A Curious Bias Against What Is at Hand
On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.
“The name of the town is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees, 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees, 37 minutes…Population 2,642…”
“We’re lower middle class, sprinkling of professionals…10% percent illiterate laborers…Politically, we’re 86% Republicans; 6% Democrats; 4% Socialists; rest, indifferent. Religiously, we’re 85% Protestant; 12% Catholic; rest, indifferent…”
“There are 125 horses in Grover’s Corners this minute…And now they’re bringing in those auto-mo-biles, the best thing to do is to just stay home. Why, I can remember when a dog could go to sleep all day in the middle of Main Street and nothing come along to disturb him.”
“Nobody remarkable ever come out of it, s’far as we know…”
“This is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. —This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”
How many productions of Our Town have you seen since you first saw it in a high school performance? Yeah, me too. I think it’s obligatory for every American citizen to see it at least six times before she joins Emily Gibbs in the cemetery. I really didn’t need to see it again.
My Presbyterian preacher friend Steve and I have been friends for 30 years. We went to seminary together and then hung out constantly when we both served our first calls in Philadelphia, and hung out some more when we both served churches in the New York Metro area, his in New Jersey and mine in Connecticut.
Wherever we were—in Princeton or Philadelphia or New York—we made sure we participated in a book discussion group together. Well, to be perfectly honest, we could never find anyone else who wanted to be in a book group with us, so it was just the two of us. My wife made fun of us. “So what are you reading this month for your Book Couple?” she’d ask. Somehow a Book Couple is not as formidable as a Book Group, but we had fun.
Then Steve messed it all up by moving to Florida. But as a longtime pastor in New Jersey, Steve had many reasons to return to the New York area, so we agreed that he would fly back to New York once a year so that we could continue being a Book Couple. Whenever he visited, we would also see a play in New York together.
One year when Steve was going to visit New York, I asked him what play he wanted to see. He says, “I want to see Our Town.” I thought it might be illegal to stage Our Town in New York in the twenty-first century; I thought maybe you could get arrested for excessive sentimentality. But apparently not, because it was playing at the Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village, which is in the basement of an old Village building, and is about the size of my office; it has about 90 seats; the cast is almost as big as the audience.
I was so mad at my friend Steve. If you come to New York once a year, shouldn’t you see Wicked, or Hamilton, or Fun Home, or Jersey Boys; something more…I don’t know…more New York?
We went. There was almost no set or staging. We sat in the first row. We were so close to the actors they decided to make us part of the play. Before opening curtain—well, that’s a figure of speech; in reality there was no curtain—before opening curtain, the Stage Manager gave Kathy an index card; she had two lines; it was her Off-Broadway debut.
When it was over, I had to apologize to Steve for being skeptical of his choice. There’s a reason they make every high school in America do Our Town at least once every decade; it’s an American masterpiece; Pulitzer Prize, 1938.
The name of the town is Nazareth, Galilee. Latitude 32 degrees, 48 minutes; longitude 35 degrees, 17 minutes. Population in 30 A.D.: 500. There are 48 donkeys. A dog could go to sleep all day in the middle of Main Street and nothing would come along to disturb him.
Religiously, 85% Jewish; 8% Jupiter worshipers; the rest, indifferent. Politically, 86% Zionists; 6% Roman Tories and Toadies; the rest, indifferent.
Nobody remarkable ever come out of it, s’far as we know. Well, there was that one remarkable citizen who went on to some global renown. But we missed it.
One day Jesus preaches a sermon at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. There’s the nanny who changed his diapers. There’s the third-grade Sunday school teacher who taught him everything he knows about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. There’s the high school algebra teacher who gave him a C- because he was always daydreaming about God in math class.
There’s his younger brothers and sisters who could never live up to the high expectations laid down by the family’s first-born son. There’s the farmer who gave him his first job picking green beans for ten cents an hour.
Jesus’ sermon is a masterpiece of esoteric scholarship, daring imagination, exquisite poetry, and homey, practical, take-it-home-and-put-it-in-the-bank wisdom.
And his friends and neighbors have no idea what to make of it. “Where did this man get all of this?” they wonder in amazement.
“Is this not Mary’s son?” Do you hear the unsubtle sneer in that unkind epithet? In first-century Palestine, a man was always, always, the son of his father, not his mother, unless his father was unknown, or uncertain. “Bastard,” is what they call him. There are rumors of illegitimacy, you see. Was Joseph his father? Nobody’s quite certain about that. They’re suggesting that his patrilineage is uncertain.
“We taught him everything he knows about God, and we never knew any of this; we never taught him any of this. Where did this man get all of this?” They’re so blinded by their own self-diminishment they can’t even hear the Good News from the lips of one of their own.
“They took offense at him,” says your English Bible. The Greek is skandalidzo. They were scandalized, they were horrified, their delicate sensibilities and fragile egos were bruised by Jesus’ towering and locally inexplicable erudition.
Jesus is so hurt all he can think to say is some worn-out, hackneyed bromide that was already commonplace long before he said it: “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown, among his own kin, and in his own house.”
The Greek historian Plutarch would later put it like this: “You will find that the most sensible and wisest of people are little cared for in their own hometowns.” The pathos of it echoes down the corridors of time.
You see what’s happening, yes? This is Nazareth, this is Grover’s Corners. Nobody remarkable ever came out of these parts, s’far as we know. Nazarene self-esteem is negligible; they don’t think much of themselves; they can’t even conceive that one of their own would grow up to become a snappy celebrity and world-changing revolutionary.
They belong to the Groucho Marx School of Character Assessment: I could never join a club that would have me as a member. You see how self-denigration is as dangerous a character flaw as self-aggrandizement? You might miss the treasure buried in your own backyard.
The French essayist Michel Montaigne noticed that the further he got from home, the more he was respected. That’s a paradox of human life, isn’t it? The further you get from the ones you love, the more admired you are. He said, “A man may appear to the world a marvel: yet his wife [and children] see nothing remarkable about him. Few men have been wonders to their families.”
The pop philosopher Alain de Botton called it “a curious bias against what is at hand.” I love the way he puts that: a curious bias against what is at hand. There is this baffling blindness to the wonders of what is quite literally in our own backyard, perhaps in our own family.
One Bible scholar wrote, “It was inconceivable to [the residents of Nazareth] that God could be at work in the commonplace.”
There is a substantial article in this morning’s New York Times about Terry Gross, the Fresh Air host who has done 13,000 interviews for NPR over the last 40 years; she was 24 when she started. Just by listening, just by paying attention, just by asking questions, she learns so much, she teaches us so much, she establishes this intimate connection with her conversation partners.
A couple of years ago, she dialed up Maurice Sendak at his home in Connecticut; it was just months before he died. Maurice Sendak of Where the Wild Things Are. He was so pleased to be talking to her that he sounded like a fan or a groupie. “When I heard that you wanted to interview me,” he says, “I was so pleased. There is something so unique and special about you.” He goes on. “There are so many beautiful things I will have to leave behind when I die, but I’m ready. I’m glad I will be gone before you are gone,” he says, “because then I won’t have to miss you.”
Terry Gross pays attention; she asks questions of what is at hand.
My friend lost his 26-year-old son in a mountain-climbing accident. It had just never crossed his mind that he would lose one so dear so soon. Reflecting later on his premature loss, he said, “We take each other too much for granted. The beauties of the familiar go unremarked. We do not treasure each other enough.” Yes? The beauties of the familiar go unremarked.
We all want to meet God face-to-face. We’re all seeking the shattering epiphany, the life-changing eureka. We want Jacob’s ladder, Moses’ stone tablets, Elijah’s flaming chariots, David’s haunting songs, Paul’s blinding light on the road to Damascus.
But what if God comes to us more stealthily than that? What if God’s Glad Good News comes to us incognito, disguised in the common cloth of our own kith and kin? What if God mediates God’s near presence through earthier, drabber channels?
What if Christ walks among us again in latter days enfleshed as one of our own: the cooing infant whose bath you draw every night, she whose “exterior semblance doth belie her soul’s immensity, she who, trailing clouds of glory, doth come from God who is her home;” the quirky, difficult teenager whose unfettered, defiant imagination stridently questions the received wisdom of the status quo; the familiar beggar at the “L” station with his proffered paper cup you ignore on your surly days and condescend on your good; the Alzheimer’s patient you sit with at the nursing home, from whose baffling senescence lucid truths might flair up without warning; the estranged brother you always scoffed at when you were young but who’s now grown wise and kind; the drab office assistant whose routine but relentless attention to detail polishes your own work to a high sheen; the friend whose support is so reliable, whose encouragement is so constant, you can take it for granted, whose companionship is so available you don’t even notice it anymore; even the spouse we make love to but don’t see, whom we talk to but don’t hear, whose love we gladly receive but grudgingly return, who is in fact—in hard, cold, but almost invisible fact—God’s very grace and God’s very Gospel to us?
When Emily Webb Gibbs, dead at the age of 26 from an accident of childbirth, is given the chance to return from the Land of the Shades to the Land of the Living for just one day, just one day, she is so appalled by the blindness of the living to the glories of the commonplace that she rushes quickly back to the cemetery. It is her 12th birthday. The last 14 years have not yet happened for the living she so deeply wants to talk to:
Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally’s dead too, Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway…It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another…Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?
Realize life while you live it. A great prophet might rise up from your common little hometown. Good News is right here. In the beginning, grace. At the end, grace. Every day between, grace.
Thornton Wilder, Our Town: A Play in Three Acts, first published and performed in 1938, published in Collected Plays & Writings on Theater (New York: Library of America, 2007), pp. 149, 160-161, 185, 151, 166.
Quoted by Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8, in The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000), vol. 27, p. 376.
Quoted by Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy (New York: Pantheon Books, 2000), p. 164.
De Botton, p. 164.
Lamar Williamson, Mark: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, in the Interpretation series (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), p. 117.
Susan Burton, “Terry Gross and the Art of Opening up,” The New York Times Magazine, October 25, 2015.
Nicholas Woltersdorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), p. 13.
Adapted from William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” ll. 109-110, 65-66.
Wilder, Our Town, pp. 206-207.