Choose your words carefully if you preach to the people back home. Those who knew you will remember things that make many messages seem odd. Prophetic moralizing, for example, would sound hypocritical coming from most folks in such circumstances.
The ancient church fathers struggled with the physical implications of the incarnation—the mother’s womb, the birth and afterbirth. God gets a human body, orthodoxy has always proclaimed: a human body rife with bacteria, hormones and phlegm. Tertullian insists that God became fully human, though he recounts the details with some distaste.
They didn’t ask questions. That’s what always astonishes and terrifies me about this story from Mark. Jesus shows up by the Sea of Galilee, calls out to Simon Peter and Andrew, tells them he’s going to upend their lives and give them a new vocation, then commands them to follow him without a backward glance or a thought for the family fishing business.
Our hearts may sing as we hear the glorious prophecy of Isaiah, as repeated in Matthew’s Gospel: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” But as we listen to the epistle a nagging voice suggests that the Corinthians have been remarkably busy in their attempts to put that light out.
He was not the young man they had known before. They were sizing him up, as people in small towns will do, when he stood up in the synagogue to read from the prophet Isaiah. He read a fantastic and otherworldly passage, plainly not about Nazareth, but about some other place. And then he startled them all: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Was he talking about them? Or himself? And what did he mean by proclaiming right there, in his hometown, “the acceptable year of the Lord”?
When fairy tales begin with the familiar phrase “Once upon a time,” they signal a mythical point of departure: the beginning of a great adventure. If Matthew had known this phrase, he might have employed it to introduce the calling of the first disciples, since his version of this story begins with the breathless anticipation of a fairy tale.
Many human encounters with the divine word are fraught with irony: Balaam's talking ass; the promise of a patriarchal heir so long overdue that the child is named for the ensuing hilarity; the messianic Savior born in a hovel and killed like a common criminal. The mutant ministry of the prophet Jonah is another case in point.