Mark 6 tells the story of Jesus coming back to Nazareth and teaching in his hometown synagogue, and his sending of the disciples out into Galilee to carry out his mission program and build the kingdom community. Sandwiched into this narrative is the story of John the Baptist’s beheading. Mark makes this insertion for a reason I will note below. Already in Mark, Jesus’ family has thought him deranged (3.21, 31-35). Here they are scandalized by him (skandalidzousin) (6.1-6; cf. Luke 4.16-30). In chapter 5, Jarius and others laughed at Jesus, here they sneer at him. After all, he comes into the synagogue and astonishes the congregation by his teaching—while at the same time they remember him as a boy, growing up in their village, working as a laborer with his father. How can he be a prophet and a common laborer? Jesus was a peasant. Does he really have so much to offer?
Years ago, Keith Green sang a song about this:
Isn’t that Jesus? Isn’t that Joseph and Mary’s son?
Well, didn’t he grow up tight here—he played with our children.
What?! He must be dreaming—thinks he’s a prophet.
Prophets don’t grow up from little boys. Do they? From little boys. Do they?
The derogation of Jesus’ honor from his own family and friends is the ultimate put-down. Being identified as the “son of Mary” is a put down. It was expected that one would be identified by his father’s lineage, “the son of.” Identified as he is calls some things into question. Where is the father? Is Jesus illegitimate? Has his father repudiated him? Jesus is not exactly being welcomed back with open and appreciative arms. Throughout the Gospel tradition, miracles typically end with expressions of astonishment. Here, however, the astonishment belongs to Jesus. He is amazed at the “stubbornness of their unbelief” (6.6).
Two weeks ago in our Sunday morning worship, some of our members noted that they are “defensive” among some family and friends who cannot understand why they are Christians and belong to a church. Last Saturday, Shekhe talked about the danger of being a Christian in the part of Nigeria where she and Danladi are raising their children. There has been more than one attempt on Danladi’s life, and there is no assurance such threats are over. We worship and follow a Lord who told us, “If they persecute me, they’ll persecute you. You should expect nothing less” (John 15.20-21). So when we read of Jesus so badly received by his own, we can know that here too, he has gone before us, and walks with us in our own estrangement, alienation, or hostile treatment. We should never forget that following Jesus means painful choices will have to be made, and loyalties will have to be declared. Our allegiance to Jesus will rub some people the wrong way, or worse.
Immediately following the scene at the synagogue and the sneering skepticism cast his way, Jesus sends the Twelve into the region to extend his ministry. This is the one place in Mark where Jesus calls his disciples “apostles” (“sent ones”). Mark and the other Gospels show us that these men are always on the way to understanding, but up to the end of the gospel, will have never fully understood. They try to obey and follow Jesus and sometimes in some ways, succeed. But their failures are perhaps more to be noted than their achievements. Yet, Jesus does not wait for them to have full understanding or admirable discipleship before associating himself with them, indeed, tying himself to them. Flawed as they are, he sends them out. How does he dare send them? How do they dare go? How does anything good come from such a problematic operation? Here too, the story should sound familiar.
This is the Marcan version of the missionary discourse expanded into a full chapter in Matthew 10 and split in Luke 9 and 10 (Lk. 9.1-6, 10.1-16). The emphasis is on the connection with Jesus’ mission empowered by his authority (authority is a form of power). The disciples are an extension of Jesus’ own ministry. He charges them to travel light, given the urgency of the situation and their need for trust in Jesus’ power and provision. The passage closes by recording the response of the Twelve and their success in offering Jesus’ ministry of healing and liberation. Perhaps this mission strategy was one of setting up a network of safehouses, where Jesus’ followers could find hospitality, refuge, and security as the Jesus movement grew and became ever more troublesome to its adversaries. In times of persecution (as with Mark’s church) where could safety be found? The reason Mark has inserted the story of John’s murder into this narrative now comes evident. Jesus has begun to communicate the cost of following him. A powerful signifier of that cost is indicated by John the Baptist’s beheading (to be discussed in our next essay).
These 13 verses raise important questions for us. Among them are these.
Mark reports that because of the unbelief he encountered in Nazareth, Jesus’ “great works” or miracles, were diminished (not brought to a standstill, as he continued to heal the sick). What? How can our lack of faith limit God’s work in the world? God is inexpressibly stronger than us, right? Well, we do know this. Our faith takes form in praxis—in the doing of God’s work in the world. God works through those who work for peace and justice, healing and liberation. If we do not believe that God will work through us, and embody that belief in our servanthood, far too little of God’s work is going to be done in this world.
Jesus’ family and friends were astonished and scandalized that Jesus claimed to be more than an ordinary laborer (or craftsman). Like most people, they thought of God as a Power that showed up in the spectacular, the fabulous, the mysterious extraordinary. But the gospel tells us that God shows up in laborers and in labor, in the most ordinary aspects of life and in ordinary people. And if God doesn’t show up in the radical ordinary— God doesn’t show up at all.
And last, Jesus told his disciples to travel light, depend upon the hospitality (or grace) of others, and the power of God. Is this a call unique to these first disciples, or a call to us as well? We have, of course, good reason to conclude Jesus speaks to us here too, but what can this command mean for rich Christians who live in wealthy societies? What does it mean to travel light as a “sent one” and sojourner, for a property-owning Christian embedded in a capitalist system? If my wealth imperils my trust in God (as the New Testament makes clear), what should I do? How does God dare send us? How do we dare go?
There are no easy answers found in this passage—nor in the Gospels themselves. But the call to participate in God’s work in the ordinariness of our everyday lives, and trust God, seems like a sure foundation for exploration into answers that may await us.
Thanks for reading,