There’s a very old and famous painting from China called the vinegar tasters. Three men are standing around a vat, dipping their fingers in the vinegar to have a taste. These three are representations of the founders of China’s three main religions – it’s an allegory, how the vinegar tastes represents how these faiths see the world. The first is Confucius who has a sour look on his face. To Confucius, the world was a sour place ruled by bad leaders making foolish laws. The next is Buddha who seems to think the vinegar is bitter. To him, life is full of traps and temptations which makes for a life full of suffering. Lao-tse, the last man at the vat is the founder of Taoism and his face is beaming in a smile – he appreciates the taste. In Taoism, life is essentially good in it’s purist form and so this vinegar is tasting exactly as it should – like vinegar. While this is obviously a lesson on religious difference, I also find truth in this because all three, drinking from the exact same vat, experience it in completely different ways, depending on their attitude.
Jesus has some reason to feel a bit bitter because he is being judged, not for who he is but because of the attitudes of those in his home town. He’s been travelling around, teaching, performing miracles and gathering followers. Now though, he’s come back home and is teaching in the synagogue. People seem to be amazed that he showed such wisdom and power but there’s an insult hidden in these words that would be easy to miss.
First, they say, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” They sound impressed right? But then, the next thing they say is, “Is this not the son of Mary?” This seems to imply that Joseph has died since the Christmas story, otherwise, he’d be called “son of Joseph.” They’re accusing him of not following his obligation to care for his mother rather than galavant around the countryside.
They also point out that he’s a carpenter – the trade left to him by his father. Carpenter’s were not the skilled and honoured tradespeople that we now know them to be. At this time in history, a carpenter was a day labourer, likely someone that has lost his ancestral land, the poorest of the poor. A carpenter would try to eek out a daily living, always one work day away from his family going hungry. They had less security than even a slave. When those in the synagogue talk of his power and wisdom, they’re likely mocking Jesus – this is a nobody who is trying to make us think he’s higher than his low station.
This is why Jesus responds so angrily, saying that prophets never get the respect they deserve from their own kin. We’re even told that his ability to perform miracles was weakened because of their lack of faith. He was the same Jesus, following the same God. He spoke the same wisdom and I’d imagine had the same God given power – like the vinegar tasters though, the difference was in their attitude – they didn’t believe Jesus was who he said he was, and so at least for them, their attitude became their reality. Because they could not accept Jesus as the promised one, to them he really was just the son of a deceased carpenter.
I really do believe that the reality which we live is very much a product of our attitudes and expectations. More often than not get what we expect, we like and dislike who we decide to like or not, and other than cases of mental illness, our happiness is determined, not by the events of our lives that are beyond our control, but instead, how we choose to respond to those events.
There was a man driving down a long country road, the top was down on his convertible and the wind was blowing through his hair, suddenly, a woman came around a curve on his side of the road and barely missed crashing into him head on. As she drove by, he heard her shout, “COW!” so he responded angrily, “PIG!” and then he ran into the cow that was walking down the middle of the road.
If we see the world as something out to get us, something to be feared, something that will shout insults at us as we drive down the road of life, that is most likely the world we’ll live in. If we however expect the world to be a blessing from God for which we should give thanks, that is the world we will experience. It’s not that we become immune to trouble and grief, but if we see the world as beautiful and people as essentially good, we can build us a resilience that can carry us through difficulty.
What is it that you expect from yourself? What do you think God is hoping for you? In Jesus’ home town, he couldn’t perform miracles because of their lack of faith – do you have faith that miracles can still happen? What about miracles that you can be a part of, that you could even play a part in creating?
I know the temptation here, at least for me, is to say no. Faith in God, no problem. Faith in Jesus and the wisdom of Gospel, I’m good with that. Faith in myself? Now we’re going a bit too far. Maybe this is from modesty – I’m certainly not worthy of being a part of God’s miraculous power. Maybe, but those first followers were unskilled, powerless and likely illiterate, living at a time when those outside of the established power structure, had no voice. We on the other hand, all live at a time when we can speak out against injustice. The collective years of education in this room is probably greater that that of the entire Galilean population. We all have tremendous skills or at least access to amazing ways of learning new skills. In just about every way, we are more qualified than the disciples.
Maybe you expect that you can’t be a part of God’s work because you’re too young or old? Then again, when do you become too old to offer compassion to a friend in need? When are you too young to have creative energy and a fresh perspective?
No matter what, I believe we are all capable of something miraculous. We are all capable of shaping the world around us but it takes the right attitude of faith, faith that we are touched by God, empowered by God, and called by God, no matter who we are, or what path we’ve taken to get here.
Jesus’ ability to perform miracles was dependant on faith.
For those who had faith that he was the messiah, he was the messiah. But for those who believed he was only a day labourer, that’s all he was.
For those who had faith that that he embodied the healing presence of God, they experienced healing. But for those who believed he was just some upstart preacher, that’s all he was.
For those who saw his teachings as a path to a better world, the realm of God, they found new life beyond all expectation but for those who saw his radical ideas as a dangerous threat to the established order, he was simply a criminal.
How do you see Jesus, but just as importantly, how do you see yourself? Do you have faith that God can work through you, bringing blessing to your corner of the world through the gift of your life? If this is what you believe, then you are indeed an instrument of God’s grace, a participant in God’s ongoing creation. Have faith that God can work through you and be open to ever widening expectation of what is possible, and then let God fill in the rest.