The Prophetic Action of Recognizing One’s Own Dignity

July 3, 2024


Richard Young (he/him)

Too often Christian spirituality has been based on the practice of self-diminishment – as if to acknowledge one’s own gifts was somehow to lessen the One who gave them. Today’s reflection reminds us that no one benefits from our playing small. Instead, the gospel challenges us to live up to the remarkable person we were created to become!

July 7, 2024: Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Ezekiel 2:2-5
Psalm 123:1-4
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Mark 6:1-6

The Prophetic Action of Recognizing One’s Own Dignity

Many people (perhaps especially among sexual, gender, and racial minorities) often live by the assumption that practically everybody else is smarter, better looking, more virtuous, more successful, healthier, classier, and more likeable. We all have known such folks, and this sense of inferiority and low self-esteem can spread through whole communities like a deadly virus. Today’s gospel reading suggests that Jesus’ hometown had this problem. Its inhabitants somehow could not believe that a prophet would even visit them – much less, be from there. Nazareth seemed to have had a reputation for being somewhat backward and low-class. In the first chapter of John’s gospel, Philip tells Nathanael, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the Law, and also the prophets: Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” Yes, Nazareth, of all places! And Nathanael cynically asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” One gets the clear impression that Jesus’ boyhood neighborhood had more in common with a poor Appalachian holler than with the home of an eminent visionary and teacher. No one expects Hicksville to produce anyone of distinction, so its residents resign themselves to a sense of hopelessness and the assumption that God would surely look elsewhere for greatness.

Mark, the author of our gospel reading, calls this attitude a “lack of faith.” This devaluing of the self, which prevented Jesus from effectively ministering in Nazareth, was an unwillingness to believe in a divine presence that is imaged as much by the poor and uneducated as by the wealthy and the learned. It is a lack of faith in a God in whose reign all are equally valued. Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” To lack faith is to freely grant this permission. Jesus, in order to teach and heal in his hometown, needed a different permission. He needed his friends and neighbors to let him in, to take a chance on him, to open their minds and drop their negativity and realize their status as God’s people. Today’s passage says that very few in Nazareth would welcome Jesus that way. In their reaction to him, it’s as if they were saying, “Who does he think he is? He’s nobody special, just an ordinary guy, a carpenter. We know his family. We know where he grew up. He’s just somebody trying to be something he’s not. He’s just another loser from this little, rinky-dink town.”

The story says that this lack of faith distressed Jesus. I believe it was distressing, not because Jesus himself felt devalued or “put down.” It was troubling, because the people did that very thing to themselves, which closed the door to an acceptance of their dignity as God’s people. To devalue oneself is to disparage the Creator, who, the Scriptures proclaim, delights in all of us. It is disparaging, because it casts the Holy One as truly UN-holy. Matthew Fox says that perhaps the best biblical synonym for holiness is hospitality. This lack of faith suggests that God is not holy, not hospitable, not welcoming, that God has no time for some folks, that God has a list of favorites and that only the socially privileged are on it. The fact is, the Jesus of the gospels told parable after parable to drive home the point that in the Reign of God there are no second-class citizens. And biblical history is full of examples of how the Holy One made excellent use of the “lowly” to accomplish lofty deeds. It is just such people that did so most effectively.

At times, even Saint Paul felt lowly and devalued and a bit neurotic. Today’s selection from Second Corinthians suggests Paul doesn’t mind letting us know something of this personal spiritual struggle. He symbolizes the struggle as “an angel of Satan to beat me and keep me from getting proud.” In his pleading with God about this, Paul receives the following revelation: “My grace is enough for you, for in weakness, power reaches perfection.” Paul then concludes, “When I am powerless it is then that I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). This is the paradox that can be accepted only through faith. Without faith, there can be no strength in powerlessness. Without faith, there is only a sense of inferiority and missed opportunities for growth and healing – as when Jesus visited Nazareth in today’s gospel. But with grace – the source of our faith – we can experience the power and potential of our human frailty.

A severely depressed young woman named Susan was a counseling client of mine many years ago. She lived with her emotionally abusive adoptive family, who frequently reminded her that she was “only” adopted and that she should be grateful that they took her in. Hers was a poor inner-city neighborhood in which, Susan said, education was not valued. She told me that people in the neighborhood felt intensely jealous of anyone who tried to get ahead or break out of that impoverished environment. They taunted those who tried and accused them of “putting on airs” and attempting to make others look bad, calling them “phony” and predicting that they would never amount to anything. Susan characterized them as just afraid of failing – and afraid of being ridiculed, if they did fail. It was safer just to stay stuck. That’s what she had to put up with anytime she tried to improve her life by taking a course or visiting a museum or even going to counseling.

I don’t know what happened to Susan, but in my imagination, she broke away, got a doctorate in clinical psychology, and went back to her old neighborhood with the skills to help heal those depressed people. Maybe all that happened. And if it did, I wonder how well she was received. Perhaps no better than Jesus in Nazareth, I suppose. But fortunately, the Susan I remember had the gift of faith. She did not only say she believed in her divinely endowed dignity; she acted on it. There was an undeniable courage in her that I found inspiring. She learned to ignore the toxic faithlessness of her neighborhood, realizing that “no prophet is without honor, except in one’s own native place, among one’s own kindred, and in one’s own house.” And, like Jesus in today’s gospel, I believe she moved on. “Jesus,” Mark tells us, “made the rounds of the neighboring villages instead, and spent his time teaching.” At Susan’s baptism she was anointed “priest, prophet, and royalty.” Each of us was. And prophets move on, always in search of a welcoming faith.

The truth is, the devaluing of oneself has no place in a life of faith. Powerlessness does lead to strength. In the Kin-dom of God, no one is inferior. And good things and mighty prophets do come from Nazareth – or the inner city or the LGBTQ+ community or from anywhere that faith has a chance to come to life. And each time it does, you can hear the message that Ezekiel heard in our first reading: “Whether they heed or resist... they shall know that a prophet has been among them.”    



Rev. Richard P. Young is a retired Catholic priest and mental health counselor. He chairs the Liturgy Committee of Dignity/Dayton’s Living Beatitudes Community and has worked with several Dignity Chapters since the late 70s. He once served for a term on the national board of DignityUSA and has attended all the national conventions/conferences since 1981. He is married to former DignityUSA national secretary, Bob Butts. Richard was honored with a President’s Award at the 2022 Dignity National Conference in San Diego.