8 July 2018
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Our friends here in the gospel do something we do all the time: We make assumptions, and then we let those assumptions direct us. And that’s not a bad thing—especially when those assumptions are based on our experiences of life.
For instance, if I take my shoes off and think about running across the grass, I assume that if I do that I’m going to step on some stones, some thistles, and maybe something else that’s going to hurt. And I assume that because that’s just what always seems to happen. So my assumption is based on a pattern of personal experiences. So the next time I think about walking on the grass barefooted, I might not do it.
Our assumptions, based on our experiences, guide us; they help make our decisions for us. And, again, that can be a very good thing. It keeps us safe and it’s how we learn. But, on the other hand, the assumptions we have can also limit us.
For instance, it would be incorrect to assume that every time I walk barefoot in the grass, I’m going to step on something. And so, it would be (not necessarily wrong, but…) unfortunate if I said: I’m never going to walk barefoot on the grass ever again. I would be limiting my experiences of life if I let my assumptions dominate.
And so, our assumptions, even though they’re absolutely good and necessary, can become an obstacle if we’re not aware of them, or if we give them too much “weight.” And that’s where our friends are today in the Gospel of Mark.
There’s Jesus standing in front of them in the synagogue. He’s about average height: 5’9”—6’. They hear his voice, they see his teeth when he opens his mouth; they see his beard and his hair. He has brown eyes, and he’s dressed in the same type of clothes as everybody else. There’s nothing particularly different about him. And everybody knows who he is: He’s the son of Joe and Mary at the next farm over the way.
And so, what reason would they have to think they’re staring God himself in the face, or that they’re hearing the words of a prophet? Other than what he was saying—which “astonished” people—they had no reason to think of Jesus as being different from any other preacher in the synagogue. They didn’t see him as a prophet or as God himself, because…Jesus didn’t match their assumptions about prophets or God.
They assumed (from what they knew of their history) that prophets come from some distant land. Prophets were supposed to be something of a curiosity, certainly not what we’d call “normal” people. And prophets were supposed to be larger-than-life, like Moses or Jeremiah or Elijah. Jesus was anything but that. And so, the people “took offense” at him. They were “scandalized” by him because he was a “nobody” (just like everybody else), trying to be “somebody;” namely, a prophet.
But he didn’t match their assumptions about prophets, so the people just discounted Jesus. They said, “Whatever.” And “he was not able to perform any mighty deed there.” This is a case where an assumption was very limiting. The people had cut themselves off from an encounter with God. And, of course, that’s something we want to avoid.
It’s sometimes said of God that we should “expect the unexpected.” We should “imagine the unimaginable.” We should “anticipate being surprised.” In other words, when it comes to God, we have to be careful about our assumptions. We can have them—and we should, but we can’t let them take the place of God. Our faith has to be in God, and not in our assumptions about him.
This really is where the whole question about “the problem of evil” comes from. The argument goes: If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and if God is all good and all loving, then how can there continue to be evil in the world? Why is there sickness and suffering? Why is there natural disaster? Why do “bad things happen to good people”?
All those questions boil down to the assumptions we have about God. The assumption is that: God is all-powerful and loving, therefore, it only makes sense that he would use his power to rid the world of anything that is evil. The assumption is that all God needs to do is snap his fingers and all will be right in the world. And, yet he doesn’t do it; he won’t do it, or he can’t do it. So, the assumption is that he is not all-powerful; or if he is, then he is certainly not loving or compassionate.
This question, the “problem of evil,” is all rooted in our assumptions about God. And a good chunk of people leave the faith, or discount Christianity all together because of it. Their faith is in their assumptions, not in God.
If we want to know who God is—who the Christian God is—then we look to Jesus. As much as the Old Testament is useful to us, and as much as the study of ancient religions is helpful, if we want to make good assumptions about God, we have to look at Jesus. He is, after all, the “visible image of the invisible God.”
And Jesus shows us that God’s brand of “power” looks a lot like “weakness.” Saint Paul came to that conclusion when he wrote, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” Jesus showed us “power” when he let himself be crucified. He showed us “power” when he associated with the needy rather than people of influence. He showed us “power” when he was incarnated in the form of a defenseless baby born in a manger. God’s brand of “power” looks a lot like “weakness.”
And so, we can (and should) assume that God is all-powerful; but it’s a vastly different form of “power” than we usually expect. That’s the value of having a big crucifix in our churches. It’s why, when we come to Mass, it’s less important what I get from God, and more important what I give to God—my attention, my reverence, my love and adoration. It would be great if God would just snap his fingers and wipe evil from the face of the earth, but we don't have reason to hold onto that assumption—based on what God himself (Jesus) has shown to us.
When we let go of our false assumptions (especially about God), then life becomes better. And we actually become more of a partner with God—in his power and love. Instead of waiting for God to do something, maybe he’s doing what he always does: maybe he’s calling on us to get up and do something for him—weak and limited creatures that we are. God always does that: he always calls up people who are least likely to make a difference (in other people’s eyes). That we can assume about God—that he uses the humble and the lowly to bring down the “powerful.”
And for that reason, we want to be careful with our assumptions, not only about God, but also about other people. The Letter to the Hebrews (13:2) gives us the famous line: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have unknowingly entertained angels.” And, really, what is hospitality but welcoming someone, accepting someone for who they are—without letting our assumptions about them get in the way.
Hospitality is openness; it’s “expecting the unexpected;” letting ourselves be surprised by the person who’s standing in front of us. Hospitality is about not letting our assumptions cut us off from encountering the other person. Everybody has something to share; every life is precious to God. Even people who’ve known each other for decades can’t say: “I know that person perfectly.” That’s a pretty big assumption; to think I know somebody else perfectly, that’s there nothing else for me to learn.
Our assumptions are absolutely good and necessary. But they can also limit us. If we wish to encounter God, then we have to watch our assumptions about him: expect the unexpected, imagine the unimaginable, anticipate being surprised by God. After all, our faith isn’t in our assumptions about God; our faith is in God—as he is.