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Sunday’s readings — the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B — are about the times we evangelize but no one listens, and the times we pray for relief and God says “No.” In short, they tell us that sometimes our best efforts bring failure and frustration — and we should thank God for that.
It starts with the Gospel itself, which is about Jesus’s second unsuccessful attempt to preach to his own town.
He announced the Good News at home twice — despite being rejected, and despite his townspeople trying to throw him off a cliff.
The people do show a spark of faith — they are “astonished” by what he has to say and wonder at where he gets all of his “wisdom” and “mighty deeds.”
In other words, they see his fruits very clearly — but they don’t judge him by his fruits. Instead they pigeonhole him into their own small expectations of what they knew of him growing up, and they “take offense at him.”
Jesus answers, famously, that “a prophet is not without honor except in his native place.”
This Gospel story is the perfect illustration of how apostolic work is worth doing, even when it seems to fail.
Think of the lessons this Gospel teaches:
First, Jesus keeps teaching even those who reject him. Thank God for that. I personally learned a lot about the faith while I was still rejecting it. I am very glad people told me about Jesus despite their failure to convince me. How many of the Nazarenes were converted by Jesus’s lessons years later?
Second, those who oppose Jesus often bring out the best evidence for him. That definitely happens here. “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” his opponents ask. “And the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?” they add. What a treasure trove! This is the only place in the Gospels that Jesus is called a carpenter, or craftsman — that makes him a working man who is not too good for labor; a model for lay-people, not just religious. This is also the only place in the Gospels he is identified as “the son of Mary;” a man identified with his mother, the woman we go through to get to him.
Even more helpfully, Jesus’s objectors don’t just mention his “brothers” — they name them, proving that these are not children of Mary. James and Joses (or “Joseph”) were well known as leaders in the Early Church. In several places Mark identifies them as the children of another woman named Mary (Matthew significantly calls her “the other Mary”). The Bible often uses “brothers” to mean “close relatives,” and thanks to these objectors, we know that the Gospel references are an example of that.
A third lesson is that Jesus can heal despite opposition. “He was not able to perform any mighty deed there,” the Gospel says, then significantly adds: “apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.” Healings ultimately come from God’s generosity, not our merit.
But the best lesson is one that every faithful Catholic should take to heart: Jesus expects us to have faith.
Jesus is “amazed at their lack of faith,” the Gospel says. Which is itself an amazing statement. We tend to think of Jesus’s reaction being the opposite. We think Jesus must be silently congratulating us for being brave, brainy, and bold enough to believe in him despite the scanty evidence.
But quite the contrary, Jesus is amazed at those who don’t believe.
And why wouldn’t we believe? We live in a world of beauty that is clearly the work of an artist, a knowable world that is clearly the product of an intelligence, and in a world in which goodness triumphs everywhere in ways large and small — from the Church surviving two millennia of sinners to reach us with its sacraments to the blessings of providence that reach us each day; from the defeat of the Nazis and the fall of the Soviet Bloc to the neighbors who have made our communities livable. To live in a world like this and not believe is amazing.
Even moreso, to see the fruits of the wisdom and mighty deeds of Jesus Christ with your very eyes and still reject him is also amazing — to see the wisdom of the magisterium and Eucharistic miracles and Guadalupe and Fatima and still reject Jesus is not just stupid, it’s amazingly stupid.
But even in the most faithful Catholic circles, Jesus is probably amazed by our lack of faith to this day. Father Thomas Dubay in his book Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer, identifies in the best of Catholics a “remarkable resistance” to holiness. We break from mortal sin, then congratulate ourselves for how wonderful we are, even as the Church tells us daily in the liturgy that much more is expected of us. We see clearly that we are created to live a life of holiness, a canonizably saintly life, a life opposed to venial, and not just mortal, sin — but nonetheless, we celebrate our bare conversion, and progress no further, feeling triumphant. We are like athletes celebrating before the victory is won.
St. Paul didn’t do that.
He was converted, and kept progressing — so much so that he was blessed with special graces few other saints receive: wisdom, understanding and knowledge of God in such abundance that he is one of the founders of Christianity. So “a thorn in the flesh was given me, an angel of Satan to beat me, to keep me from being too elated,” he says in the Second Reading.
“Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,” he said. Nope, God answered. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Here is a saint who, rather than doing a celebration dance for his small victories in holiness, was given a definite check by God on any such pride. Instead, he said, “I will rather boast gladly of my weaknesses.”
If Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, can preach unsuccessfully and not be a failure, so too can Paul, a sinner, preach successfully and not take the credit. If we work with Jesus, we can say with Paul, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Some of the greatest names in salvation history are celebrated as successes despite their failures.
In Sunday’s First Reading we meet Ezekiel, one of the few privileged preachers who has a book of the Bible named for him. We also witness the thankless way he got it: Preaching to the apostate half of the divided kingdom. “I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against me,” says God. “Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you.”
The success measure God gives Ezekiel is not mass conversions but this: “Whether they heed or resist … they shall know that a prophet has been among them.”
So many saints in the Church’s history have had the same thankless task. The North American Martyrs suffered tremendous hardship and persecution to evangelize a nation that never converted. St. Francis Xavier spent his life evangelizing Japan, whose rulers crushed the remnants of faithful he left behind. Blessed Charles de Foucault went into the Algerian desert to preach Christ to the Muslims — and converted a total of zero souls.
And yet their stories have inspired generations of Catholics to enter the daily grind of the search for holiness and to spread the news of Christ — leaving the results entirely in God’s hands.