It has always been important to me that Jesus, when speaking of himself, often called himself ‘Son of Man’. It reinforces my understanding of Jesus’ humanity. I guess I need to know that Jesus was a human being, a person who knew the struggles, disappointments, interruptions, physical limitations and pain that every person experiences in life. Of course that Jesus was a human being requires that he be seen and understood in the context of his own life and times. But I think there was something else going on in Jesus’ mind when he calls himself ‘Son of Man’, something that, I think, every one can understand. I think he understands himself to be within the tradition of the Prophets of Israel. I think he identified with what Ezekiel experienced.
He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you. ” 2 As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. 3 He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. 4 The people to whom I am ending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says. ’ 5 And whether they listen or fail to listen —for they are a rebellious people —they will know that a prophet has been among them. 6 And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people. 7 You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. Ezek. 2:1-7
Such was the call Jesus felt on his life. And such was the call he knew as he returns to his home town. Which brings us to Nazareth, the place where Jesus grew up. You might also find it interesting that according to tradition, 850 years before Jesus’ time it was also the place where Jonah grew up. As a child growing up there Jesus would have been aware of the fifth among the minor Prophets of the Old Testament and the lesson learned from the story of the great fish that you could never escape God’s call on your life.
Our text for today, Mark 6:1-13, is sprinkled with astonishment, offense and amazement:
…and (He) came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Our experience today is that home towns like to celebrate, even exaggerate, the success of their own who become famous. And our text does suggest that Jesus’ initial reception was positive. But, somewhere in verses 2-3, things fall apart. Jesus has come home to preach, and of course the town folk know all about him. When the community identifies him, it’s not just sentimentality that’s operative. It may also be a way of putting Jesus in his place. Which means that their reaction might not be so much of a, “Wow, look at the local boy made good!” as it is, “Well, look who’s come back, and too big for his britches to boot, but we remember where you came from, boy.” In a social system of the time social status was fixed, that is who you are at birth determines who you will always be. That suggests that the community simply regard it as impossible for Jesus to amount to anything. They indicate this by identifying Jesus as a “carpenter” (i.e., a low-status manual laborer) and, with no mention of Joseph, as the “son of Mary” which suggests whispering about the peculiarities of Jesus’ paternity.
The identity of Jesus is a consistent issue through-out the Gospel of Mark. The Message, Eugene Peterson’s the translation, says: “Because people think they know who Jesus is, they end up asking disdainfully, “Who does he think he is?” In Mark 3:21, Jesus’ own family had come to get him because they thought he had “gone out of his mind.” In Mark 4, they fail to understand Jesus’ parables and need explanations. When he stills the storm they wonder, “Who then is this?” In Mark 5, they question Jesus for wondering who touched him in the crowd. In the gospel, we hear the opinions of rulers, religious authorities, crowds, disciples, and family members. For the author of Mark, the important question keeps coming around to “who do you – the reader – say that Jesus is?” Here, then, in Mark 6:2, the people asked, “Where did this man get all this?” Did they decide, like the scribes had in Mark 3:22, that he got it all from a demonic source?
Extracted from Thomas Wolfe’s unpublished manuscript The October Fair, the novel You Can’t Go Home Again was published, post-humously, in 1940. It tells of a young author who writes a book that makes frequent references to his home town. Though his book is a national success residents of his home town send the author menacing letters and death threats for how he has depicted them in the book. The title comes the fictional author’s realization that “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
Jesus’ challenge to the religious leaders and climate of his day reflected on the leaders of his faith community and the neighbors with whom he grew up.
What all these questions about Jesus have in common is that their focus is on those raising the questions. When we are focused on ourselves, on maintaining our superiority and control over our surroundings and others, we are not open to the truth God seeks to speak to us, especially when it comes through people we know and in places we thought we knew like the back of our hand.
But what is this about Jesus’ inability to perform miracles? We are told that Jesus could do no deed of power in Nazareth. It wasn’t whether they had enough faith but that they had no faith at all. And that is in itself is troubling because, in Mark, a person’s faith does not seem to necessarily be tied to the success of a miracle. Sometimes faith is not mentioned at all. Sometimes the faith of the restored one’s friends or family is noted, or, as in Mark 9:24, it’s a matter of “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Or maybe it was just really hard for them to imagine that someone as ordinary – and perhaps someone with as tainted a background or upbringing – as Jesus could possibly make good. Maybe they just couldn’t reconcile the ordinary with the extraordinary. Whatever the reason, they refused to acknowledge him and this limited Jesus’ power. Which – when you think about his ability to raise a dead girl to life with a single word or that all the woman who simply touched the fringe of his cloak and was healed from a life long physical and spiritual disability — is really pretty astounding.
Ultimately, what didn’t happen in Nazareth is not much of a surprise. A miracle, a deed of power, is not just an event. It is an interpreted event. If Jesus is not regarded to be capable of healing, any healing that does happen won’t be attributed to him.
So what’s going on here? And, further, why does this scene make me so uncomfortable?
We kinda like the idea of an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent God. A God who doesn’t need us. But here, in this story the implication is that God is inhibited by our lack of faith and what I believe or think does matter when it comes to God accomplishing God’s purposes.
Isn’t one of the central elements of the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith” precisely that it’s all up to God. God is the one who justifies. It’s by grace, not by my effort. Isn’t my faith really just an awareness of and trust in what God has done. But what if what’s at stake here isn’t a matter of God’s ultimate purposes or our eternal destinies. Consider for a moment whether Mark is challenging us to contemplate the possibility that we actually have something to do, that we have an important role to play in the manifestation of the kingdom. It is about the role each one of us is invited to play in sensing, experiencing, and making known God’s will and work in the world.
Can you imagine ways you may be encouraging or inhibiting God’s work in your own life, among your family and friends and in the world. Where are you resisting God’s activity in your life? Is there some area – some regret we can’t get over, some grudge of which we can’t let go, some hurt that has come to define us, some addiction that imprisons us, some anger that has taken hold of us – something that we are having difficulty entrusting to God? Is there some opportunity to which we feel God is inviting us, some challenge God may be setting for us that we find difficult to acknowledge or consider?
Are you, like Jesus, amazed that your faith or faithlessness has a direct impact on Christ’s ability to do works of great power in our lives, in our meeting and in our home town?