Paul states the theme of Sunday's readings in the last line of the second (II Cor 12:7-10). "For when I am powerless," the Apostle writes, "it is then that I am strong." How do people of faith deal with weakness?
It's consoling for us to hear Mark mention that there was something Jesus couldn't do (Mk 6:1-16): "He could work no miracle there (in His own part of the country), apart from curing a few who were sick by laying hands on them."
Because we forget (or don't even notice) that each evangelist paints a different picture of Jesus, we often take the picture John paints -- that of a person having almost no frail human traits -- and superimpose it on the images of Jesus depicted in the other three Gospels. Such a practice is not only unfair to Matthew, Mark and Luke, it also keeps us from appreciating how their unique theologies fit our own lives.
God's presence
Because faith is a deeply personal experience, we need a variety of theologies to help us reflect on God present among us. No one theology meets our every need or perfectly corresponds to our unique experience. That's why Mark's narrative of Jesus' confrontation with His hometown folks offers support to many of us.
Those people, who at one time were very familiar with the Lord, seem intent on putting Him down. They first criticize His occupation ("Isn't this the carpenter?"). Then they remind everyone of His not-so-important family ties ("Isn't this the son of Mary, a brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Aren't His sisters our neighbors?"). Finally, they refuse to believe He's capable of performing the "miraculous deeds" others have told them about. Step by step, they effectively strip Jesus of His strength. They, like some of our own "friends," seem capable of relating to Him only after they've weakened Him.
All they say about Jesus is true. He's one of them. They simply refuse to admit that God could accomplish anything tremendous through someone so ordinary.
Their attitude is contrary to biblical theology. Yet, in the first reading (Ez 3:2-5), we see Ezekiel facing the same "Nazareth syndrome" at the very beginning of his prophetic ministry. On one hand, Yahweh constantly reminds him of his weak, human state by addressing him as "son of man." But on the other hand, Yahweh fills Ezekiel with a Spirit that drives him out to proclaim Yahweh's word to the "hard of face and obstinate of heart."
Though Ezekiel will probably fail, he'll still fulfill Yahweh's plan. God convinces him that it makes no difference whether God's word is accepted or rejected, as longs it's proclaimed. And the weakest individual can be strengthened enough by God to proclaim that word.
Strong amid weakness
That's why Paul's reflection on his weak, physical condition is so valuable. Most Pauline scholars believe Paul's totally out of control of the Corinthian community when he composes his letters to them. His enemies have effectively discredited him.
Yet this position of weakness doesn't cause Paul to give up; it simply leads him to reflect on another part of his life which is out of control: "the thorn in the flesh." (He could have contracted malaria, a recurring disease which would have wreaked havoc with his missionary journeys.) Whatever the thorn is, it not only keeps Paul from becoming proud, it also makes him more deeply realize that Jesus is working through him. In the midst of his frustration, the Apostle hears the Lord's reassuring words: "My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection."
Like Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus, most of us need to develop a theology of weakness. We need to see our failures in the light of a God working through us and fall back on that God for strength. But most of all, we should listen carefully to the last line of the Gospel. Though Jesus is "distressed" by people's lack of faith in Him, He doesn't throw in the towel: "He made the rounds of the neighboring villages instead and spent His time teaching."
What's that line about God closing one door and opening another?