Magazine article U.S. Catholic

What Good Came out of Nazareth

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

What Good Came out of Nazareth

Article excerpt

Many people have their specially and personally significant passages of scripture, the ones they go back to, read over often, even know by heart. One that is important to me seems, at first sight, very insignificant. It has no obvious moral or spiritual message, it proclaims no doctrine, it isn't even poetic or touching. It says, "He went down with them and came to Nazareth" (Luke 2:51). It comes at the end of the strange experience of spiritual discovery by the boy Jesus on his first pilgrimage to the temple as a responsible Jewish youth after bar mitzvah. There had been amazement, growth, glory, ending in some confusion, and a sense that he was on a path his family hadn't expected and didn't really understand. But this experience of adolescent separation and discovery ends tamely; he goes home.

To me that simple and, from one point of view, disappointing sentence is full of significance. The fact that it signaled obedience and filial duty is no doubt important, but Jesus was not, in later life, a person who did something simply because it was expected of him. He chose, at this crisis point in his life, not--as might have been expected, and was probably not impossible--to ask to stay on and study in the temple school, which was the rough equivalent of going to college and a natural thing for a gifted and intelligent boy to want. Rather he went home to the life of a peasant villager in a remote province, where the only education available was from the village rabbi, augmented by whatever he gleaned in the few days each year during pilgrimages.

The choice of the apparently uninspiring life in a backwater was, however, very important. The influence of what Jesus learned during what came to be known as the "hidden years" was to become the basis of his vision and his mission. It is easy to miss this because those who collected material that later became the gospels naturally noted and recorded most of all that was unusual and striking and likely to catch the attention of hearers. So we hear nothing of the life of Jesus before he began to preach, nor--at least directly--of those issues that affected peasant communities. The parables of Jesus, however, are full of references to the life of a rural community.

We hear about harvests and weeds and gleaning, about shepherds and sheep, about bread and water and festivities. But we also get a picture of the social conditions of rural people: so many living on the edge of destitution that the loss of a coin was a catastrophe, and homelessness was not just a city problem. We hear of men taxed to the point where they had to sell their land and hire themselves out as day laborers; we hear of greedy landlords swindling the poor out of their holdings to add to their own. We hear of thieves breaking in--and these would not be so much local petty thieves as gangs of desperate landless men and armed rebels (terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on which side you were on) who raided the villages to gather supplies for their mountain strongholds. We hear about legal disputes over land in courts that were slow and often open to bribery.

If one reads the parables not so much for their moral or spiritual lesson but for their expression of a way of life, what becomes clear is that almost all situations described have to do with two things, which are interconnected: justice and land. Both are at the heart not only of the life Jesus lived but of the whole history and prophetic tradition of his people. And in those hidden years he had time and great incentive to reflect on the historical experience of his people and on God's message through the prophets as it applied to the lives of those among whom he lived and worked.

To many--even some Christians--the phrase social justice is strange, we are so used to thinking of justice only in terms of litigation and the punishment of crime. But in today's scripture the word commonly translated as justice used to be read as righteousness. …

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