A reflection on Mark 6:1-13 by Nathan Nettleton
The story of Jesus returning to his home town of Nazareth for the first time since he began his public ministry captures all sorts feelings and frustrations that are associated with bearing witness to Christ in a world that doesn’t want to know. At first there is genuine, and probably friendly interest. The local boy has made good. A home grown preacher. The lad will put our little town on the map. So everybody turns up at the local synagogue to check him out. And he begins to preach. Very impressive he was too. Good strong voice, commanding presence, obvious wisdom and knowledge, a ring of authority about him. A credit to his parents. The boy’s doing the town proud. I think we can all imagine how we would be feeling as part of that crowd.
But then the reaction begins to change. The hackles begin to rise on the backs of the necks. Something is beginning to get up their noses. The story doesn’t actually tell us what Jesus is saying, but imagining ourselves in the crowd, we can probably take a fairly good stab at it. What do you think Jesus is doing that begins to produce this wave of antagonism?
And on what basis do they begin to discount him? He’s only the local chippy. We know his mum. His brothers are mates of ours. We taught him everything he knows right here in this town. Who does he think he is, coming in here and telling us how to live?
And how does Jesus respond? “Prophets are not without honour, except in their home-town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
Now I want us to do a bit of analysis of this story for a moment. I want us to use a tool that the biblical scholars call “reader-response analysis”. There is no need to be put off by this because all it is is the scholars working out what ordinary people have been doing for thousands of years. What we are looking for is how the writer has written the story in order to evoke a particular response from the reader, and the only reason we find it a bit difficult is that we are a bit too familiar with these stories, and because we tend to read them in little bits instead of sitting down and reading a whole gospel in one hit. The only thing you have to try to do is pretend that you are reading it for the very first time, and that you started and chapter one, verse one, and so the only things you know about Jesus so far are the things you have heard in the first five chapters of the gospel of Mark. You might want to open your bibles for a minute so that you can check on how much you know.
The only other thing that you need to know is that the people in the story don’t know all the things that you know. They have heard some reports of what has been going on, but they haven’t had the explanations and commentary that you have read, and they have probably heard more about what Jesus did and very little about what he said.
For example in chapter 1 , they may know that Jesus went into the desert for a month or so after his baptism, but only you know that the Spirit made him go there and that Satan tempted him in there. In chapter 1:14, they may know that he preached, but you know that what he preached was the good news from God. That still remains to be seen for them. In chapter 3:11-12, you know that the demons recognise Jesus as the Son of God, but the people in Nazareth probably don’t. In 3:22ff you know that Jesus drives out demons by the power of God, but many people still think it may be by the power of Satan. You’ve been told, but they are still having to work it out. You have heard the explanation of the parable of the sower, the people in Nazareth haven’t. You know that Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead by the power of God, but the Nazarenes don’t know because Jesus didn’t let anyone tell anyone.
So now when we do a reader response analysis, we are assessing how someone reading for the first time, who knows all that stuff but nothing that comes later, will respond to this story. Let’s have a go at it. It’s quite exciting.
“On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.” Are we surprised that they were astounded? Why did we know they would be astounded?
“They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given him?”” Do we know they answers to those questions? What are they?
Then they took offence at him. We’ve already discussed why they did that, but how do we as the first time reader, knowing what only we know, react to their rejection? How does it make us feel?
And we see them reject him saying “We know who he is, we know his family.” How do we react? Do they really know who he is? What don’t they know? And a tough question, do they really know who his family is? Who is Jesus true family? (last verse of chap.3)
Now, what is all this saying to us as the first time reader. Firstly Mark is again contrasting the two sets of reactions to Jesus so that we as the reader will have to chooses sides. When I was visiting Alice the other day, she was talking about watching the tennis from Wimbledon, and saying how she couldn’t watch a game without taking sides. She had to barrack for one side or the other. It’s the same here. Mark sets up the picture of conflict and we can’t help but take sides. Do we dismiss Jesus and his teaching as a whole lot of bull, or do we decide to be part of Jesus’ true family, those who do the will of God?
I think Mark is also calling our attention to something else here. Let’s remind ourselves – what is the picture of Jesus we have built up over the first five chapters? Perhaps we are in danger of getting a view of Jesus that is too removed from reality, a Jesus whose feet don’t ever touch the ground. What then is this story telling us as the readers? … Jesus can appear very ordinary. Just another home-town boy, who’s perhaps grown a bit big for his boots. We know who he is, the powerful teacher who faithfully brings the message of God’s reign. But Mark reminds us that even Jesus could be easily mistaken for a common garden variety bloke. How much more then, we are invited to wonder, might we tend to dismiss other faithful bearers of God’s message as not worth listening to? Perhaps even people as ordinary as us might actually be faithful bearers of the good news of God’s reign in the world.
And what do you know, Mark immediately tells us that Jesus called the twelve together, and you couldn’t wish for a more ordinary motley bunch of garden variety blokes than the twelve, and sends them out two by two to proclaim the gospel and call people to a transformation of life and to cast out demons and disease. I think we struggle to hear that. We don’t want to identify ourselves with the twelve at that point. But Mark has set us up. He has built up the story so that we have to take sides, and as soon as we do he tells us that our side is sent out to proclaim the gospel and to overcome evil and sickness.
Why do we find that hard to hear? Why do we spend so much time wishing it didn’t really apply to us? Why do we always want it to be somebody else’s job?
One of the biggest blocks for most of us is the fear of the reactions. The fear of being seen as weirdos, as fanatics. The fear that no-one will respond, other than with ridicule, hostility or indifference.
But Jesus prepares us for that too. We are clearly shown that Jesus got those responses frequently. Even from his own home-town. We are told clearly that if we have faithfully born witness to the gospel in word and deed and people refuse to hear us, we should just move on, shake the dust from our feet and keep on bearing witness somewhere else.
What we must not do is start trying to take responsibility for the results of bearing witness. Of course we are responsible if the reason people don’t listen is because we are rude or intolerant or unloving. But if we are faithfully carrying on the ministry of Jesus in the style of Jesus, then we are no more responsible for people’s responses than Jesus was in Nazareth. We are called to bear witness in word and action. We are not called to make people believe and respond. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said in one of the parables we have already heard, we scatter the seeds, and some of them grow. We don’t know how they grow or why, and it’s none of our business. Mark has prepared us for the mystery of the response. The Spirit alone is the giver of life and the Spirit alone is responsible for whether the seeds grow or not.
That can make us feel very insecure. At times we will plant and there will be no harvest and we tend to feel stupid and inadequate. We needn’t. Our adequacy is measured only in our bearing witness, not in the results that arise from it. No matter how weak and inadequate we feel in the face of this lack of acceptance, we can keep on trusting God and keep on bearing witness. As Paul made clear in our reading from Corinthians, God’s grace is sufficient for us, and God’s power is made known in our weakness. And so Paul says he is happy to cope with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ, for it is when we are weak that we discover strength.
Although we are sent out on mission empty handed, Jesus has provided strength for us for the task. We gather here around this table because Jesus has invited us to prepare ourselves for mission in an often unresponsive world. Jesus has given of himself that we might be strengthened and sustained in our calling. This table is open to all who wish to respond to the call of Christ to go out and announce God’s reign, and to overcome evil and sickness.