Coming to His hometown, He began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.” And He did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.
Matt 13:53-58, NIV
Jesus was a carpenter and the ‘son of a carpenter’ – a term with which He was mocked by people in His hometown. Seemingly, the things that made the people of Nazareth NOT appreciate Him, were the things which were so honest and good in Him, and ironically, those things to which they would have had a front row seat as He grew up.
Every time I think about Jesus in this natural setting, I become more and more humbled by the simple idea that God came to earth to RELATE to us, not to lord over us. Just imagine with me for a minute: think of a mud and brick – more mud than brick – home with a small workshop out back in the shadow of the mountains to the northwest. One of the most natural sounds in the world reverberates out from the back workshop: hammering – which is interspersed with a whistled tune, perhaps an ancient Psalm or Song of Ascent that is much more relevant to the whistler than even the Israelites who wrote it six or seven-hundred years before. The young Jesus would be covered in sawdust; His hands riddled with wounds from splinters and split calluses.
In fact, there wouldn’t be much to separate His carpentry shop from every other carpentry shop in the Middle East … beyond the man who administered it. And that’s why the trade of the Messiah is so brilliant: He didn’t incarnate as an emperor, king, lord, general or even as a successful businessman, scholar, or explorer. He came as a humble carpenter … and blended in with His surroundings, nearly unknown for the first thirty years of His life (bar a powerful interaction with the scribes on a trip to Jerusalem when a boy). There is speculation that Joseph – his human father – died when Jesus was a teenager, which meant that the little carpentry He – as the firstborn son – had learned when Joseph died became the difference between life and starvation for His family. So why didn’t this increased responsibility – firmly met – combined with the natural empathy, kindness and love He exuded, give Him some credibility with those in Nazareth when He visited the town again halfway through His ministry?
From our perspective – from the little we know (which, no doubt, is all we need to know) – He should have been easily thought of as a normal member of the community; or perhaps even been granted some level of respect for His success in the outside world. Sure, people might have thought Him weird because He was so nice (I often think that people who are inordinately friendly or pleasant are kind of weird – even if it’s not a bad thing), but they wouldn’t have thought Him necessarily “out-of-place” or certainly not someone at whom they should “take offense.” But they did. Why?
Jesus had left Nazareth to start His ministry somewhere around a year earlier and I’m sure that stories of His fame from healing and teaching had filtered back into His hamlet ahead of His return. So you start to maybe get a picture of why He wasn’t accepted. Here are a few potential reasons:
He was too familiar. He had become such a part of the landscape while growing up in Nazareth that He disappeared into the scenery. Have you ever had a piece of furniture that you never use and never look at in a room? But all of a sudden someone else moves the piece and the next time you walk in to the room you’re thrown off … as if something isn’t right? Or perhaps you go to the same coffee shop for years on end, every day at the same time? You would start to notice certain other frequent visitors and the only way you interact with them is to maybe nod in their direction each morning when you enter. Then, all of a sudden, they’re gone and somehow it leaves the shop a little off-kilter? Or maybe there is a sound of the air conditioning unit humming in the background of your home all summer? As soon as autumn finally hits, or the air conditioner goes belly-up from overuse, the hum is gone and THAT’S when you notice it? That’s how it would have been for the Nazarenes with Jesus. He had been a part of the scenery; little attention had been paid to Him. He had been background noise for thirty years and His neighbors never noticed Him until He was gone.
His return would probably have been just as unwelcome as the hum of a recently-fixed air conditioner that had been offline; annoying to the Nazarenes regardless of the relief brought by His teaching.
He was saying things they didn’t want to hear. No doubt Jesus came into their synagogues with the same message He had delivered in other towns. Phrases like, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” and “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth,” and “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles,” probably wouldn’t have gone over any better in His hometown than they did in Jerusalem, Capernaum or Jericho.
The proud religiosity of the Jews that He met in Jerusalem would have been echoed in the more rural confines of Galilee. And perhaps, when combined with the naturally more conservative scenery of small-town anywhere, was even more pronounced and arrogant? The teaching of the Talmud would be read, re-read and memorized – forming the skeleton for the entire lifestyle of the community. Jesus’ teaching on rules and regulations being subordinate to the intentions of the heart, and love being more powerful and important than sacrifice, would have been verboten to the formulaic and ritualized Jewish community.
He was a carpenter … and the son of a carpenter. How can a carpenter be a great prophet? His trade was a barrier to the boyhood friends, family acquaintances and village elders who knew Him when His scandalized mother and father rode into town on their donkey. He had built plows and tables for His neighbors and acquaintances, but where was His authority to lecture and sermonize? The tradesman that they knew could never have been seen as a great philosopher and teacher – much less the Messiah. The carpenter of Nazareth was expected to shape wood, not the hearts of men.
And so the community which had nurtured Jesus through His formative years became hostile to Him and to His message. It seems that familiarity does indeed breed contempt – particularly when it requires something so personal of us on a spiritual plane. The Nazarenes of Jesus’ day were the people who should havebeen the most familiar with the everyday love and kindness of the Messiah, but instead found themselves with a barrier to belief: Familiarity. It was a familiarity with Jesus’ origins (earthly origins, at least) which made His teaching and healing appear to be just so much posturing and airs by a carpenter with an ego problem. It was His simple, home-spun, normalcy which led to their lack of faith and hard hearts. And it was the acquaintance with Jesus’ skill with a saw and lathe that prevented their lives from being forever re-shaped by THE master craftsman.
This is one of those lessons which make me the most concerned about a potential lack of spiritual refinement. You see, when you have been raised to know the stories of Jesus backward and forward their familiarity can make them tedious. When you have been blessed to grow up with the song Jesus Loves Merepeated monotonously every Sunday morning, you can cease to appreciate the import of the simple words. When you have prayed before every meal, bedtime, school test and big sports game (let’s be honest, God really DOES care about whether Liverpool FC wins), you can grow lackadaisical about entering the throne room of God. The familiarity breeds a spiritual contempt – not necessarily a contempt of God (I hope not at least!), but a contempt, or careless attitude, toward what He is capable of doing.
I’m not saying that living a life of familiarity with God is bad – that somehow living with God so close is a hindrance to knowing Him (far from it). But I am definitely saying that one of the greatest threats to seeing the actual Messiah is in only seeing the Messiah with whom you are comfortable and familiar.
So what is the solution? How do we experience Jesus of Nazareth as He really is?
What I find so compelling about the story in Nazareth is that the third barrier which we spoke about earlier – His trade – actually holds the key to everything. Carpenters are shapers of wood, builders of tools and homes, people who take the material created by God and shape it into something which can give and protect life for men. Jesus was a carpenter then in every sense of the word … whether before His three year ministry or after. And the two-plus decades of carpentry in Nazareth clouded the vision for the Nazarenes to see – really see – Jesus’ three years of shaping, molding and building lives.
Therefore, our solution to a tendency toward complacency grown from monotony, or staleness from familiarity, is to be continually watching for the shaping of lives by the hands of the Master Carpenter. God has grown people, just like treescut down for lumber, to be something more when given into His hands. He takes the unrefined, coarse wood of lives given over to Him and He slowly, carefully and purposefully trims, sands and molds that material into a useful tool to bring other souls to Him as well as into a home in which His Spirit may dwell. We can see these changes in the lives of those around us and we can tune our hearts to accept His skilled hand in molding us as well. The familiarity of a story told and re-told a hundred times, or a song sung and re-sung a thousand times does not have to be a barrier to understanding, but a vehicle for it. The closeness of Jesus as our neighbor and friend does not have to lead to a cross-eyed ambiguity, but to clarity on righteousness. And the simple trade of the carpenter does not have to be a hurdle to be cleared, but a clear avenue for a greater and more intimate relationship with the One who formed us from the beginning. A refocus from that which we expect to see from Jesus to that which He is doing, is the key to seeing and appreciating the true Master Carpenter.