’t the Lord impose His authority with or without our cooperation?

Yes, of course He can. Had Jesus chose to impose His will as a conquering tyrant, He could have demolished the temple, put the Roman authorities to death, and dealt out terrible punishments to the people of Nazareth, too. That, however, would make us slaves, not children of God. The Lord calls us into a familial relationship with Him, asking us to freely conform to His will for the ultimate good of us all.

This pattern was established from the days of the prophets, indeed from the days of Abraham himself. God called Abraham to sacrifice his son, and when Abraham prepared to cooperate, the Lord intervened and made a covenant with him for salvation of all. The prophets called the Israelites repeatedly to repent and recommit themselves to that covenant, only to be rejected over and over again. Ezekiel testifies to that in our first reading, in which he describes his call to prophesy:

As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard the one who was speaking say to me: Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day. Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you. But you shall say to them: Thus says the LORD God! And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house— they shall know that a prophet has been among them.

This foreshadows Jesus’ experience in Nazareth, too, in which a prophet gets turned away by his own people. Whether through the contempt of familiarity or just the hard-heartedness of a people who refuse to listen, the prophets had the same problem at times, and some paid for it with their lives. The Israelites paid for it with destruction and enslavement, more than once.

What does this teach us today? Without cooperation with Christ’s grace, there can be no relationship with the Lord, and without that relationship, there can be no salvation. We have to cooperate with the Lord in order to be in relationship with Him. It is not enough for us just to hear Christ’s teachings; we must listen and engage with them. It is not enough to carry a Christian identity if we do not put our trust in Christ by following those teachings. It is not enough to trust in Christ if we do not cooperate with His caritas for all.

Those are choices we can make of our own free will. The Lord will not impose Himself on us, because He loves us as individuals for who we are and what we can be. He will never force us into servitude, but He will also never stop calling to us. If we cooperate with the Lord’s grace, we may find a way to step into that car, that boat, or that helicopter when the time comes.


The front-page image is a detail from “Christ Preaching in the Synagogue at Nazareth,” a 14th-century fresco in the Visoki Decani Monastery in Kosovo.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

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