Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Matthew 13:53-58


Is there something of which you are so familiar that it seems boring? Maybe there is an amazing truth out there that you have heard so many times that you are now sick of it. Maybe a great song or poem that you have heard one too many times. Maybe a person who gets into your life just a little bit too much. In those cases, familiarity breeds contempt. We can certainly see that in the case of Jesus when He went back to His hometown, the people He grew up with were so familiar with Him that they thought they knew Him. They thought they knew his family and His place of origin. This put blinkers on their eyes so that there was no way they would accept Jesus or His works.

Jesus has just finished telling a whole bunch of parables. These parables are difficult to understand, and that is on purpose. Jesus does not speak primarily to unbelievers, but to believers. Unbelievers will not understand the parables unless the Holy Spirit enlightens him. For our purposes, we can remember that some of these parables talk about the fact that the kingdom of God is hidden. When Jesus goes back to His hometown, He is hidden indeed: He is hidden in the very familiarity with which His fellow townsmen view Him. He is hidden in plain sight, as it were. And this hiddenness causes rejection.

After Jesus finished those parables, He went on from there and went to His home town of Nazareth. He started to teach. Notice that Matthew says “their synagogue.” There is already some distance between Jesus and the disciples, on the one hand, and the Jewish establishment, on the other hand. And when Jesus started teaching, that distance grew even greater. They were astonished at His teaching. This is not the good kind of happy astonishment. This is rather the angry, upset, and disconcerted kind of astonishment. We need to explain why they were astonished.

Jewish society in that day was strongly hierarchical. That means that there were levels of society. There were classes of people, one above another. Most of the people of Nazareth, however, came from the same social class. They would therefore assume that Jesus also came from their class. Rabbis did not come from that particular social class. So when Jesus starts to teach, they assume that He is putting on airs and thinking of Himself as better than anyone else because He is teaching. A person who was trying to achieve a higher social class was often thought to be demon-possessed, or at least using black arts to get there. So they ask the question of where Jesus’ power and authority come from. They do not deny that Jesus teaches with authority or that He does all these great miracles. They rather question the source from which that authority and power originate. Did such authority and power come from God, or from Satan? The people made the assumption that a higher class of people obviously has closer access to God and to God’s power. Since Jesus did not come from such a high class, then obviously His authority and power come from a different source, a dark, black source. Their social expectations led them into a blind box. Jesus did not fit their categories, and so He must be rejected.

Matthew is telling us here that rejection of Jesus is an equal opportunity employer. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or what social class you belong to, lots of people reject Jesus. And they had Jesus sitting there right in front of them! You know, people often think that if only they could see Jesus face to face, then they would have a great faith and they would believe in Him. This story tells us that such thinking is false. There is no way to believe in Jesus unless God gives you the faith. It doesn’t matter if Jesus was standing right in front of us, that would not guarantee that we would have faith. Our faith comes from a different source, a source about which these people obviously knew nothing.

A side note is necessary here. There are Christians who want to preserve the virginity of Mary, as if that somehow makes her more holy. And so they deny that Christ had any real brothers and sisters from the marriage of Mary and Joseph. They argue that James and Joseph, Simon and Judas are actually Jesus’ cousins. However, if the word translated here as “brothers” refers actually to cousins, then what does the word “sisters” mean in the immediately following sentence? The word “brother” in this kind of context refers to natural-born brothers. So also with sisters. It was His natural brothers and sisters who were well-known to the community, and were thus creating expectations that Jesus would be just like them. And since none of them have these gifts, then obviously Jesus could not be getting these things from a good source.

People can be so familiar with the Gospel that the truth of it falls on deaf ears. There are people like this both in the church and outside the church. “Jesus died for your sins, and you need to trust in Him” can sound so trite, obvious, and dull that its truth simply does not pound us into submission like it ought to do. Worship is another thing, especially for Christians, that can seem very dull. We come to church week in and week out. We get the same old Gospel, the same old Jesus, the same old truths, and it all seems very dull. Familiarity can easily breed contempt in such cases. We need to pray that the Lord will keep such old truths fresh and powerful in our minds. We need to pray that the Lord will give us an expectation of hearing the truth proclaimed in a fresh way in the sermon, that there will be something true that we have not heard before. Is that the excited expectation we have with regard to listening to sermons? Or do we think of sermons as dull and boring, going over the same material all the time with no variation?

People can also be so familiar with the duties of being a Christian that they become dull and boring as well. For instance, can we recognize Christ in the stranger who passes through our midst? We have so many strangers driving through sometimes that we fail to recognize those chances of showing Christ to these people. Are you looking, or has the Christian life become too jaded, too much of a rut?

What we have to realize is that Christ and Christianity are offensive to the sin nature. The word in verse 57 is a very strong word. We get the word “scandalized” from it. The people were scandalized at Christ’s Person and work. So Jesus says, probably with a wry smile on His face, that there is only one place that a prophet gets no honor, and that is the prophet’s own home town and household.

How often are we scandalized by the idea that certain people ought to be shown grace? How often do we catch ourselves thinking, for instance, that the Native Americans on the other side of the river don’t deserve any grace? They’re all just a bunch of drunken thieves, we think. That’s not to deny that there are drunken thieves among the Native Americans on the other side of the river. But does that not mean that they need God’s grace even more? Look at how lost they are! Of course, there are surely at least some Christians over there, as well. There are churches across the river. Some Native Americans make things very difficult by holding us responsible for crimes that we did not commit. And that is a severe problem, because racial profiling can create problems no matter who does the profiling. You cannot just assume that because a person is of a certain race that therefore they will behave in a certain way.

However, there are other ways that we construct invisible boxes around ourselves and thus deny access to any thoughts that might even remotely challenge our own mindset. Even as Dutch people, this can be a problem. As many have told me, change is sin, and we try to sin as little as possible. But that principle can be taken too far. Is not the Holy Spirit constantly working in us to change us? If change means becoming more like Jesus, then shouldn’t we welcome that? Change is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It is the direction of the change that is important. And for that we need discernment. Not all change is good. Not all change is bad. If God is working in us to change us to be more like Jesus, then woe to us if we resist such a change! If Satan is tempting us to change to become more worldly, then woe to us if we give in!

Matthew concludes this passage by telling us that Jesus did not do many miracles there because of the people’s unbelief. No wonder! Jesus does not want to cast His pearls before swine. The main lesson for us here is the danger of unbelief. We do not want familiarity to breed contempt. We want familiarity of Jesus to breed more and more love and submission to Him. And by God’s grace, we can do precisely that.