Gospel: Mark 6:1-13
He left that place and came to his home town, 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 offence at him.4Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, 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.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
There was a joint meeting of two regions of our denomination. There were to be speakers. I went in anticipation of some visiting authority who would bring us wisdom to take home. And found that the first, and main speaker, was a still baby-faced colleague who was in the first year of his first parish. I was ambushed by resentment. Why had I not been noticed? I felt belittled. Why had I not been asked to speak? All the hurt of my childhood home town— not so far from where we were meeting— flared up. It was a great grace that my competitor for honour turned out to have been very well chosen. His key point remains with me after twenty years, and he is a good friend and colleague who continues to bless me, rather than someone to be rejected and unheard.
The text of Mark 6:1-6 could be seen to say something about home town issues, but I think it is also a summary of a greater section of Mark, and viewed as such, it is much richer.
A colleague wrote of last week's text that
It also reminds me how much more all people were understood in terms of their relationships and less as individuals in that time and culture. Women’s identity was even more derivative of their relationship with a primary man, but even men were defined this way. I’m thinking of Bartimaeus, which means son of Timaeus…
And she notes correctly that the same happens to Jesus
[But it was also said of Jesus:] “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” (KD)
What is happening here with the use of names?
Who makes us?
Jesus is named by Mark, as a recognition of honour; ‘You are the Messiah.’ He gains his name from God, for the Messiah is the Anointed One. But in his own home town, where he was beginning to make a name for himself, there was an attempt to bring him under control: isn't this the carpenter's son? They seek to diminish him.
Our conceit is to think we have escaped this tendency because our culture seems to be so much more individualistic. But if we look at all the teenage self-portraits on Facebook, and at the obsession of boys and men with winning arguments in the same place, we see that we are still very much defined by our community.
I doubt that we are "more individual" than in Jesus' time. Rather, we have become ignorant of how much we are bound by our home town. Our community— and sometimes "home town" now translates into the "twittersphere"— still forms us, and still seeks to control us. Life is still about status, and still about having a name, and a reputation, and a place of honour.
We could notice how the "most powerful person in the world' desperately needs to curry favour. Whilst it is tempting to dismiss him as egregiously narcissistic, or seriously immature, perhaps we should observe him with a filter which shows how he has not learned to mask his need for approval as skilfully as the rest of us.
Jerome Neyrey quotes the "definition of honor as a claim to worth which is acknowledged."
He reminds us that in Jesus' culture, along with money, and other resources, honour was understood to be limited; there is only so much honour to go around. Therefore, beyond what they had already inherited from the social standing of their family, people gained honour at the expense of others. He shows us how this works:
In Mark 1:21-28, then, the claim to honor is embedded in the public activity of teaching, which in this case is acknowledged, first in v 22 and at the conclusion of the pericope: "And they were amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, "What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him" (1:27). In this case, acknowledgment is equivalent to a public verdict of honor to Jesus with accompanying increase in reputation and respect: "And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee" (1:28).
Yet after that, many refuse to acknowledge his role and status. While not wishing to reduce the entire conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, Scribes etc. to issues of envy, nevertheless, in a world where all goods are thought to exist in limited supply and where there is intense competition for honor, we expect challenges to claims. Ideally, since it is God who ascribes to Jesus his role and status (1:11), there ought not to be challenges to God's sovereignty. Certain characters in the narrative audience of Mark, however, do not evaluate Jesus' honor as ascribed by God (3:22) and others see it simply as personal achievement (6:2-3); and since they would typically perceive themselves as losing honor and respect as Jesus gains it,(64) they challenge his claims. (Ibid)
Australia is in the thrall of what might be called The Myth of Scarcity, despite being among the most affluent countries in the world. People never feel they have enough. This goes beyond material possessions; we may not feel honour is limited, but we certainly believe that we do not have enough honour; we lust after status and reputation. We are not far different from Jesus' culture.
The woman who has bled for twelve years is sandwiched into the story of a leader about a synagogue who is named Jairus; that is, enlightened, or who enlightens. (Mark 5:21-43) I said in my sermon last week,
we are meant to understand the story of the little daughter through the story of the older woman. Mark is saying to us, if you want to know how the little girl is healed, you have to understand how the woman is healed.
And in our Bible Study, I suggested that the number twelve could be understood as one of those skewers which pin together a sandwich with lots of filling. The leader of the synagogue is a Jewish spiritual leader, the woman has bled for twelve years, and the daughter of the leader of the synagogue is twelve years old. The thing which pins these layers together is the memory of the twelve tribes of Israel. The stories are talking of a healing of the nation. So the first and simplest reading of the sandwich could be this:
The easier answer simply says that the leader of the synagogue, whose daughter is twelve years old, is a man with lots of privilege, but he has to wait— he has to learn to wait— for the healing of a nobody, poor woman who has been bleeding for twelve years. This reading of the story says that if you want your little daughter, your spiritual community, to be healed … then all the daughters have to be healed. Jesus does not give healing on the basis of status and income. Jesus heals the outsiders, too. (Ibid)
It's very easy, after the drama of the last few stories: the storm; the man in the tombs; the healing of the woman; the raising of the little girl from the dead, to feel as though the text this week, is a bit of an anticlimax. Jesus comes home and is rejected. So…?
But the text also seems to me to be one more layer, which is pinned to the stories of last week by the number twelve. Although he comes to his own home town with the disciples, they are then called to him, and commissioned by him, as the twelve. (τοὺς δώδεκα) Disciples of Jesus are the twelve; the twelve tribes. The motif of the renewed and enlightened Israel of twelve tribes is continued all the way through from the arrival of the leader of the synagogue. And despite his rejection in the synagogue of his home town, Jesus continues to teach, and his mission is continued by… the twelve.
Carrying My Self
This all began to make sense for me when I read Mark Davis' comments on the text. He says
The “messianic secret” attempts to name a motif that certainly is central to Mark’s gospel – the repetitive ‘don’t say anything’ moments right where we don’t expect them. For me, however, it is not so much a secret as a re-direction. By attempting over and over to make him ‘the Messiah,’ people were missing the point of his message, which was that the Reign of God was present and that they all were invited to participate in it. As long as they had the Messiah to embody the reign, they were missing the participation part. To ‘follow’ is less to point, observe, marvel, or coronate and more about joining along, taking up the message, and doing the deeds. My point is, I don’t think the “messianic secret” is a literary device by Mark, but a theological point, that Mark saw Jesus trying to re-direct his message away from himself and toward the participating followers. The message in Mark’s original ending, “Go to Galilee and there he will meet you” is a way of sending the followers back to this village-based activity-message. (Mark Davis. My emphasis.)
Davis uses the marvellous word coronate, which is to crown. To coronate is the aim of any honour society based on imitation, rivalry, envy and fear— which means all cultures. The reason people reject Jesus in his own home town is because he is the immediate, local threat to their own self-coronation. If they let him make a name for themselves, they will lose honour, lose privilege, and lose self.
Jesus comes home across the lake to Jewish territory, and is met by the leader of a synagogue. And it is at home, that he is rejected. Rejected because if they let him be a name, they will lose self. A great Rabbi, come down but not come home, from Jerusalem, would be no threat; you could aspire to be like him. But the local man— let alone a woman— is direct competition. If we live by the metric of scarcity, competition, and envy, the local person, especially, becomes a reflection upon our own holiness, and a challenge to our own good name. The whole mood changes.
(I notice that when we clergy have an outside speaker, the boys compete to ingratiate themselves with the speaker with lots of "contributions" to the seminar; a good few of which are not obvioulsy apposite. I'm a case in point; I can feel the drive to be known and seen, and it's hard to resist. But if it is a local speaker, some of us boys become just slightly hostile in our questions or contributions, or are betrayed by the body language of silent resentment. Our "contributions" begin to compete rather than ingratiate; that is, the tone and direction of the rivalry changes.)
If we use the wisdom that the centre of a literary sandwich interprets the outside layers, then we might notice this: All the people who bring us the gospel in this sandwich which is wrapped up in the home town of Jesus, are unnamed— Jairus is named once to make a point, but his enlightenment is only as a leader, not as Jairus: "Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe." (5:36)
In this text people who are concerned about name not only reject Jesus; it is said about them that he "could do no deed of power there… he was amazed at their unbelief." If we seek power, recognition, status and honour, it will elude us. Or, at best, we will have received a lesser reward which is no honour at all, because it is focussed upon our good name, rather than upon Jesus' name. (cf Matthew 6:1-8)
It is the disciples, who are not named at this point, who receive the power. But only for giving to others. There is to be no self-aggrandisement, and there are no professional clergy.
He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.
There is much which can be said about how we interpret this part of Mark. Indeed, the lack of hospitality by some churches towards those who bring the word, and the exploitation by some churches of those who bring the word, is as much a problem as those who seek status and a name from bringing the word. But it is the next part of the text which interests me.
11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.
Davis translates the text as:
And whatever place might not receive you or might not listen to you, leaving there shake the bottom dust of your feet into a witness to them….
I think translating the εἰς as “to” or “against” is an interpretive issue, and not strictly a translation issue, which goes to the heart of what Jesus is telling the twelve to do. If Jesus were intending “against,” the instruction sounds like a demonstrative way of saying, ‘You reject me, I’ll reject you.” But that seems contrary to how Jesus typically operates. If this were a way of providing a testimony ‘to’ them, it would fit the spirit of not taking anything along for the journey. The twelve are not being sent out to benefit or exploit. They go out with authority over unclean spirits and receptive to hospitality. If there is no offer of hospitality, they demonstrate that they are not there to take anything – not even the dust – that is not freely given. (Davis)
I remember leaving a congregation where I had been badly injured and rejected. On our last trip out of town, I parked off the road where the town disappears from view, took off my shoes, and beat them together, shaking off the dust in the direction of the town. "‘You reject me, I’ll reject you," is actually a revenge. It's a "so, there!" My actions were a counterfactual claim to power and a good name. At those moments I was able to let go of my hurt, and able to mourn what was being lost for both us, and for the town, it never occurred to me to shake the dust off my shoes.
Here is the point.
When you go out in my name, to proclaim that all should repent; when you hope to cast out many demons, and anoint with oil many who are sick, and cure them, do not even take your name with you. (Something Jesus could have said.)
Shaking the dust off my feet against my congregation was an attempt to carry my good name with me by rejecting them. By doing that, I had stumbled over them just as much as they had stumbled over me. I had to do that because I had brought my name with me; I had come, unconsciously, desiring to be someone, seeing the placement as a promotion. Which meant I had to win, and meant that when I could not be heard by people, the problem became mine.
Since then, it seems to me that my power to communicate gospel has increased by about the same amount that I have ceased to worry about being a somebody. And it has increased by about the same amount that I have accepted that I can be a disciple where I am, and don't need to look for that "secret knowledge" or leadership that is apparently to be found in the congregations of the moment, the ones that have a "name." In other words, power is seen when I, a no-name minister, and my no-name congregation, simply tell how much Jesus has done for us. (Mark 5:20)
There is only one good name. Our honour comes only from that one name, not from ourselves, or from the people around us.
Andrew Prior (2018)
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