So Close, and Yet So Far: Sunday Reflection

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout / Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Sports fans will tell people that coming close to a win, or a championship season, and just barely missing it may be the most frustrating experience in fandom. Emotionally, it's sometimes easier to suffer through a blowout or a mediocre season than to have fingertips brushing the brass ring, only to fail to grasp it. The athletes themselves might feel the same way, even though their skill and execution did put them close to victory. 

In that experience, we look back on all of the missed opportunities and bad decisions that may not have seemed consequential at the time. Could better choices have produced a winning result? And even more weighty for fans' minds ... will we ever have a better opportunity than the one that slipped away at the last moment?

The words of the Frankie Valli song comes to mind: So close, so close and yet so far.

Today's Gospel reading brings this to mind, both for the people of Nazareth at the time and today. Just how close can we come to salvation -- and still miss it?

In today's passage from Mark, the people of Nazareth come as close to salvation as possible, both physically and spiritually. Not only has Jesus come to their synagogue to preach and prophesy from the Scriptures, He has returned to His own people to bring them the Good News. Being in their midst, Jesus discovers that they treat His teachings with contempt because of their familiarity with Him in His youth. They reject Jesus' teachings and Jesus Himself, despite their close affiliation to Him and His family. Their contempt made it too difficult to help them, so Jesus moved on.

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The Nazarenes had salvation literally at hand, a salvation for which they had pined for generations. And they let it slip through their fingers.

Why? Perhaps another passage from the Gospels can shed light on that question. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe an encounter Jesus and the disciples had with a wealthy young man (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, and Luke 18:18-30). The young man wants to know how to gain salvation, and Jesus replies that he should follow the Commandments. The young man replies that he already observes the law and desires to do what is needed to achieve salvation. 

Jesus tells him (from Luke 18): 

“You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The young man walks away crushed, because his worldly treasure is where his heart is. He wants salvation, but on his terms rather than Christ's. The wealthy young man had salvation in his grasp, but could not let go of his own desires in order to grasp it.

So close, so close and yet so far.

Or for that matter, consider Judas Iscariot. Some scholars believe that Judas was motivated by a desire for a military rebellion against Rome and thought that Jesus' arrest might foment it. Alternately, some posit that Judas became disillusioned when the nature of the Messiah got revealed to the disciples. And of course, the only biblical references to motive for Judas refer to the thirty pieces of silver. All of these speculative explanations hinge on the same impulse -- to cling to one's own appetites, ambitions, and understandings even when in close proximity to the truth, or in this case The Truth. 

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The Nazarenes ridiculed Christ for not being what they expected of a prophet and Messiah. Judas may have sold him out for that reason as well, but also out of a preference for his own ambition over the salvation Christ offered. And that is exactly the choice made by the young wealthy man, too.

And in a very sense, that is what we choose when we sin. We know Christ carries salvation in His Word, and in His love for us. The closer we come to Him, however, the more that His teachings force us to choose between the Word and our own ambitions, our own conception of the Lord, and each other rather than our own appetites.

In that way, just as with my sports analogy, it's easier to lose big than to barely miss the win. Sin deadens us to the Word, and it deadens us to each other as well. The more we progress in faith, the more acute the suffering of others become, and also the more acute the knowledge and hurt of our sins become to us as well. In that crisis, it feels natural to fall back to our own appetites and ambitions and to rationalize our way into just missing the victory. 

We take the path of least resistance. We go down the wide and well-trodden path rather than the narrow path. We choose comfort for ourselves rather than the hard work of helping others.

So close, so close and yet so far

However, the good news behind the Good News is that Jesus never leaves us, even if we reject Him. We can repent and return to Him, perhaps wiser in the knowledge of our weaknesses. Paul stressed the point of wisdom in weakness in our second reading today from 2 Corinthians:

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That I, Paul, might not become too elated, because of the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

When we recognize these weaknesses, when we admit to our true status in Creation, we can then stop focusing on our own appetites and ambitions. It is in that space where we can truly embrace Christ and His salvation, working to bring others to Him as well. 

 

Previous reflections on these readings:

The front page image is "Christ in the Synagogue at Nazareth" by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1658. On display at the National Gallery of Ireland. Via Wikimedia Commons

“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.  

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