A reflection on Mark 6:1-13 by Nathan Nettleton
One of the things that often makes it hard for us to hear God speaking to us is that God seems to make such appalling choices when selecting the messengers to bring the message to us. Since I’m a preacher by vocation I’d like to believe that God has some good regular messengers who people can trust and anticipate hearing God’s message from, but if I’m honest I also recognise that most of us who have steady jobs as vocational ministers tend to become a bit tame. We become experts at carefully packaging God’s word according to the tastes of our regular hearers. We are well motivated — we want to ensure a hearing for God’s word — but our endeavours to make the message as palatable as possible can easily fall off the edge and become a form of sugar coated gospel.
I’m not sure whether this is actually the explanation for God’s strange choices, or whether it is just that God has a perverse sense of humour, but when God wants to deliver a message that will rearrange our world view and change our way of thinking, as often as not God seems to send the message through someone we find difficult to listen to and take seriously.
This is certainly what happened to the people of Nazareth in this story from Mark’s gospel, and it is a good illustration of how God’s choices can impact on us. Jesus arrives in his home town and presumably it is the first time he has been there since he began his public ministry (he seems to have moved his home base to Capernaum by this stage). He holds a public lecture at the synagogue and everyone turns up. Of course they turn up. Any one from a small town can tell you that if one of the local young people go off to the city to study, when they come back everyone wants to see what they’ve become. And Mark tells us they were all impressed by what they saw. The boy had grown up well. He spoke well. The things he had to say were fresh and exciting. No doubt the people felt that this reflected well on them; “They won’t be able to say nothing good comes from Nazareth now!”
But it doesn’t last long. It probably starts with one comment from one malcontent, but before long they’ve all got their noses out of joint. “Does he think he’s better than us now does he? What’s he doing up there with the microphone telling us how to live? I wiped his snotty nose when he was a kid and now he thinks he can tell me a thing or two does he?
When Luke tells this story in his gospel, he gives us a bit of the content of what Jesus was teaching — reading from Isaiah where it says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . .” and then saying “Today this prophesy is fulfilled among you.” Luke suggests that it is the content of Jesus’ message that gets people’s backs up. But that’s not how Mark reads it. Although Mark’s gospel puts great emphasis on the image of Jesus as “teacher”, he actually gives us far less of the content of Jesus’ teaching than any of the other gospels. Mark seems to see Jesus as embodying his own teaching so that teacher and message are one and the same thing. We sometimes talk about how the medium is the message. The idea didn’t originate with modern advertising designers — Mark was onto it a long time ago! So Mark sees the people of Nazareth as rejecting the message because they can’t accept the messenger rather than the other way around.
Why did they reject the messenger? Because they knew him too well. There used to be a bit of folk wisdom that said, “No man is a hero to his valet.” There is truth in that. I know I often have to bite my lip when I hear people talking about how wonderful Tim Costello is and how he is the much-needed voice of God to our society. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Tim’s gifts or recognise his value as a prophet in our nation. It is just that I worked and worshipped with Tim for nearly ten years and I can’t quite see him as a hero in the way that many see him. There’s more to Tim than the television cameras can pick up and so I know him in ways that those who only know him as a public figure don’t. And as a result I recognise and identify with the reactions of the good folks of Nazareth. I can hear Tim on the radio saying something that is true and worthwhile and necessary, but I’ll still find myself feeling all skeptical and thinking, “Come on Costello, you don’t know the first thing about that subject.” And the truth is, if I’m honest about it, that nine times out of ten what Tim Costello says is worth listening to. And what’s more, Tim Costello may often be speaking words which contain a message from God that I need to hear, and I’m going to have trouble hearing it if I’m busy trying to lop him down for being a tall poppy. It’s hard enough for me with Tim, and he’s been a preacher all the time I’ve known him — how much harder must it be for those who are hearing someone who they knew as the kid who spray painted their dog or did some other such thing that kids do.
When God speaks through those we know too well, we have great trouble hearing for two main reasons. Firstly, we know them well enough to know that they need to hear this message as much as we do. This is no news to preachers, we mostly know that we are constantly preaching to ourselves as much as to anybody else. If we only preached what we were already capable of consistently living, we wouldn’t have much to say. Our failure to fully embody the message we proclaim doesn’t negate the message, but it does make it harder for people to hear it coming from us. The second reason is that we generally expect people we know to always say what they’ve always said. When we hear someone we don’t know, we expect to be surprised, but we don’t like being surprised by those we thought we had in a box. When someone we know suddenly becomes the messenger of God to us, we get our backs up. We think, “This is not your job. It’s not your place to tell me this. Get back in your box!”
It’s not only people we know well that we find it hard to listen to though, and they’re not the only strange choices God seems to make. There are lots of times when we find it difficult to hear something from somebody because we don’t know anything about them or we don’t know enough about them. A few years ago I was in a class of trainee ministers and we had to do this simulation game exercise. We had to pretend we’d all survived a plane crash in the desert and we had to make a group decision about how important to our survival various objects salvaged from the plane would be. Now most of us were gung-ho young men who all fancied ourselves as tough and resourceful Aussie bushmen, even though we were really soft city boys. There was one quietly spoken middle aged woman in the class. As we we discussed our various views, she offered her opinions and all us would-be Crocodile Dundees spoke of the top of her and took very little notice of her. What could an aging woman know compared to all us Boy Scout graduates?! Well at the end of the day, when our individual and group answers were compared to the opinions of an Army Commando survival specialist, her individual answers beat all of ours and our combined group opinion. She’d been a missionary in a New Guinea jungle for over twenty years and we’d all grown up in the suburbs of Melbourne.
One of the things we can be thankful for in our Baptist heritage, but one of the things we need to keep reminding ourselves of over and over, is the emphasis on a willingness to hear the voice of God coming from among the people, and often from the most unlikely places among the people. Baptists have long rejected the idea that God only speaks through the chosen gifted few, even if they happen to be officially sanctioned by the church. I think this view probably arose from both a recognition of the patterns of strange choices God exhibits in the Biblical stories and also from a recognition that power corrupts. If someone starts claiming that people should listen to them because God has given them the truth and the authority, even if they are initially trustworthy, they probably won’t be for long. So our forebears said that the will of God is best determined by the community gathered to listen and pray, not by a single individual, no matter how respected they may be. But it is really important to hear the subtle nuances of this teaching, because in today’s social climate it can sound like mere democracy, and it is not. Democracy says the majority preference is right, or even if it isn’t it gets its way. Just assemble the people and whoever has got the numbers rules the day. As we can see from what happened at Nazareth, the majority is not always right.
Democracy seeks only to determine the will of the majority. What we are on about is seeking to determine the will of God. What our Baptist forebears were saying was not majority rules. They were saying that the smallest minority voice in the meeting may actually be the voice of God to us, and that the best chance of us hearing and recognising that voice is for us to gather the people, and prayerfully hear the opinions. Our primary role when we gather to make decisions is to prayerfully listen in order that together we might discern what God is saying to us. And what God is saying to us may well be being said through those we least expect to hear it from.
God may be speaking to us through the uppity young man who we know only too well and whose scabby knees we used to put bandaids on and who has grown up gaining far more knowledge than humility. God may be speaking to us through the quietly spoken middle aged lady who is polite enough to go along with the group even when she knows better. God may be speaking to us through the young woman who suffers schizophrenia and, like Christ, knows what it means to be broken and rejected. God may be speaking to us through the visitor, the one whose vision is not hindered by knowledge of how we’ve always done things around here in the past. How often did Jesus appear to people as a stranger, recognised only after the conversation had begun, or even concluded?
The one thing we can be sure of is that God is speaking to us. And it sure isn’t up to us to giving God guidelines about who to use as the messengers!
Questions for thought and discussion.
• Have you had any experiences you can share where the thing you most needed to hear came from the person you least expected to hear it from?
• Can you think of other biblical stories where God’s message was delivered through a surprising source?
• How can we go about developing our abilities, as individuals and as a group, to be open to hearing and recognising the truth, regardless of how or by who it is delivered?