I was in my early teens when I saw an old movie during one of those long rainy winter afternoons. I do not remember the main story but one part caught my attention. The protagonist, called Beppe, was a simple man who was trying to become rich at any cost. His young neighbor Tulio, a young man with a misshapen leg, repaired radios for a living. In the movie Tulio appeared every now and then only to be the object of Beppe’s derisive and cruel jokes. The sub-plot appeared to have nothing to do with the main story. Towards the end of the movie, Beppe is about to learn the lesson of his life: love is what moves the world, not money. While waiting for breakfast, Beppe opens the newspaper. He is surprised to see Tulio’s photograph on the front page under a line reading: “Our neighbor Tulio Tosatti awarded Nobel Prize in Physics.” The camera slowly approaches Beppe until his face nearly fills the screen. Then he says: “How can that kid be a genius if he lives next door to me?”
We find people using Beppe’s twisted logic every time they are confronted with a talented man or woman in their midst. Beppe is a mediocre man, unable to see the spiritual side of life. In his simple mind, he sees the poor, limping Tulio as a fool who is wasting time in things that don’t produce any money. Tulio is a decent man; Beppe is willing to bend moral rules if he can gain any advantage. Tulio’s talents are suddenly unveiled but Beppe’s selfishness and mediocrity are also revealed at the same time.
Something similar happened to Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth.
When Jesus had finished telling these stories, he left and went to his hometown. He taught in their meeting place, and the people were so amazed that they asked, “Where does he get all this wisdom and the power to work these miracles? Isn’t he the son of the carpenter? Isn’t Mary his mother, and aren’t James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? Don’t his sisters still live here in our town? How can he do all this?” So the people were very unhappy because of what he was doing. But Jesus said, “Prophets are honored by everyone, except the people of their hometown and their own family.” And because the people did not have any faith, Jesus did not work many miracles there. (Matthew 13:53-58)
We find the same sad shades of envy in Beppe and the people of Nazareth. They do not think themselves blessed by the nearness of Jesus’ amazing talents. They are sad and angry. Those gifts of God were given to someone of no account among them: “the carpenter’s son,” a nobody, a mere neighbor. It is easy to condemn the envious mediocrity of the neighbors of Nazareth but one has to ask why they are so upset at something so obviously good happening in their midst.
The problem is sin.
After falling into sin, our father Adam experienced the same confusing shame when God visited the Garden of Eden.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ (Genesis 3:8-10)
When God shows up in our neighborhood, we can only think how unprepared we are, how naked our own miserable life is compared God’s perfection. It takes true humility even to accept God’s gifts in others. That is why so many saints have been persecuted, from St. Stephen to Padre Pio; Christian men of God have endured a lot of suffering at the hands of their own. Jesus was the first, and all those who follow Christ sincerely will get their share of divine gifts but also the sufferings of the Cross. There is no Pentecost without Calvary.
Today we live in a world that is turning more and more anti-Christian. Our global civilization is trying to shape a culture without Christ. The effort is failing badly. The world is more prosperous and technologically advanced than ever and yet it is not a happy world. Victor David Hanson mentioned in a recent interview that an ordinary worker could afford to drive a Kia that will give them a better ride than a Mercedes Benz would thirty years ago. And yet, he may be unhappy because he cannot get to drive a more expensive Lexus. In the same manner, the simple happiness of a Christian life bothers this world. The revelation of Jesus as a great prophet bothered the people of Nazareth. They could see something was missing in their lives.
No amount of money, sex, entertainment, or fame seem to satisfy mankind. They are beginning to get the notion that perhaps they are pursuing a shifting illusion. Many of them are bothered when they contemplate the simple happiness of true Christians. The presence of Christ reveals the uselessness of their shiny trinkets to achieve true and lasting happiness.
Christ comes to this world to give us those things that will really make us truly happy. The first encounter of that marvelous gift among the familiar things in our life can shock us. It is meant to shock us. Our reaction should not be like that of the people of Nazareth. We should react to Jesus’ presence in the same way Thomas the Apostle did by surrendering to the reality of Christ’s resurrection exclaiming: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
The lesson? Make sure to happily honor the prophet, even if he happens to be your next door neighbor. He may be Christ in disguise coming to give you wonderful gifts. Don’t chase him away.