Admiration is our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.
As with most of the entries in The Devil’s Dictionary, it would probably be best to take Bierce’s definition of admiration with a grain of salt. But embedded in his sarcasm is a grain of truth that should not be overlooked.
This truth was certainly not lost on Our Lord. True God and true Man, Christ understood the inner workings of the human heart. And as St. Luke recounts in Chapter 4 of his Gospel account, Jesus had to deal with his share of admiration: The Nazarene had just arrived home after teaching in several of the synagogues throughout Galilee. The crowds marveled, because (as St. Mark recalled) He spoke with authority—not with the self-interest of the scholars. And now, back at home, all flocked to the Synagogue just to see what He would do.
Having nothing grandiose in mind, the hometown hero was content merely to approach the Bema from which He would proclaim the reading for the day. Although it was customary to add some commentary to explicate the text, the carpenter’s son simply sat down. But the villagers’ interest would not be satisfied so easily. All the eyes in the synagogue remained fixed on Him. Remaining seated, Christ preached to them: “Today, this passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) This short sermon was enough to further elicit their admiration, and they marveled at His preaching.
But, knowing the human heart, Christ saw just how shallow was this admiration. In response, Our Lord posed this adage to His neighbors:
Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place . . . (Lk 4:24)
Despite any protestations to the contrary, Christ knew just how far the crowd’s loyalty went. He sought the lost sheep wherever they wandered—not merely those who hoped to advance the reputation of their town. Seeking to expand their scope with a more generous offer, He continued:
. . . Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel
in the days of Elijah
when the sky was closed for three and a half years
and a severe famine spread over the entire land.
It was to none of these that Elijah was sent,
but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon.
Again, there were many lepers in Israel
during the time of Elisha the prophet;
yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian. (Lk 4:25–27)
With these challenging words, Christ watched as the crowd’s admiration boiled over into murderous anger—they even attempted to throw Him off a cliff.
But why was this message so hard to bear? After centuries of suffering at the hands of the Gentiles, it seemed that this upstart wanted to erase the division and enmity that lay between Jew and Greek. As the Lord noted, had not God blessed non-Jews in the past? If He were to initiate such reconciliation, would His Chosen People be ready to follow His lead? His implicit proposal to reconcile all involved, to bury all the hatchets, seemed too simplistic to be possible.
The Nazarenes’ rejection of Christ’s invitation, ironically enough, recalls the opposition raised by Naaman the Syrian. Naaman, singled out by Christ as a figure to be imitated, had at first fought God’s efforts to heal him. A powerful Syrian general afflicted with leprosy, Naaman had asked for Elisha’s healing but balked at the prescribed cure. Instead of an extravagant ritual or a remarkable gesture, the prophet commanded him simply to bathe seven times in the Jordan.
The general, like the crowd at Nazareth, was enraged. He protested: “Are not Aba’na and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” (2 Kgs 5:12)
Without Faith in God (and His prophet), it’s easy to see why this would be seen as an insult. By any worldly measure, Naaman had a better chance back in Damascus—and he seethes with disappointment. But one of his servants invites him to trust Elisha, arguing that Naaman would have accepted the Prophet’s command had he been asked to do something difficult or burdensome (as “cures” before the rise of modern medicine often were). Naaman would have embraced such an unusual treatment out of admiration for the prophet, but not out of faith. In seeking out Elisha, he sought an approach he could understand and admire, resisting any demand that exacted trust and obedience.
However, God expected more from Naaman. Through the guidance of a servant, he was brought to realize that his admiration for the prophet must lead to faith in his God, or else it would be false. How foolish to begrudge God for selecting humble instruments over more dramatic ones!
For centuries, the Church has juxtaposed these two readings that they may be “fulfilled in our hearing” during this Lenten season. In seeking forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation in this time of penitence, are we searching for a deeper relationship with the ineffable God? Or are we searching for something like ourselves that can “earn” our approval and admiration?
Image: Auguste Toulmouche, Admiring Herself