Can Jesus make a difference?

July 7, 2021

In Preston (where I am writing this) we have a cherished statue, “The Splash”. It replicates a famous photo of the sublimely gifted Preston footballer, Tom Finney, swerving on a waterlogged pitch with the ball at his feet, throwing up a huge splash (supplied for the statue by a fountain). It sprang to mind in the unlikely context of a recent Sunday liturgy.

At first, Mark's account of Jesus visiting Nazareth (6:1-6) strikes me as a puzzling passage. He visits his hometown and is hailed with enthusiasm… and then in no time rejected. Why? His own explanation - “a prophet is despised only in his own country” - still leaves us wondering.  Fame need not mean local rejection. After all, we have in Preston a Sir Tom Finney Way, and a Flintoff Way too, and some time somewhere perhaps there will be a Gareth Southgate Avenue!  For an explanation we need to add to Mark's version Luke's account of this incident and the Gospels generally – and our knowledge of human nature.

Many people cannot face the possibility of the real Jesus making a difference, especially if it is a challenging difference. They can look at him with admiration and respect, even worship – rather as you gaze at a picture in a frame or a statue on a pedestal. But if they accept that he means what he says, it will transform their life and could transform the world (take for example the story of the Good Samaritan or of the Rich Man and Lazarus and apply them to Planet Earth or to Britain). Which of us can stomach such challenge? How real is Jesus to them? And to us?

A century ago, the playwright Bernard Shaw remarked: “If you speak of Jesus as a real live person, or even as a still active God, [such statue-worshippers] are more horrified than Don Juan was when the statue stepped from its pedestal and came to supper with him. If you venture to wonder how Christ would have looked if he had shaved and had his hair cut, or what size in shoes he took... you will produce an extraordinary dismay and horror”. When in his Nazareth workshop his hammer missed the nail and hit his thumb, did he just politely breathe, “Oh dear!”?... or being divine was his aim always perfect? Was it a real Jesus who had come to make a real difference in Nazareth and wherever he might find hearts and minds that were open?

St Ignatius of Loyola and the Spiritual Exercises encourage you to imagine how Jesus seems in the various Gospel incidents. You know that he probably did not appear exactly as you imagine him, but it is all helping him to come alive to your heart and mind instead of being just a statue. The more alive to you he becomes, the better he can communicate with you.

Coming back to the Nazareth passage: Jesus is received as the local boy made good. But once they hear what he really thinks and proposes they are horrified.  He implies, for example, that a foreign widow or soldier might catch God's eye of favour before any of them or their compatriots and co-religionists (because “God has no favourites” - see Luke 4:25 and Acts 10:34). If they really listen to him and act on his words, it will make a real difference: which is surely what Pope Francis meant when he urged young people to “make a mess”.

Lord, don't pull your punches with us. Teach us to see things through your eyes. Teach us to take your Gospel seriously. Help us to accept change if it is inspired by your Holy Spirit.

Reflection by Father Tom Shufflebotham SJ

Photo by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on Unsplash

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