Do people change? It’s an age-old question, and one which has invited great debates over the years. I think most of us would love to believe that we can, and do – but you’ll find plenty of cynics who’ll tell you that people don’t, or can’t.
The answer to the question, as is so often the case, is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. There are fundamental things about ourselves which we can’t change, including some basic personality wiring and our human temptation to be selfish (or to use the biblical language, our capacity to sin). These things we carry with us, they are part of what makes us both wonderfully unique and universally human… but in other ways, people can, and do, change. It is possible to grow and flourish, to develop capacities we didn’t realise we had, or traits we lacked when we were younger.
In 2003 Paula Radcliffe set a record for the women’s marathon which stood for nearly two decades – until Brigid Kosgei bettered it in 2019, it was over a minute quicker than any other woman had ever run the marathon. By any measure it was a remarkable achievement: and yet, this is the same Paula Radcliffe who finished 299th at the World U13 cross country championships fifteen years before that. By sheer hard work and dedication, she took a reasonable gift and turned it into a world beating one. She changed.
And in today’s passage, Jesus returns to his home town – the place where he grew up, where the older folk might still remember him as ‘little Jesus with the grubby knees.’ And they just can’t get their heads around the authoritative public figure they see before them: ‘Isn’t this…?’ In fact, their scepticism is a form of inverted snobbery: ‘Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?’ – in other words: ‘Do people like that really become rabbis and prophets?’
For Jesus it was a case of familiarity breeding contempt. And much ink has been spilt on verse 5: is Jesus’ capacity to do miracles really linked to the amount of faith we have? Or to put it another way, is our capacity to be healed really all about us, rather than God? I think not: Jesus makes it clear later that faith the size of a (tiny) mustard seed is enough: it’s not so much that he physically couldn’t do miracles, but that he couldn’t sanctify their contempt of him. And as far as we know, Jesus never returned to Nazareth after this sad episode.
Let’s never make God too small! Whilst we all need to stay close to Jesus, and to be at ease in his presence, let’s remember who he is. We need a big Jesus today: in our lives, in our world. And the good news is that this Jesus is plenty big enough: big enough not just for our salvation, but for all we need in the spiritual life. May God open our eyes to the awesomeness of Jesus once again.