"Is not this the carpenter's son?"... And they took offence at him.
I was told recently that a devout Christian when asked if he knew about me declared that I was a "free-thinker!” The word refers to intellectuals who reject the teaching of the Church and the Bible on the basis of critical thinking. Freethinkers refuse to accept as truth what cannot be proved by reason, and are invariably agnostics and atheists! I have been called many things in the course of my life but, as far as I know, never a "freethinker!" So there you have it! And I always thought I was a Christian who used my God-given rational faculties when thinking about my faith.
But that is not all. I once preached at one of Cape Town's well-known boys' schools on their Memorial Day. The chapel was full of Old Boys and supporters of the school who had come for this special occasion. At the time, South Africa was still in the grips of apartheid. My sermon was based on Jesus' words that we should seek God's justice above everything else, for without that there could be no future for our country. After the service, as I stood at the door, I overheard one Old Boy say to another as they were waiting their turn to shake my hand: "He must be a communist!" Whether or not I was intended to hear the comment, I knew they were referring to me. It was not the first time I was called a communist, like others at that time who were taking seriously the teaching of the Bible that we should seek justice. But by calling me a communist they thought they had discredited what I had said. So there you have it. I am not just a freethinker but also a communist!
But I am in good company. Jesus was treated in this way. "Is not this the carpenter's son," declared the crowd one day when Jesus preached in his home town of Nazareth. "Where does he get these crazy ideas from? Who does he think he is?" The people who heard Jesus preach that day in Nazareth had great difficulty in accepting what he said, in fact, like the prophets before him his words offended them. What he said about God's kingdom did not fit their ideas about either religion or politics. So they put him in a box to discredit what he was saying. Jesus is just old Joseph's son! Can anyone take seriously what a carpenter's son has to say about the kingdom of God?
We often use labels to discredit people. We call them liberals or fundamentalists, religious fanatics, counter-revolutionaries, communists or nationalists, or whatever name helps us to discredit their views. We usually do so without really getting to know them as people. So we we end up relating to others in terms of labels rather than as human beings. This is also the danger of psychologically type-casting people. "Oh, yes, you are an introvert!' Or an extrovert. Some of you may be familiar with Enneagrams, which is a way of helping people understand themselves according to their dominant characteristics. According to the Enneagram theory, there are nine types of human beings. Type 1 is the reformer, the self-controlled perfectionist; type 2 is the caring, generous people-person; type 3 is success driven, efficient, and image conscious; type 4 is the sensitive individualist, self-absorbed and temperamental; type 5 is the intense, brainy person, innovative but also isolated; type 6 is committed, responsible but also security conscious and suspicious; type 7 is the enthusiast, fun-loving, versatile but a bit scatter-brained; type 8 is the dominant, self-confident and confrontational person; and type 9 the easy-going peace maker, receptive, reassuring if also complacent and agreeable. If you did not recognise yourself in any of these descriptions, I can assure you that the rest of us recognized you immediately!
Such typecasting can box people into categories or even be used to justify what we or they do. "Oh yes, I have a dominating personality and therefore I have the right to dominate others!" On the other hand, Enneagrams can help us understand ourselves better and why we may have difficulty in relating to someone who is different to us. They help us identify aspects of our personality that need strengthening in order for us to become more balanced human beings. We might also think about Jesus as the one who embodies the best in each of these psychological types, and therefore as the model of what it means to be truly human. To follow him then becomes a journey into wholeness whereby our dominant personality traits are truly integrated in our lives without being hurtful or harmful. We may still have a dominant type of personality, but in Christ we learn how to relate to them in a helpful way. So we grow into maturity as human beings and Christians.
But let us also not forget that Jesus the "carpenter's son" sometimes offended his hearers! So let us not typecast Jesus into our idea of what a fully balanced human being should be. Prophets are seldom "balanced people" as we normally understand that word. So, too, the Jesus we encounter in the gospels keeps on breaking out of the boxes in which we often place him in order to make his teaching more palatable, balanced and acceptable. Yes, of course, in times of difficulty and trouble Jesus can be the companion who gives us strength and comfort. But he can also be an uncomfortable companion along the road, challenging our attitudes and actions as he did that day in Nazareth when people took offence at what he said. "Has the carpenter's son become a communist," some might have even said if they had known the word! Too often our understanding of Jesus is based on the little we remember from Sunday School, hearsay, clichés, or even words like saviour, messiah and Lord that we think we know the meaning of very well. That is why we need to keep revisiting the gospel story to discover who Jesus truly was and now is for us today. Otherwise if we met him along the road today we might not actually recognise who he is. He is just a carpenter's son!
When Jesus really makes himself known he invariably takes us by surprise, breaking apart the moulds into which we have cast him. It's as though we are meeting him for the first time. But how exciting that can be for the journey of faith in following him. Instead of taking offence at what he says to us, we commit ourselves afresh each day to follow him into the wholeness of life.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 30 October 2014