3-The Narareth of Jesus: when God humanizes himself

 People sometimes say to us, “But the Gospel says nothing – or almost nothing – about the years Jesus spent at Nazareth.  So how can you take Nazareth as a reference for life?”  It is true that the Gospels are more than discreet, but the little they say is very significant and has not been included by chance.  That is an additional reason to look at it closely.  Let us note the few elements that are given to us:
A –     The Old Testament never mentions Nazareth, when so many towns and villages are named… Nazareth and Galilee therefore are deeply despised as places that are without significance in the history of salvation: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asks (John 1:46); “Go into the matter and see for yourself: prophets do not arise in Galilee” the Pharisees say to Nicodemus, who defends Jesus (John 7:52).
     For the religious groups, the circles of power, the doctors and the educated, Jesus is a man from below and from the margin.  Certainly they do not have a better opinion of him than of those who follow him: “This rabble knows nothing about the law, they are damned!” (John 7:49) – the TOB translates it as “This mass... ”).   He is exposed without special protection, a simple pawn on the political chessboard in the eyes of the notables (“You do not seem to have grasped the situation at all; you fail to see that it is to your advantage that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish!” John 11:50), he takes on, right to the end, the situation as a man from the ordinary people and this leads him to death.  The Gospel clearly indicates that here there is a revelation of the face of God and of his way of doing things: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father who would promptly send more than twelve legions of angels to my defence?  But then how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say this is the way it must be?” (Matthew 26:53ff; cf. John 11:51f).
     So it is then very moving to think that everything that Jesus said to us, about God, about people, about relations between God and people, was thought out and felt by someone from this great “mass”, this ordinary crowd, scorned and suspected by the experts and the great.  His words are the words of a “little one”, of someone who has integrated into his personality the scorn that others have for his own people.  I find that we do not marvel at this enough!  It should make us read his words, about the merciful Father or the Samaritan for instance, with different eyes...  A mysterious attitude of God who takes on, not humanity in general, but this precise humanity, doubtless because he judged it better able to express correctly who God is and what God wants!  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
B - The offering by Mary and Joseph, at the time of the presentation of Jesus, is the offering of those who “cannot afford a lamb” (Leviticus 12:6-8), thus a modest family, but there are doubtless families who are even poorer (Leviticus 5:11).
     When Jesus begins to teach and do miracles, the people of Nazareth are shocked, scandalised (Matthew 13:58): “Where did the man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?  This is carpenter’s son, surely?  Is not his mother the woman called Mary, and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Jude?  His sisters, too, are they not all here with us?  So where did the man get it all?”  And even the people of Jerusalem: “How did he learn to read? He has not been educated."  (John 7:15).
     The answer to their questions is indicated in the Gospel, and it shines with light: “They went back to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  And the child grew to maturity, he was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with him”.  We find this formula twice – in Luke 2:39f after the presentation of Jesus in the temple, and in Luke 2:51f, after the story of Jesus being lost and found in the Temple among the teachers.  On two occasions, after two scenes that take place in the Temple, we are presented with Nazareth as a place of growth and grace, and as a school of wisdom.  It is all the more remarkable that these texts in Luke make reference to the story of the child Samuel (Luke 2:52 is a quotation of 1 Samuel 2:26).  But for Samuel, it is stated several times that his place of growth in the service of God is the Temple (1 Samuel 2:11, 18, 21 and 26 and 1 Samuel 3).  So it is very significant and certainly very intentional that Luke takes up the same expression in order to bring out better that radical difference and the newness of Jesus’ situation: his place of growth, in stature and in strength and wisdom, was Nazareth.  Luke emphasises this: in the scene with Jesus in the midst of the doctors, Jesus is surprised: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”(Luke 2:49)  Our logic would be to say, “Yes, of course, he will remain in the Temple: that is his Father’s house, isn’t it?”  The Gospel, however, says that his parents did not understand and that he went down with them to Nazareth: “he lived under their authority and he increased in wisdom, in stature and in favour with God and with people” (v.51-52).  Of course he needed to be with his Father, but in the astonished eyes of his parents, Jesus discovered that being with his Father meant being with them at Nazareth, being the Son of the Most High means being subjected to them.
     So for him, growing in stature and wisdom was something that happened at Nazareth, or in other words in the school of simple people and ordinary life, through his family relationships and relationships in the village, at the synagogue, at work, observing life, people, and nature while listening.
     All that is for me the most important thing about Nazareth, the key: Nazareth is the place where God humanises himself, where the Son of God becomes man.  To state it in big words, Nazareth is the sociological location of the Incarnation; to say it in simpler words, if he had been born into a priestly family, or with a father who was a scribe or doctor of the Law, his words and his personality would have been very different.  He speaks to us of the Father with the words of a peasant of Galilee.  It is important to be aware of that: we read that “the Word was made flesh” and thinking about it, this immerses us in contemplation; but the Word was made this particular flesh, a Galilean of Nazareth, and that also should immerse us in wonder.  Why do you think that Jesus cried out one day, “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to little ones. [...] No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Matthew 11:25ff)? He cried out because he had had the experience of this wisdom himself.  And the Son who reveals is “the divine worker of Nazareth” to go back to the expression used by Charles de Foucauld.  
     So what is important is not so much to imagine what the life of Jesus at Nazareth was like, but to scrutinise in the Gospel what Jesus learned at Nazareth and the kind of man he became there.  And why is that very important?  Because if that context of life with simple people was the nourishing terrain which formed Jesus, I am permitted to think that with the same terrain and the same Spirit that animated Jesus (a Spirit that he promised and gave to us), Nazareth could also be for me the place of growth and discovery “before God and before people”.
     I have said there what is at the heart, but we are not finished yet because I would like to make a rapid tour with you through the Gospel in order to identify exactly what kind of man Nazareth formed.  It is inspiring to re-read the Gospel while trying to note what Jesus received from “the school of Nazareth”.  We will always discover new elements. Let us take up some of them:
+    Formed in prayer by the family liturgy and prayer of the synagogue, Jesus developed a very intimate and very special relationship with God, whom he called “Abba, daddy”.  One sees all through the Gospel that he nourished this relationship by taking time to pray to his Father and speak with him: he got up early (Mark 1:35) or else he remained late in the evening (Matthew 14:23).  He isolated himself and people looked for him (John 6:24).  It was a relationship that was always awake, that one sees sprang up spontaneously in the face of events and encounters (Matthew 11:25f; John 11:41) and which must also have had a discreet expression in the secret of the heart, because he learned that “the Father sees in secret” (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18).
+    Probably because he had the experience of the look of contempt directed to the “little people” and to himself, he always brought forward the value of the little ones: “Your Father does not want a single one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14).  Similarly, he did not tolerate at all anything that excluded, anything that created categories resulting from origin and social situation: while they were unclean and everyone fled from them, he approached lepers and touched them, thus contracting their uncleanness (Mark 1:40-45); he let himself be touched by the woman with a bad reputation whom everyone pointed at (Luke 7:36ff); he admired the faith of the pagans he encountered, and even declared it to be greater than the faith he saw in Israel (Luke 7:9; Matthew 15:28).
+    He had, in particular, a manner very much his own of looking at those whom everyone considers as sinners: a look of respect which refused to condemn and always referred the accuser to his own conscience (“Let the one among you who is guiltless to throw the first stone at her” John 8:7; “How can you claim to see the speck in your brother’s eye with the beam that is in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3; “Shouldn’t you have mercy on your brother as I have had mercy on you?” Matthew 18:33); a look of hope which glimpsed an open future (“Go and sin no more” John 8:11; “There is hope for the sick man as soon as the doctor approaches” cf Mark 2:17; “The son who was dead can come back to life” cf Luke 15:32).
+    He learned to see the simple everyday things as messengers which spoke to him of his Father.  Looking at things and events, he had a kind of contemplative view which saw further: “Look at the flowers of the fields and the birds of the sky and think of your Father who watches over you all” (Mark 6:28).  “Look at the grain which grows all alone and remember that the Kingdom grows little by little, even if we do not notice it” (Mark 4:27).  “Look at this woman who sweeps her whole house in order to find the coin that she has lost: that is how your Father searches for all those who are lost” (Luke 15:8f).  “Look at how the rain falls on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45), see how the wheat and the weeds grow at the same time (Matthew 13:24ff) and understand that the Father, who alone can say what is good or wicked, always opens an opportunity to come back to him. ”
+    It was mainly towards people that he had this view that went further and sees the heart.  Because he knew only too well that there was falseness (and contempt) in readymade ideas about people, and because he had experienced the spontaneous generosity of people who did not have very much, he knew how to draw attention to the true greatness and the true dignity of those men and women he encountered: as when he remarked on the tiny offering made by the poor widow who took something from her own wretched state in order to give everything, more than all the others together (Mark 12:41ff); or when he invited Simon to open his eyes: “This woman, do you really see her?  If she has loved so much, it is because she has been forgiven! ” (Luke 7:44).
+    One sees him always ready to learn from the others, to allow himself to be questioned, when he encounters righteousness and faith wherever they come from: from foreigners like the centurion (Luke 7:1-10) and the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28) – both of whom expressed themselves in the same language imagery as Jesus – or from his mother (John 2:1-11; cf. Luke 2:48-52) or from a scribe: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
+    He had an extreme sensitivity to the misfortunes of people, and in particular the poor.  Several times the Gospel notes that he was touched by compassion, sometimes even that he was deeply moved interiorly: in the face of the crowds who were like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36), in the face of the widow who buried her son at Nain (Luke 7:11ff), before the sick of all kinds, those who approached him or those towards to whom he made the approach (John 5:6).  This compassion gave him courage in the places where the world capitulates, as with the possessed Gadarene men (Matthew 8:28).
+    At Nazareth he gathered proverbs and stories, and he knew how to speak with the simple words of the people of the land.  He also observed the people and the “great ones”: the unjust judge (Luke 18:2ff), the rich man unaware of what was around him (Luke 16:19ff), the corrupt administrator (Luke 16:1ff), the priest and the Levite who were prisoners in their world (Luke 10:31)...  He knew the humiliation and suffering of the poor who were incapable of making an invitation (Luke 14:14).  He learned the daily good sense that made the simple people see the absurdities of the law when it was no longer at the service of life: “Who is going to make me believe that if his son or his ox fell into a well on the Sabbath Day, he would not go and pull them out because it was the Sabbath!” (Luke 14:5; 13:15f; cf. John 7:23; Matthew 15:1-5).  Like the simple people, he had a sense of what sounds false, and he was quick to point it out: what he reproached most often was hypocrisy.  One day, he struck out at the Pharisees who love money: “You pass yourselves off as just men, but God knows your hearts: what is raised up in the eyes of men, God is disgusted by!” (Luke 16:15).
+    Of course, this way of doing things didn’t earn him nothing but friends: he was told that he must be a drunkard, that he only thought about eating, that he only went around with disreputable people (Luke 5:30; 7:34; 15:2).  The Gospel often notes that the great ones used to grind their teeth at him while all the ordinary people were filled with joy by the words of mercy that came out of his mouth, and by the cures that he did (Luke 13:17; cf Luke 4:28; Matthew 15:31).

     It is interesting to note how the Gospel of John (which people say is more “contemplative”) stresses the theme of Nazareth.  At the beginning we find the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? ” (John 1:46).  At the end, in the writing above the cross, Pilate says ironically, “Jesus the Nazarene, king of the Jews” (John 19:19).  All that seems to support the sceptics.  However, in the likeness of a gardener, Mary recognised the voice of the Master; in the unknown man beside the lake, the beloved disciple recognised the Lord.  This is not a revenge, nor the end of a parenthesis: the Master and Lord had not taken on the likeness of a great person which he might have been hiding until then.  He remained Jesus of Nazareth, he still needed to be found in his ordinary form, by those that are his own: “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified; he is risen, he is not here [...] He has gone before you ... into Galilee, that is where you will see him” (Mark 16:6f).
     I do not know if you have the same reaction, but for me this reading of the Gospel fills me with wonder.  And I feel “at home” in these texts, not only because they show me the face of Jesus, but also because behind each scene, behind each attitude Jesus has, I could put the names of people who, by their behaviour or reactions, have helped me to understand the word of God and decipher its mystery.
     I will add one more thing: that Jesus having taken on this face, and having been formed in this school, is also a revelation of the mystery of God.  We often say, in pious words.11, that at Nazareth God hid his divinity. But it is exactly the contrary: at Nazareth, God revealed his true face as God!  When God wants to tell us who he truly is, he takes the face of a simple man of Nazareth, this village unknown in the Bible, in a peripheral region, distanced from the Temple and the religious centres, far from Judea and the circles of power, “crossroads of the pagan nations” and contaminated by them.  It is as if to say to us, “Every discourse in religions and theologies has presented me as the Most High, the Wholly Other, the All-powerful, the Absolute, the Separated One, etc.  But these terms are only true if you agree to empty them of their usual meaning!  And you would be closer to my reality – which, in any case, no words can translate – if you were to call me also the Most Low, the Wholly Close, the One who involves himself with you, the Servant”.  We have an unambiguous confirmation when Jesus affirms very clearly: “You call me Master and Lord, and rightly, for so I am; but I am a master and lord who washes your feet; and if you want to be mine, you also must act in the same way as me.” (cf John 13:13f).
     So yes, we can say to God, “The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory are yours” on condition that we do not forget that his royalty is proclaimed in the writing on the cross, and recognised by a man condemned to death, the royalty of a Nazarene who gives his life when it seems that it is taken from him; that his power is that of the friend who begs for the renewed love of the one who has betrayed him (his betrayal was, precisely, “I have nothing to do with this Nazarene” Matthew 26:71ff).
     At Nazareth, it is not only the being of God that is clarified with a new light; it is also his action, his way of doing things.  He no longer presents himself as the one who saves “from outside”, “with a strong hand and arm outstretched”.  The Bible always stressed this mysterious preference of God for the poor, the despised: “When a poor man calls, the Lord hears!” (Psalm 34:6).  With Jesus at Nazareth, this preference is expressed in a new way: although he is still the one who “collects our tears in his bottle” (Psalm 56:8), it is “from within” by weeping them with us.  “He took our infirmities on himself” (Matthew 8:17), the Gospel says, after the account of a series of cures; but he took them on, before all else, in his own flesh: “he was tested in every way that we are”, and “he is not ashamed to call us ‘brothers’ ” (Hebrews 4:15 and 2:11).  It is the whole concrete nature of his life as a Nazarene (at Nazareth, on the roads and on the cross), everything that made him “like his brothers is every way” which made him “a merciful high priest, capable of making the expiation for the sins of the people; it is because he suffered trials himself that he is able to bring help to those who are tried” (Hebrews 2:17f).12, not just help in the form of cures and miracles, but the radical help of transplanting into us the life of God.

11. See for instance the Handbook of the lay fraternities of Charles de Foucauld page 35, §D, 4th line…
12. The letter to the Hebrews names Jesus “High Priest”; but it is remarkable that to do so, it has to “empty” the word “High Priest” of its usual meaning: in the First Testament, to signify that the High Priest was “in the world of God”, he had to be different and separated from the rest of the people (special dress, special meals, etc.); Jesus at the contrary is called High Priest because of his proximity and likeness to the people, and that proximity to his ‘brothers and sisters’ introduces him in “the world of God”…