‘Jesus began to speak in the synagogue […] and he won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips.’ These words at the very beginning of today’s gospel were also the final ones in last week’s gospel reading. They describe Jesus’ visit to a local Jewish house of prayer in Nazareth – most likely the same one he attended since moving to the village with Mary and Joseph as a toddler. The estimated population of the village at that time was about 400 people, so the locals know him well. We can safely assume that the locals are somehow proud of him, as one of their own has become a man of certain prominence and influence.

This pride turns out to be very short-lived. We can spot the change in the mood when a simple, seemingly innocent question is raised: ‘This is Joseph’s son, surely?’ It’s not even a question; it’s a statement, effectively knocking Jesus The VIP off the pedestal they have just built for him in their minds. In the blink of an eye, Jesus is back to being just the son of their local impoverished carpenter Joseph. In a less polite manner they could ask: ’Who do you think you are?’

That sudden change of mood seems to come out of nowhere; the doubtful and belittling statement follows on directly from the depiction of their admiration. But I’m quite sure that between these two scenes, Jesus was preaching to them. Last week we heard him proclaiming the prophecy of Isaiah as his manifesto, followed by the rather concise statement: ‘This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.’ Certainly he elaborated on that; possibly he called them to repent, to change their attitudes and behaviours. I’m pretty sure that he challenged them on some local issues. But here they reject his teachings. The response that Jesus gets is nasty: ‘Who do you think you are to rebuke us?’ Eventually the atmosphere overheats and culminates in an attempt to kill Jesus.

We’ve all “been there, seen that, done that” on either side of an argument, and most likely we’ve been on both sides, though not at the same time. We’ve either been challenged or challenging; we’ve come across some demands or made some. We know perfectly well it is not easy to be on the receiving end of the stick; but wielding the stick might be no less difficult. When we find ourselves challenged by others, we tend to question their authority over us: ‘Who do you think you are?’ It’s a natural defence mechanism. But by what authority do we claim to challenge others? Is that authority genuine or is it delusional?

I don’t have comprehensive answers to those questions, mainly because every situation is different: the circumstances, the moods of those involved, the history of particular relationships, plus many other internal and external factors, all these can greatly influence a particular exchange. All things considered, any rigidity in stance must fail; even when the outcome seems to be successful in the short term, in the long term it is bound to flounder. I’m not talking about being totally spineless, bending according to the way the wind is blowing. I’m talking about the mind being open to reasonable arguments, taking them into consideration and weighing them up. It applies to any situation where we find ourselves being challenged, as well as being challenging.

There are two ways of exercising authority, and they apply across the board. The first way forces people to do something, or bars them from doing something. This one uses the stick more often than the carrot, and comes in particularly useful for law enforcement or the military at the initial stages. The other way of exercising authority is more demanding and time consuming, and it requires employment of social skills. It’s the way of convincing people about the validity of certain ideas, attitudes and behaviours, and of their going on to make them their own. I’d call it ‘soft authority’ because people follow it, not out of fear of punishment or prospect of reward, but of their own free will. There’s no stick or carrot involved; reason is all that’s needed.