Have you ever done something you never thought you could do, but could because someone else believed in you and urged you forward? On the contrary, have you found yourself hampered by others’ preconceived notions and lack of confidence in you? In a certain sense, these are the experiences of Paul in the second reading and of Jesus in today’s Gospel.
Paul has had extraordinary revelations and has accomplished incredible things in his apostolic ministry. Yet he has a sense of true humility concerning these unusual gifts. They are not due to any power or qualifications of his own. Rather, he knows that they are pure grace, sheer gift from God and undeserved. Paul has done things in his ministry that he never imagined doing because God’s gifts have been recognized and called forth in him. Paradoxically, these uncommon gifts do not endow Paul with any privilege or cause him to become puffed up. Instead, the exercise of his gifts for mission have brought him great suffering: insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities.
He writes of “a thorn in the flesh” given him. Biblical scholars have long puzzled over the nature of this “thorn.” An ancient interpretation understands it as “the thorn of the flesh,” that is physical desires or concupiscence, that plagues Paul. Others have thought it to be a physical malady or a kind of suffering related to his ministry. The latter is a real likelihood when we look at the context of this passage.
It is part of the “fool’s speech” that begins in 11:1 and goes through 12:10. In it Paul is refuting the charges of his opponents who accuse him of being weak (10:1-2), having no credentials (3:1-3) and being unimpressive in words, deeds and physical presence (10:1-12). Paul counters with a surprising twist: instead of defending himself by taking a position of strength, he turns the tables and argues that his weaknesses are the very mark of his authenticity as an apostle. His own powerlessness makes evident that God’s grace and power work through him.
That the “superapostles” (11:5; 12:11) who oppose Paul are the “thorn” in his flesh sent by Satan is likely when we see that in 11:12-15 he compares them to Satan, “who disguises himself as an angel of light.” See also Num 33:55 and Ez 28:24, where enemies are called “thorns.” Unlike these false apostles, Paul boasts of weakness that allows God’s power to work through him. Further, he is content to endure hardship when it is for the sake of the mission.
Paul, with the grace of God, was enabled to do far more than he ever thought possible, given his own abilities. Jesus, by contrast, was prevented from doing any mighty deeds in his hometown because of the limited expectations of his own people. Thinking they knew Jesus inside and out, they hindered his ability to let God’s power work through him for their benefit. Sometimes this is referred to as the “tall poppy syndrome.” Group dynamics often prevent anyone from rising above the rest. “Who do they think they are?” others will say about an emergent local leader. If an “expert” had come from outside the community and taught the same things as their native son, they would have been far more disposed to accept such teaching.
In both readings there is a recognition that the perceptions of others can strongly influence the exercise of prophetic and apostolic gifts within a faith community. Opposition and close-mindedness can squelch the flow of the Spirit, while expressed belief in the untapped abilities of another can cause him or her to flourish in extraordinary ways with the power of God.