[July 5, 2015] Today is the 5th Sunday after Trinity (or 6th after Pentecost, if that is how you count), and the text of the Gospel reading concludes the section of Mark about who is the family that Jesus gathers around him, his hearth and home among us. In the beginning of this section, in 3:20-21, folks from his hometown (Nazareth) come and try to apprehend him and take him “home,” imagining that he is out of his mind. In the current passage Jesus goes to Nazareth and presents himself by teaching in their synagogue. At first they are quite impressed (ekplēssō)—now they were receiving what everyone else had been talking about—but then they grew bored and would not pay him any mind. Now it was Jesus’ turn to be impressed, “amazed [thaumazō] at their lack of faith.” I wrote about this passage in much detail here (entitled “Unbelief Stuck in the Familiar”). In that posting I discuss the matter of the ways in which we know Jesus and which of these is what Jesus is looking for in us. Here I want to explore another angle.
The people were surprised. That word, ekplēssō means they were astonished or amazed, driven out of their sense of things, bewildered with surprise. In other words, they were expecting their town-boy to have gone out of his mind (3:21); the reputable professionals from Jerusalem even thought he possessed a demon (3:22). They had heard that he was going around preaching and performing miracles and perhaps were a bit ticked that he had not come to them first; they were missing out and perhaps felt slighted by him. Why are we hearing about Jesus from others instead of him coming to us first? Perhaps they assumed something was wrong with him, ready to believe the worst, because they resented him.
When he came to them and preached in their synagogue, they were surprised. Apparently they no longer thought him out of his mind. “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been granted him, and these miracles that are worked through him?” This is all new stuff he was saying. He did not get it from us, so where did he get it from? And what is going on with the miracles? He did not perform them when he lived among us before. So where did it all come from? “This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too, are they not here with us?” In other words, he is one of ours, but this stuff he is saying, it is not what we have always been taught in our synagogue. His mother is in town and so are his siblings. Why did not Jesus stay home like them? Where did he get all these new-fangled ideas from?
Apparently they moved from resenting him because he did not privilege them with his teaching and healing ministry first but had gone to other towns of Galilee. But now that they had heard him themselves, they were saying, “So this is what all the fuss was about?” It is new things he is saying. He got it from somewhere else. So who cares? In other words, on the one hand they could not be bothered with him because they thought they were already familiar with him. There was nothing for them to learn. He grew up among us; how can he teach us when we taught him? On the other hand, they were surprised, and perhaps offended, because he was saying things with which they were not familiar. It was all rather novel and therefore must be superficial. It departed from tradition. (Nazareth was a rather traditional Jewish town; no gentiles apparently lived there, though plenty of them lived in the next town over.) Jesus is saying things which we have never heard before; why pay him any attention? Who has he been listening to instead of us?
Before, they suspected that he was beside himself, literally outside of where he is (ek-istēmi; Mark 3:21); now Mark tells us that his preaching has driven them out of their senses (ek-plēssō).
“And they would not accept him.” They were not merely bored. Mark actually says they were offended in him or scandalized; he caused them to stumble. Apparently they now despised him.
“Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is despised only in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house,’ and he could work no miracle there, except that he cured a few sick people by laying his hands on them.” Apparently they wanted to see a magic show—the miracles they had heard about—like King Herod would; that would impress them. But Jesus could not; Mark says he was not able to. Literally, he did not have the power to do any works of power.
We might be surprised by that statement. How could Jesus not be able to? Mark must mean that he simply did not want to. We forget, however, that Jesus had renounced his glory as the Son of God and was depending completely on the anointing of the Holy Spirit to carry out his apostolate. It was the Holy Spirit who decided that she was not willing to and not going to do any works of power in this village (with a few exceptions). As a consequence, Jesus “could” not. The Holy Spirit would not allow herself to be used against her will (she was not simply a “power” that could be manipulated); and besides, Jesus’ divine will was the very same will as the Spirit’s will. His human will was always in accord with his divine will, but Jesus still had to will it to be in accord; it was not automatic (or what human merit would there be?). In any case, however, it was not his humanity as such that was unable. Rather it was the divine will that was unwilling. Whatever Jesus might have been capable of doing on his own (a will that he had renounced at his baptism), he was now unable to manipulate the anointing of the Holy Spirit (the anointing that was on him) as if it were a mere power. Perhaps he could have before. His temptation in the wilderness was to do precisely that: to take back his self-will and use the power of the anointing to do what seemed right to him, something he thought was good (it was all hypothetical, whether the Spirit would have been complicit is another question). His inability was a matter of his prior decision to renounce his own will. In reality, as God’s Son he could not will contrary to the will of the Holy Spirit in any case. What was at stake here is his human will; and in this case he was “unable” to act contrary to his divine will because he was unwilling to act on his own. Hypothetically he would have acted on his own and in doing so recruited the assistance of the Holy Spirit, but whose will was identical to his own divine will and would have opposed this hypothetical human will. Jesus’ “inability” here was the divine unwillingness to do works of power in their midst—because of their unbelief.
(I am going along with the decision of the Sixth Ecumenical Council of 680-681 held in Constantinople that declared that the will belongs to the nature or essence and not the person or hypostasis. Therefore, it declared, Jesus had two wills, one divine and one human, even though he was one person, one divine hypostasis. This important ruling would resolve, I think—if we reviewed the controversy—the confusion that people have, when it comes to the divine election, over whether the divine will overpowers the human will or whether the human will is still free if God elects us.)
We have to assume that Mary’s voice as a woman was silenced, and perhaps the voices of his immediate siblings, particularly James and Jude who became martyrs on account of their allegiance to their brother. Of the brothers we can be less sure, for they might have changed their minds (see John 7:3-5; though brothers can denote mere kinsmen). Of what we can be sure, however, is that what we are hearing is the voices of their neighbors, those who felt some sort of ownership of Jesus and therefore offence that he did not come to them first, and now shocked that he did not sound the way they had expected but instead sounded somehow alien.
In conclusion, let us return to Jesus’ statement: “A prophet is despised only in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house.” Why would that be? At the same time let us juxtapose that with which this section was introduced: “Who is my mother and my siblings?” Jesus asked. Looking at those sitting on the floor in a circle around him (who was also sitting), he said, “Behold, my mother and my siblings! For whoever does the will of God, this one is my brother and sister and mother.” The natural relation that his neighbors felt towards him was only a source of misunderstanding and resentment. His real hearth and home is made up of only those who do the will of God. His mother is his mother not because she biologically gave birth to him, but she biologically gave birth to him because she consented and offered herself up to the will of God. The disciples are his brothers and sisters and mothers because they did the same, committing their allegiance to Jesus in whom they encountered the face of God. Mary acted with a certain recklessness when she said “Yes,” perhaps already intuiting the misunderstanding and mistreatment she would receive, but trusting absolutely in God (as God too was reckless, trusting so much in her). The disciples also acted with a kind of reckless trust in Jesus, hardly understanding anything of what he was about but obviously trusting him.
Why would a prophet be despised “in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house”? Jonathan Edwards preached week after week in his own congregation with little effect, a congregation that would eventually depose him, but when he preached in a neighboring church a tedious sermon on a theological topic (the justification of the unrighteous) the Great Awakening began. Strangers are often more ready to hear. This is not always the case. My own congregation is a case in point. They sincerely make every effort to understand what I teach and are eager to learn. My experience has been amazing. This has not however been the case when I attempted to teach those who gather separately under the ministry of the congregation’s two lay pastor’s. Distrustful, they even questioned whether I knew what I was talking about when I asked them to think about what the word “Christ” means. How dare I ask such a question! (It meant Jesus is God, they incorrectly said.) As a pastor I was not used to that kind of resistance from people with very little education. Not everyone in this group was like that. The person who translated for me is a sophisticated professional and appreciated my attempts to teach. However, after that time the lay pastors did not “permit” me to teach “their” congregation unless they first had an opportunity to translate my words themselves (and therefore, they wanted from me no more extemporaneous teaching for them, let alone the back and forth discussion that I encourage). It is easier for me to recognize these things in hindsight. When I sent a personal letter to the congregation on a matter that impacted them all (the transition of my gender expression and identity), I had it translated by an outsider. I was accused of not trusting them (which, after the February coup d’etat by a deliberate violation of the denomination’s constitution, was true). From my perspective, this was about control, control by lay pastors who were never granted that authority, never having been called by the congregation (they were commissioned by an outside, supposedly overseeing, body, though never with any oversight). It is difficult for me not to make a comparison.
The change in the appearance of my gender and my gender identity was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When I questioned their patriarchal assumptions, I was accused of insulting their culture as if that were the end of the matter, as if in fact it was not the very nature of the Gospel to question our cultural assumptions. They knew what they knew, they said, and did not need (read, want) to learn anything else. I was saying something “new,” something not mentioned in the Bible (like practically everything with which we are familiar in the modern world). Like good neighbors, they insisted that they loved me while absolving themselves of any need to respect my office and think for themselves. It was good enough to simply follow those with whom they could identify more closely.
Considering Jesus’ town folk, they despised the prophet because he spoke of things with which they were not familiar. (Of course, that is what prophets do: they speak a word that comes from outside of human culture, from God). They had never thought these things before. That was not the problem, however. Sometimes people welcome what is new. Everyone has difficulty coming to terms with what is truly new because we try to understand it by comparing it to what we know. We try to find a way to make it fit. A good teacher helps us do that. But when something is truly new, understanding it requires that we let go of our assumptions, and often we cannot even identify what those assumptions are. Moreover, few people are ever willing to look at themselves deeply enough to do so. Assumptions are always more comfortable when we are not aware of them, for as soon as we become aware of them they are subject to question, and if we question them and they turn out to be faulty or weak, the whole edifice of our world can come tumbling down. This is exactly what conversion is. It tumbles down! Moreover, the new thing may not fit into our mental constructs, the interpretations of the world that we have labored for years to get right. We are attached to that at which we have labored so hard; it requires tremendous trust in something (or some One) to let it go.
People try to interpret Jesus according to what they know, according to what they already accept. Some people welcome novelty. The “home town” does not. This is the situation for modern Christians. We have become so familiar with a Jesus of the pulpit and entertainment media instead of the Jesus of the Bible that we have become unfamiliar with classical theology and think it is something foreign. We know proof texts, presumably spouted to us from pulpits and in pamphleteering, and are locked into a modern journalistic reading of the text, but are unfamiliar with the Biblical text in any sort of textual, let alone historical, rhetorical or canonical, context. When a Christian has to ask (on Facebook) where did certain Christians get the idea that we are not supposed to judge, one has to assume that she has never even read through the first gospel—and this in an age of literacy. It is a sad situation. The “relatives and house” of Jesus has become the Christians of our modern culture. Those who are more receptive of Jesus have become those outside the “church.” It seems as though only they (and they being quite few) can hear his words and read his story afresh, without the prejudices of modern assumptions.
I do not say that is so with the majority of the unchurched, but today I often read articles by the unchurched trying to teach the churched what the Bible actually says. Sometimes they even get it right. I am astounded. I think (I hope) I am seeing the kingdom of God at work in the midst of a culture that is profoundly in rebellion against God. While people are in profound rebellion as humanity has always been (what the Bible calls the “age” or the “world”), God is at work. The sad thing is that the “church” is often on the outside of this activity.
I hope we are on the eve of a new awakening—that ancient Christianity may find a new birth (without its patriarchal assumptions)—though I fear that many of those praying for just such an awakening will be “left behind.”