Moving beyond presuppositions

On the April 11, 2009, episode of "Britain's Got Talent," a middle-aged woman made her way to the stage and said she wanted to sing like one of Britain's most acclaimed stars of musical theater, Elaine Paige. At that, the judges for the contest barely concealed their amusement, and after a few minutes, the audience was whispering their doubts and criticisms. How could this frumpy and unattractive woman set herself forward like this? When asked why she'd waited so long to make her debut, Susan Boyle said she hadn't had the chance before.

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Fourteenth Sunday
in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 2:2-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Mark 6:1-6

Then, amid the snickers of the audience, she began to sing "I Dreamed a Dream" from "Les Misérables." In that instance, skepticism changed to astonishment. As Boyle's beautiful voice delivered note after note, the shocked audience stood and applauded.

Boyle had been judged unfairly by those who assumed they knew what to expect from her. Three days after that broadcast, in a Herald Scotland column, Colette Douglas Home called Boyle's story a modern parable and a rebuke to the human tendency to judge others based on physical appearances, making presuppositions about who they truly are.

Unfortunately, these tendencies continue to divide us. When we are familiar with another person, we tend to think we know all about them -- how they'll behave, what to expect, how they'll always be. As a consequence, we are not open to growth or surprises or new discoveries.

That lack of genuine acceptance places a barrier between us and the other person, and sometimes that barrier has to come up against a big shock before it can be removed. Such was the shock delivered to Boyle's judges and audience.

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But the tendency to judge others unfairly is not a new phenomenon. As we see in today's Gospel, Jesus' hometown friends and neighbors were sure they knew him. They had him pegged as the carpenter's son, and they became offended when he startled them and proved their assessment of him to be lacking. They were resentful that he might be more than they gave him credit for.

Charles Cousar points out that the Greek verb for "take offense" is used elsewhere in Mark to describe those who begin well but then fall away (4:17), those who start walking but then stumble (9:42-48) and those who become deserters (14:27-29) (Texts For Preaching, Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.) When Jesus first taught in the synagogue in Nazareth, those present were "astonished." But soon that sense of awe evaporated because they were unwilling to get over themselves and accept that God was being revealed to them in Jesus.

Jesus' response to them, "a prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house," rings as true today as it did during Jesus' ministry. Why? Because when someone is familiar, we assume that we know them, and we are too often unwilling to let them be greater than our opinion of them.

Because of their closed-mindedness, Jesus "was not able to perform any mighty deed" for his hometown folks. As Bonnie Bowman Thurston has observed, Jesus does not force anyone (Preaching Mark, Fortress Press, 2002). Even he cannot work in us without our acquiescence to him in faith. Jesus freely offers his wisdom and his mighty deeds, but human beings are free to respond, or not.

In today's first and second readings, the praying assembly can admire the sincere responses of Ezekiel the prophet and Paul the evangelist. Ezekiel willingly accepted God's call. By God's grace, he was able to serve the spiritual needs of his contemporaries before and during their exile in Babylon, adapting God's message as the situation warranted.

From the time he was called by the risen Jesus on the Damascus road, Paul endured weaknesses, hardships, persecutions and constraints -- but his resolve to preach the good news never wavered. He regarded his sufferings as a venue in which the powerful grace of God could be made manifest.

As a result of his writings, preaching and extensive travels, the Gospel spread throughout Judea, Cyprus, Asia Minor, Greece, Crete, Malta and Rome. Still today, wherever on earth his words are proclaimed, his mission continues.

From Paul, Ezekiel and Jesus, we take our cue for our own ministries and daily response to God. Let us be ever open to God's grace and to the prophets whom God places on our way to reveal something of God's love, mercy and beauty.

[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]

This story appeared in the June 19-July 2, 2015 print issue under the headline: Moving beyond presuppositions .

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