In many working class families, there’s often a strange dynamic at play. Parent’s want their children to succeed, but they also don’t want them to succeed so much that it brings a certain haughtiness to their demeanor. As an example, my Chemistry teacher in high school, Tom Ferraiola, once told me a story about how his family would make their own wine, a typical Italian tradition. Tom, a working class kid, did well in school and ended up studying chemistry at Manhattan College and later at Niagara University, a stone’s throw from where I am now in Buffalo. When he’d come home the parents would invite him to come make wine with them.
During the fermentation process, the liquid would start to bubble, a sign that the yeast was feeding on the sugar and producing alcohol, a typical chemical reaction, known well by Tom.
“Now it’s boiling.” Tom’s father would say.
“Dad,” Tom would counter, “It’s not boiling, it’s fermenting.”
“Hey who the hell do you think you ARE, college BOY? I’ve been making wine for 35 years and YOU’RE going to tell me about it?”
“But Dad, it’s NOT boiling. It’s just not.”
“Get the hell out of here. I’m making wine.”
I’m sure Tom just threw his hands up in the air and gave up, knowing he was right but not feeling the need to own that. He laughed a bit when he told us the story, showing no ill will towards his dad. But in many ways something deeper is going on here, something that is often ingrained in cultures of working class people that works against them.
Pride. And sometimes that’s a good thing. People hold on to what little they have. In Tom’s case, his father was a proud winemaker, and a good one. It was delicious and he’d share his wine with the neighbors and they always looked forward to it. He was proud of the place in the community that he held as “the wine guy.”
And Tom’s comment threatened his status because he knew how to make wine but he really didn’t know what was going on in the chemical process. And when pride is threatened, people often need to defend themselves, or otherwise they will feel stupid or silly.
Or they’ll be jealous that someone like them, is a bit smarter than they ever thought they could be.
Jesus, also grew up in a similar working class environment. Joseph, a carpenter was well-known in his community. He probably made most of the furniture for people in the neighborhood. Jesus, worked alongside him and probably had the same reputation as dear old dad.
So when he begins to teach with great authority, there is the air of “Who the hell does he think he is?” in the community. “He’s no better than us! Didn’t we teach HIM the scriptures from when he was a little kid?”
You can just hear the defensiveness. He can’t be better than us.
When, in fact, he’s better than us all.
The interesting thing is that when this happens, when this pride seeps into the community, the one who has learned much often mutes their own abilities so that others won’t feel bad. It’s another defense mechanism at play. One does this to “keep the peace” and perhaps even to show a bit of respect to those who care much about them.
And in today’s gospel, we see this very dynamic at play. Jesus is unable to do any “mighty deed there. Apart from curing a few sick people.”
Oh is that all. He just cured a few people. No big deal.
It seems to me that the mighty deeds that others in the community didn’t mind was when he’d cure a relative or someone close to them.
But perhaps if he went and found a leper and tried to break the ritual purity law–then perhaps he was met with much resistance.
Who does he think he is?
Pride runs deep. Paul even talks about “not becoming too elated” in our second reading. Jesus doesn’t have an inability to perform a mighty deed, but the pride of the community keeps his mighty deeds at bay. Can’t you just hear a crazy uncle saying:
“Don’t you go an touch that leper…he’s dirty. And leave that crazy woman alone. She has a demon in her!”
And Jesus, who knows better…who knows more about these people than anyone else, Jesus, can’t shake off what is ingrained in the hearts of the community.
We don’t have much, but we’re sure as hell better than those lepers. Those dirty bastards.
What about us? Where does our pride get in the way? Do we sometimes shudder when someone young points out our own hypocrisy and show him or her the door? Or do we notice our own humbleness and admit that we are not perfect people?
I remember a service trip where I brought people to New York City and at one point I thought I’d give them a tour of St. Paul the Apostle, the Paulist mother church where Marion and I were married and where I had spent so much time as a parishioner and of course, at BustedHalo which was housed in the rectory next door.
I pointed out some of the more unique pieces of the church…a center ambo, the tomb of Isaac Hecker, the Paulist founder, and a hopeful saint one day and more. I encouraged them to walk around and look at the various side altars where there were tons of descriptions of the artwork and the history. I then snuck into the bookstore to chat with an old colleague for a few minutes. When I returned, there were all of my students, kneeling in prayer in various pews scattered throughout the church.
“Well they certainly didn’t learn that from me.” I said to my colleague who was quite impressed with them.
“Guess they have something to teach me, too, huh?”
And they do. Constantly. And I am humbled often and sometimes pride gets in my way too.
Today, let us pray for the gift of grace. The grace to be able to see God working in others to make them all they can be. That might mean that they have much to teach us, even if we have taught them in the past. God isn’t finished with any of us…if we remember that…we just might be able to see God standing right in front of us.
And if we don’t, we might mute the power of God, who needs us to cooperate with Him so that God might do mighty deeds in each of our lives and through even the least of us in our communities.
May we be humble enough to see the Carpenter’s Son and to know that He has much to teach us.