This Sunday I would like to address a common problem: How to handle insults or put downs. St. Paul speaks about being “content” with “insults...persecutions and constraints.” I am not in his ball park - and I don’t imagine most of you are. Cruel words can stay with us for a long time. I have seen that when people come for confession or counseling. Often a past offense from a family member or in-law continues to rankle - sometimes for years.
I wish I had a magic solution to the problem of resentment. If I did, I would apply it to my own soul. The other day - right in the middle of Mass - I recalled an offense from several years back. I continued on with the prayers, but was thinking about the person who deliberately humiliated me, what I wish I would have said to her and how, even now, I would like to get some sort of pay back. I realized that my inner rage was totally inappropriate to what I was doing at the time, that I was only hurting myself and that no doubt the enemy was egging me on. If I were to tell you the exact nature of the put-down, you would surely say I was being over sensitive, that it happened a long time ago and I should forget about it. You are right - but can you tell me you have not done the same thing?*
Ironically, it seems easier to let go of a bigger offense than it is to write off what appears a minor put down. Once a young man stole my wallet. Even though he violently ripped the wallet from me, I did not feel a great resentment. In fact, I actually felt a bit sorry for him. On the other hand, that lady’s haughty put down still burns in my memory.
Why her words had such an effect, I am not entirely sure. I can usually take criticism in stride, even welcome it - especially when it comes from parishioners and other people I care about. Nevertheless in the case of this lady, it was different. I can remember the scene to this day, even though it happened in a minor context. I would use this comparison: A guy might gash his leg while hiking and barely notice it, but a paper cut can sting like crazy. Little things may lodge in our hearts and grow into full blown resentment.
It is sometimes hard to let go of a deliberate put down. Jesus has a lot to teach us in today’s Gospel. It took courage to open himself up to his fellow townspeople. He amazed them by his teaching, but at the same time they could not help pointing out his lack of credentials. You can hear the tone in their voices as they ask, “Is he not the carpenter?”
The Navarre Bible translates the word “carpenter” as “craftsman.” Jesus probably did not build homes. He was a craftsman, a person who works in a shop joining wood together to make stools or tables. Jesus chose to exercise a fairly humble profession. His townsmen used that against him. It would be like someone today giving a talk about maintaining good health. However, instead of responding to what he said, people start saying, “You are no doctor, are you? Aren’t you just a mechanic?” That was the tone of the Nazarenes: “Who does Jesus think he is? Some sort of Scripture scholar or rabbi? Is he not the carpenter?”
We can learn a lot from how Jesus responds to this put-down. First, he recognizes the psychology at work in their resistance to him. He did know the Scriptures in depth and realized that other prophets had not received a warm welcome in their home territory. When people engage in put downs, it usually says more about them than the people they criticize. Nevertheless, the words can sting.
Besides placing the offense in its proper context, Jesus does something more. He re-focused his attention. Realizing the needs of people beyond his home town, he went to them. That is what I should have done when, in the middle of Mass, I recalled a past hurt. I had people right in front of me who required my attention, not to mention the Lord who had become present in the sacred elements. I eventually got back on track, but it took a while. Jesus, recognizing an obstacle in front of him, simply walked around it. He had a mission to accomplish. So do you and I.
In his book, Migrations and Cultures, Thomas Sowell gives a remarkable example of people staying on track. The book has a fascinating chapter on Italian immigrants. Wherever they went - Australia, United States, Brazil, and so on - the Italians followed a similar pattern. Mainly young single men, they left southern Italy with this goal: to earn enough money to purchase property and to help their family back home. The natives often looked down on them and even taunted them, but the Italians took little notice. Although their jobs offered very low pay, they lived so frugally that they were able to save a significant part of their earnings. An Italian American named Amadeo Giannini understood their frugality and established a bank for them: the Bank of Italy. Serving Italian immigrants, it became one of the biggest financial institutions in the country. The bank eventually changed its name. It is now called the Bank of America. The point here is not that those Italian immigrants were great saints, but they did something you and I can imitate. They kept focused on their goal; they did not allow insults and offenses to derail them.
We can learn from others, like certain immigrants, who press ahead in spite of derision. The greatest example, of course, is Jesus. He not only bore offenses, he offers us the grace which heals wounds. When I remember someone who put me down, I need to first recall my own need for forgiveness. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Come to think about it, Mass was not a bad time to remember the person who had injured me. Here I was, standing on Mount Calvary. What I needed to do was to place my hurt at the foot of the cross. To take our hurts to Jesus is one of the best things we can do when we come to Mass. But we need to leave them there. Jesus has already born all human offenses. In him we can experience true freedom. He is the carpenter, the craftsman who can chip away what is useless - and bring out our true potential. Come to him.
*I remember a guy telling me how fortunate he is because, when someone irritates him, he will get mad, but will quickly forget it. Rightly after telling me this, he told about a biting comment someone had made to him many years ago. Nietzsche got it right when he said that resentment is the driving force of human history. Only Christ can break the cycle.
From Archives (Homilies for 14th Sunday, Year B):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Parish Security, Shakespeare Festival, Soccer Field, Myths about Pharmacy in Washington State)
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus on the immigration debate. And don't miss his comments on the Britney Spears statue.
Also, I just finished his new book Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, And the Splendor of Truth and recommend it highly.
Mark Shea explains hell to an atheist