“All were amazed at the gracious words that came from Jesus’ mouth.”
You know how you can read something year in year out and not notice the detail? Well that’s what happened to me when I looked at the very familiar Gospel reading we heard today. It was that little phrase “gracious words” which made me suddenly sit up and take notice. “All were amazed at the gracious words that came from Jesus’ mouth.” “What does that mean?” I asked myself. What are “gracious words”? I wonder what you think.
Today we tend to say that someone has spoken graciously if they’ve got a nice turn of phrase, or if they’ve managed to say something difficult or painful in a way that’s easier for others to accept. Responding graciously to an insult means not sinking to the level of your attacker, but finding something positive to say in answer to them. It would be great to see some more “gracious words” in the US election campaign!
Thinking about graciousness might lead us on to think about other closely related words too – words like “graceful” and the word that gives rise to them both, “grace”. What do these words mean to us? The dictionary lists some synonyms – elegance, agility, refinement, polish.
Talk about grace and what do you think of? Maybe the kind of serene poise of Audrey Hepburn or one of those other old fashioned, impeccably groomed film stars. A good dancer might be called graceful too, someone who can place every step perfectly and effortlessly.
Gracefulness is often seen as a quality you’re either born with, or not.
But the grace of Jesus’ words in that synagogue in Nazareth wasn’t anything to do with eloquence or elegance. The congregation there wasn’t amazed by his clever arguments or uplifting sentiments or sophisticated style.
To understand what they might have meant when they called his words gracious we need to dig back to the Greek and Hebrew words for grace – the ones Jesus’ congregation would have known and used. They are charis in the Greek and khen in the Hebrew, if you’re interested. And once you start to look, you find those words all over the place in the Bible. Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, it says. David found grace in the eyes of King Saul – at least at first. Ruth, a Moabite refugee to Israel, found grace in the eyes of Boaz, who ended up marrying her. The letters of Paul are full of prayers that people might know the grace of God. We use one of his greetings as a prayer we call the Grace – the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Some Bibles translate khen and charis as “favour” instead of grace. It’s the word Gabriel uses when he tells Mary she will bear Jesus. “Hail, favoured one, the Lord is with you.” “Hail Mary, full of grace” as older translations put it.