We are studying Mark 6:1-6 for Sunday, July 19. This is Mark’s version of the story of Jesus’s amazingly tepid reception in his hometown. [Here are some questions about the text.] Here are a few notes on that text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The gospel of Mark is the earliest of the canonical gospels. I’ll leave the argument about whether it was written before or after 70 CE [the year of the destruction of the Second Temple] to the scholars. All I know is, that ever since I learned it was “the first one,” I always have to re-remember that Mark comes AFTER Matthew for the purposes of looking things up in the Bible.

Maybe because Mark is earliest, it is some people’s favorite; it feels purer, closer to Jesus.

But be careful what you wish for. One of our earlier pastors used to recommend that people just sit down and read the gospel of Mark through from beginning to end – “it only takes a couple of hours,” he would say. “It will be good for you.” The first time I did that, I came away reeling and wondering whether I had joined a cult (well, from birth). Because the impression the gospel of Mark gives of Jesus is stark and more than a little raving and reminiscent of a sidewalk preacher in downtown Chicago, plus miracles and exorcisms. There’s no Baby Jesus or Sermon on the Mount, no Word made Flesh or heady Johannine sermons, no Gentile-loving Good Samaritan stories, definitely no Walk to Emmaus, and no easy way to avoid the question of whether you can possibly believe what Jesus believed.[1]

Reading Mark can make you realize that if you’re a Christian, you must be some kind of lunatic. [I think it’s best to come to terms with this.]

That seems relevant to our text for Sunday.

Everything happens fast in Mark’s story, so by the time Jesus makes this visit to his hometown in chapter 6, he has already appeared on the scene, been baptized, been tempted by Satan in the wilderness, exorcised some demons [on both sides of the Sea of Galilee], called the Twelve, healed lots of people, already had one run-in with his family and some with “Pharisees,” told some parables, and raised a little girl from the dead.

After this, he will make food out of almost nothing, silence wind and water, have a conversation with a Gentile woman [who demonstrates remarkable wisdom] and perform exorcism at a distance, continue to try to teach the disciples, who are remarkably obtuse, and after getting Peter to acknowledge that he is Christ, will appear transfigured, and then head to Jerusalem for the well-known climax of the story, including a confession like [insider] Peter’s from his [outsider] torturer-executioner.

This text makes a regular appearance in the lectionary, on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost in year B.

CLOSER READING: In verse 1, Jesus seems to step out of Jairus’s house and into “his hometown,” which we assume is Nazareth.

On the sabbath he begins to teach in the synagogue. We can’t tell from this what social process this points to – whether a simple, orderly one, involving an invitation to a native son who has acquired a reputation as a teacher, or some less orderly one, maybe on the order of “Speech, speech!” [See Bible Odyssey on First Century Synagogues.]

Mark also doesn’t tell us what Jesus said on this occasion. [We could compare Luke 4:16-30, or Matthew 13:54-58, but they have their own agendas, and also seem to tell different stories; Matthew’s context implies that Jesus would have been telling stories about the Kingdom of Heaven; Luke tells a detailed story about the scroll of Isaiah and God’s blessings on foreigners.] In Mark’s version, Jesus has shared some parables, and has also made some comments on the sabbath and some other aphoristic comments, perhaps just enough to give us some idea of what kinds of things he might have said this time.

For Mark, however, what Jesus says here is ultimately less the point that who is saying it.

Mark tells us that “many” – so maybe not “all” or “everyone,” which might matter – were “astonished,” which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but in this case seems to be.

The objections raised in verse 2 do seem to have something to do with content, and suggest that whatever Jesus is saying is not just a rehash of the same old stuff, whatever the same old stuff would have been. It’s either new or challenging or provocative or all of that.

But there also may be a sense that the audience is envious, or resents Jesus being uppity. This “wisdom” has been “given” to him, and there is some awareness of his “deeds of power,” and the hearers’ reaction seems to imply that there is something wrong with all that. As if he had no place receiving such a gift and no business doing such deeds.

Then, in verse 3, all the further objections have to do with identity. He’s “the carpenter.” [Can we imagine saying “He works construction!” as a way of dismissing someone’s opinions on politics or religion or text? I’m afraid we can.] He’s “Mary’s son” – by implication, God alone knows who his real father is. He’s “the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon.” This makes me wonder what these individuals’ reputation was. I live in a small town myself; we do this: “They were those boys who …” And “his sisters.” “He’s my brother-in-law, for Pete’s sake.”

All these comments seem to mean: He’s no one special, or he’s not supposed to be.

At best, the sentiment seems to have been “He’s just one of us, he’s no better than we are!” Some folks may have been thinking he wasn’t even up to that standard. “Who does he think he is?!”

Another way to think about this: These people, who are familiar with Jesus, who have a history with Jesus, think they already know who Jesus is. This keeps them from learning something new about him, and from him.

They don’t honor the prophet in their midst, because they can’t recognize him for who and what he is.

[“… the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls,” possibly.]

And verse 5 tells us their unbelief limited what Jesus could do there. This unbelief is what amazes Jesus. So this story becomes an episode of mutual incomprehension.

Assuming I could have something in common with the people from Jesus’s hometown, this story makes me want to think about what gets in the way of my own recognition of what’s right in front of me, my own recognition of truth for what it is.

[1] David Augsburger, in Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor, (Brazos Press, 2006), shares the story that Clarence Bauman used to ask his students “Do you believe something about Jesus – do you believe in Jesus – do you believe Jesus – or do you believe what Jesus believed?” and would then explain that becoming a disciple involved “believing the Master, and slowly coming to believe what the Master believed” (39).

St Mark the Evangelist Mosaic showing angelic lion