Today’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus preached in the synagogue in Nazareth, His townsfolk were initially very impressed and were astonished by His gracious words that came from His lips. These initial adulation were clearly superficial and did not bring any deep conversion of their hearts because they could not see Jesus beyond Him being the “son of Joseph, the carpenter” whom they knew.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, when the townsfolk of Jesus “boxed Jesus into being Joseph’s son, their minds were darkened and prejudiced by their narrow understanding of who Jesus is, and their hearts could no longer be receptive to the graces of Salvation that Jesus was proclaiming to them. Do we too have such darkened minds and non-receptive hearts about people we know or think we know or worse still don’t even know, but make harsh judgments about them?
There is a true story of Lizzie Velasquez who was born with a rare disease that makes it impossible for her to gain weight. However, a few years ago this was what Lizzie shared happened, which I have adapted for the purpose of our homily. Lizzie shared, “I was sitting at home and I wanted to listen to music on youtube. On the right-hand corner of my computer screen, I happen to notice a picture that looked familiar; it was a picture of me at 11 years old. (This is how she looks).
So, I clicked on it; not knowing that me clicking on this little picture would change my life completely. It was a defining moment of my life. To my horror, the video was entitled, “The World’s Ugliest Woman.”
I like you to imagine how I felt at that time, if you were me . . . And as I scrolled down the video, and clicked “play” there was no music. In spite of the video not having any sound, there were more than 4 million people who had watched this video, and were calling me the “World’s Ugliest Woman.”
I literally felt like people were putting their hands through the computer and punching me over and over and over again. And when I scrolled down further, there were thousands upon thousands of comments about me. I sat there and I read every single one of them; and what really saddened me deeply was that NOT a single comment was positive!
These comments ranged from people telling me to do the world a favour and just put a gun to my head; some were suggesting that when I were to walk out of my house, be sure to put a bag over my head, because people fear they are going to go blind from seeing my ugliness. Still others were giving me tips on how to kill myself. I couldn't understand how people would be saying such awful things and not think that one day I could stumble upon them.
My confidence level sunk to a rock bottom; my fears quickly turned to anger. I felt like writing back to each of the comments and just want to make them feel bad for hiding behind a computer screen, and writing about someone whom they don't even know. But, if I did that, there will be a never-ending battle that is going to prove nothing, except lowering myself to one of those people that had hid behind a computer screen. And to do this is not how I was raised to be.
Lizzie Velasquez with her family
It was my faith, my family and my friends who rescued me. And yes I am still learning. I know that God is helping me tell you something . . . I could keep asking God, “Why me . . . and many other questions, but I realise that I had to stop asking “Why” because God has a reason to allow things to happen . . . and we have to basically just lay down all our needs and problems and let God take care of us. God really knows how to help us get through all our needs . . . And so, whenever I do things I now get excited because I know that God is going to be there to help me. He is going to be there to pick me up when I'm down and lift me even higher when I'm excited. I'll tell you right now that if in everything you start saying, “Thank you God, all your answers will come to you . . .”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, I hope none of us here were part of the list of those thousands who condemned Lizzie, and if we did, we would be worse than the townsfolk of Jesus. Indeed, we would have committed a grave sin against a precious daughter of God whose dignity is not based on how she looks physically. Likewise, when the townsfolk of Jesus were darkened with prejudice at seeing Jesus as only the son of Joseph, they were cutting themselves from the graces of Salvation that Jesus was offering them.
And so Jesus reprimanded them. He asserted that “No Prophet is ever accepted in his own country.” And to reinforce the point, Jesus highlighted how even though a great famine raged throughout Israel, the Prophet Elijah was sent to serve the need of a non-Israelite; a widow at Zarephath. Moreover, even as there were many lepers who were suffering grievously in Israel, Propher Elisha was sent to cure a non-Israelite leper, Naaman a Syrian general.
If I were to ask you, what is the half of “8”? All of us would immediately say “4”. Yes, while this is true, we could also say that if we were to “slice” the number “8” horizontally, then actually half of “8” is actually two “0”s. Likewise, if we were to slice the number “8” vertically, then again the half of “8” is actually not “4”but, two “3”s! My brothers and sisters in Christ, while this illustration may sound simple and for some of us even childish, the point we are making here is that, like the townsfolk of Jesus, we can so easily fall into the trap of being locked into our narrow perceptions of things and people. And in so doing, we can end up condemning them, just because they are not what we think they are.
Jesus’ townsfolk precisely fell into such a trap and were reprimanded by Jesus for not being open to the gift of the Good News of Salvation that He had proclaimed to them. Lizzie’s internet users who condemned her for being the “Ugliest Woman in the World” have committed a grave sin because Lizzie is more than simply her looks. Lizzie is first and foremost a child of God, and we and the rest of humanity are her brothers and sisters and she deserves everyone’s respect. But, if we choose to live by our prejudices and non-acceptance of others as they are then, relationships will become tense, working with others will become conflicting, and forgiving others will become impossible. Indeed, if we are not careful, we may end up living a life that is full of ourselves instead of being filled with the Holy Spirit.
With this in mind, I would like to conclude with a poem that captures this truth that may happen to us in different ways, if we are not careful:
Six humans trapped by happenstance
In black and bitter cold
Each one possessed a stick of wood,
Or so the story is told.
Their dying fire in need of logs,
The first woman held hers back
For on the faces around the fire
She noticed one was black
The next man looking across the way
Saw not one of his church,
And could not bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch
The third one sat in tattered clothes
And gave his coat a hitch
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?
The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy, shiftless poor
The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.
And the last man of this forlorn group
Did naught except for gain
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.
The logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without,
They died from the cold within.
(Adapted from: Happiness Manufacturers, Hedwig Lewis, S.J.; pub.: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash; 2001; pp.124-125.)
(Adapted from: The Sower’s Seeds; by Brian Cavanaugh, T.O.R.; Paulist Press: 1990; pp. 23-24.)
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
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