There’s Something Fishy about God’s Love for Us

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Fear breeds courage.

Weakness breeds strength.

Familiarity breeds Contempt.

Scripture is filled with such contradictions, and Sunday’s readings are packed with them too. Sunday’s gospel is about that third one, and so important that both Matthew AND Mark used it in their gospels to illustrate their Master’s plight. But that third contradiction seems so modern, too. Leave it to 21st Century academics to write dissertations on humanity’s tendency to grow our dislike for someone the more we get to know them.

In his paper, “Less Is More: The Lure of Ambiguity, or Why Familiarity Breeds Contempt,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Dan Ariely cites Benjamin Franklin’s observation that fish and visitors have something in common: both begin to stink after three days.

“To the list of other factors shown to play a key role in liking … we add a counterintuitive factor: ambiguity,” this researcher observes. “[Mystery] decreases over the course of acquaintance, and the positive expectations that people read into ambiguous others diminish as more and more evidence of dissimilarity is uncovered. Although people believe that knowing leads to liking, knowing more means liking less.”

In Jesus’s case, the people who thought they knew him by his profession and family ties eventually heard in his teachings a standard of behavior that was strange to them. They couldn’t relate to it—and therefore didn’t bother trying. They turned their ignorance into suspicion and then transfigured it into hate, as Mark’s gospel implies.

“Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?” they ask. “And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mk 6:1-6)

Jesus’s familiarity with the human condition was intimate, but he channeled any contempt he might have nurtured within his heart into love. This Holy Spirit even helped him turn his human fear of death into the divine courage of conviction—the gift God gives Ezekiel in Sunday’s first reading (Ez 2:2-5). This man fell on his face in fear and was raised to his feet a prophet with a mission to familiarize humanity with the calling of prophets.

“Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you,” says the Lord. “But you shall say to them: Thus says the LORD GOD! And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house—they shall know that a prophet has been among them.”

Prophets typically grow up after being face-planted by fear, as Ezekiel was, but then comes the constant physical and mental pain humanity’s contempt inflicts. Paul rose from the ashes of Saul who was every bit as rebellious against God as the people Ezekiel confronted—and every bit as weak. God’s grace reinvented Saul as Paul, a prophetic role model for us to follow as we overcome life’s roadblocks to familiarity with Christ’s strength.

“I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me,” Paul tells the Corinthians in Sunday’s second reading (2 Cor 12:7-10). “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

The old gangster saying, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” has become all too valid in this warring world. The author of that study we cited concludes that the more knowledge one acquires about a person, the less one will like them. But it’s up to us students of Christ to prove him wrong—to show that as we become fishers of humans, we can learn to withstand or even appreciate humanity’s stench.

–Tom Andel


  1. Familiarity can often breed contempt, but this usually occurs when the one we are familiar with opposes or resists our desires or whims. Sadly, we are much of the time selfish at heart and we just want to have it our way. Why else would the divorce rate be so high? These were people who were once madly in love with each other and pledged themselves to each other for a lifetime. That is, until the going got rough or our spouse didn’t want to see things 100% our way. The grass is greener somewhere else for certain. Right?

    I ponder the challenge of perpetual commitment to our Lord. There is His way, and there is our way. They usually line up quite well, until they don’t–until that old selfish hidden nature shows up. But He knows us so well and offers us a lifetime of “get out of jail free” cards. But even then, we turn our back on that.

    The only true solution is to go all-in, all the way with Jesus. It’s a commitment and struggle that will last our entire life. We don’t walk it alone!

    • Thanks as always for your insights, Thomas. Perpetual ANYTHING is tough for humans. God numbered every hair on our heads, but also every head in our lives. Our lives are made richer through addition and multiplication, but the resulting complexities can lead us to long for the familiarity of “our way.” That makes subtraction and division more appealing–but we end up no wiser. Our days on earth are numbered. We’re called to make them count for something beyond calculation. Wisdom tells us that’s God’s way.

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