The Danger of Familiarity and Why We Need to Hear the Gospel Again

“He went to His hometown and began to teach them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, “How did this wisdom and these miracles come to Him? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t His mother called Mary, and His brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, aren’t they all with us? So where does He get all these things?” And they were offended by Him.
But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his household.” And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.” (Matthew 13:54-58)

This story, at the end of Matthew 13, brings us almost to the end of the narrative we’ve been tracing — the story of Jesus and the crowds, with questions giving way to conflict, giving way to rejection, giving way to the separation of Jesus’s followers from everyone else as expressed in the switch from straightforward teaching to parables.

Then, at last, Jesus went home and began to teach there. And the rejection was swift and, sadly, not really unusual. Jesus responded to it not with a parable but with a proverb, a short, pithy statement that simply expressed what so many people already know: that it’s often hardest to be seen by those who have been looking at you all your life.

A Prophet in His Hometown

I think it’s striking that in Jesus’s hometown, when he began to preach within the community where he’d grown up — surrounded by family friends and relatives — he was quickly rejected, but not for the same reasons the crowds rejected him.

The hometown crowd didn’t push him to do miracles (they were actually a little offended that he did them at all). They didn’t trot out theological arguments like the Pharisees or accuse him of being demon possessed. They didn’t covertly push him to declare himself Messiah and start a violent revolution.

They were just offended that he’d gotten above his station.

They’d seen him, all his life, through a lens — the lens of his relatives, his neighborhood, his trade. They saw the dirt where he played as a child and where his family had always been rooted. They remembered when his voice changed and his limbs got too long for him. They owned furniture he made when he worked in the shop with Joseph.

They’d known him forever. So when he began to speak wisdom and work miracles, they thought they saw through him.

The truth was they didn’t see him at all.

Jesus’s Humanity on Display (Again)

Out of all the stories in this part of Matthew, this one strikes me most for its humanity. Jesus’s experience in Nazareth is just such a common one. Almost everyone who leaves home for a period of time and then comes back finds there is a mismatch between who they used to be and who they are now — or, more to the point, who they’ve always been seen to be and who they are now.

In that situation, most of us, at least once, will have someone rise up and try to put us back in our place. It might be a parent, a sibling, a neighbor, an old friend, an elder at church. For that matter, most of us will do it to others as well.

Why do we do this to each other? I don’t really know. Maybe because growth and change are inherently threatening, even though they are positive things. Maybe because if others feel that they don’t know who you are and how you fit anymore, then they can’t be sure of themselves or their place either.

In any case, we all see each other through lenses. In our hometowns, the lens may have little to do with us and a lot to do with our family of origin, or our neighborhood, or our alma mater. Remember, Nazareth had a reputation as a little backwater nothing town — according to John, it was so unimportant that there was a saying, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” That kind of thing gets under the skin of a whole neighborhood. It imprints on DNA. It forms lenses. And when we show up back in the hood undeniably not what the lens says we are, people may reject us rather than change their lens.

It’s hard and it’s sad. And it happened to Jesus.

When Familiarity Breeds Unbelief

The saddest part of this story comes at the end, where Matthew tells us that Jesus didn’t do many miracles in Nazareth because of their unbelief. He came to them with the power of God to heal, deliver, and redeem, but they rejected all he could have been and done for them because they wanted to cling to a lesser version of who he was. Their own egos needed him to stay small. They allowed their familiarity with him to breed unbelief, and it cut them off from the God they needed.

In Nazareth, Jesus himself was the treasure hidden in a field, unmarked and unseen. He was the pearl of great price on display in the market, overlooked by all but those with eyes to see.

Taking Another Look

In our day, one of the greatest strikes against the gospel’s effectiveness is that it is just so familiar to so many of us. Jesus, in a way, is from our neighborhood. This is especially true for those of us who grew up in church. As children in the Christmas pageant, we put on bathrobes and wore tea towels on our heads and declared “Joy to the World, the Lord Has Come!” We played dumb games in youth group and fell asleep during sermons and got saved at camp three years in a row. But even those whose families weren’t churchgoers have still picked up elements of the gospel just because it’s in our cultural waters, even if those elements are routinely treated negatively. Moreover, in our adult lives we’ve had occasion to be offended, hurt, and disappointed by other Christians and by what we expected of God. We are familiar with the faith, and our familiarity has collected baggage.

The danger is that our familiarity will breed unbelief. The danger is that we’ll look right at the pearl of great price and fail to see its value. We will hear the great creeds of the church and the true songs of worship and the promises of the Word and we won’t notice that all of the answers to our deepest and most profound longings and needs are right there, in those things.

My challenge to you and to me is this: today, if we hear the voice of God speaking to us in the time-honored tones of the gospel, let’s not harden our hearts. Let’s lean in. Let’s ask God to make it all strange and unfamiliar again, to jar us and jolt us with the power of it.

Let’s ask for the grace to look at Jesus, the kid from the neighborhood, and see the Son of God.

We need him, and our old lenses are not worth hanging onto.

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This is Part 229 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

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