The gospel lectionary reading for Trinity 5 in Year B is Mark 6.1–13, and is yet another example of Mark’s highly concise storytelling that is packed with theological narrative significance. Once more the lectionary does us a slight disservice; the reading combines the story of those taking offence at Jesus in his home town with the first half of the sending out of the disciples in pairs, so we might then miss the fact of the ironic intercalation of their sending and return as the ‘bread’ of the sandwich whose ‘filling’ is the beheading of John the Baptist. Yet our passage itself is sufficiently full of ironic contrast so we have enough to work with.
The lectionary is perhaps led astray by our chapter divisions; Ben Witherington (in his socio-rhetorical commentary on Mark) sees Mark 6.6 as the end of the section of ministry which began with the calling of the Twelve at Mark 3.13, and the sending out of the Twelve starting a new section which runs to the confession at Caesarea Philippi in Mark 8.38. He sees the first half of Mark as in three main sections (Mark 1.16–3.12, 3.13–6.6 and 6.7–8.26) each of which opens with story about the disciples and closes with a negative response to the ministry of Jesus.
Earlier scholars (most notable Rudolf Bultmann in his History of the Synoptic Tradition) believed that the incident in Nazareth was an ‘ideal scene’ created by the gospel writer as a setting for the closing proverb. But there are two key reasons why this could not have been an invention of the early church—the suggestion that Jesus’ power was in fact limited, and the highly unflattering picture of his immediate family, particularly his mother Mary and brother James, who later were significant figures in the early church.
The introductory comment that Jesus ‘left there’ forms yet another part of Mark’s low-key but consistent references to geography that we have seen before. Jesus crossed the lake and met the Gerasene demoniac, and crossed back where he healed the woman and raised the girl, which must have happened near the lake, so he needs to ‘leave’ to climb into the hill country to reach his ‘home town’ of Nazareth. He is making the reverse journey to that made by his family in Mark 3.21, and we should read the two accounts together. Mark does not mention the village by name, in contrast to the parallel in Luke 4.16, and in fact only mentions Nazareth once in his whole gospel (at Mark 1.9).
Mark notes (superfluously?) that ‘his disciples followed him’. They have accompanied him throughout the previous chapter, and not contributed much beyond being sceptical that he could know that the woman touched him in Mark 5.31. But they have witnessed the miracles, and are about to be sent out themselves to continue the ministry of Jesus.
In those days, Nazareth was a small, insignificant village, so Jesus was a ‘small town boy’. The synagogue was probably the only place to hold a meeting in the village, and it would be natural to invite a visiting personality to speak—Jesus clearly has established a reputation by now. We might infer from ‘and he began to teach…’ that his message was interrupted, as Luke 4 suggests, but Mark often uses this phrase to introduce a narrative development (‘he began to teach by the lake…’ Mark 4.1).
I don’t think the grammar makes it clear whether ‘many heard him, and were astonished’ or ‘many of those who heard him were astonished’—but either way, there is great irony here. The verb ekplesso in the passive means ‘to be filled with amazement to the point of being overwhelmed’ (BDAG), and has elsewhere been used of the crowds in response to Jesus’ remarkable miracles. But where, at other times, the amazement is one of being impressed, here is signals utter scorn. Where previously the disciples asked ‘Who is this…?’ in wonder, now the people ask ‘Who is this?’ in the sense of ‘Who does he think he is?’
The term ‘carpenter’ translates tekton, τέκτων, meaning a person skilled in the artisan craft of working with wood, though also occasionally used more broadly to refer to a skilled builder, or even a physician; Jesus was good with his hands. The parallel in Matthew 13.55 amends this to ‘carpenter’s son’, and it is certainly the case that Jesus, as the eldest son, would normally take over his father’s business. (This, incidentally, lends a significant dimension to our addressing God as Father when we pray for his kingdom to come; we are seeking to continue our Father’s business.) This was a respectable, even important and central role in any village; their scorn is not concerned with the lowliness of his occupation, but the fact that they knew him well. (There was no shame for Paul, as a typical rabbi of his day, to be engaged in manual work as a tentmaker, and he encourages the Thessalonians to ‘work with your hands’ in 1 These 4.11 as a reflection of the esteem with which this was held.)
This is the only place where the phrase ‘son of Mary’ occurs. Some suggest either that this reflects the esteem in which Mary is held, or the sense of disrepute with the notion that Joseph (not mentioned at all in this gospel) was not Jesus’ true father, and possibly that Jesus was illegitimate (compare John 8.41 ‘We were not born of immorality…’) The problem with the first is that Mary is not highly esteemed in Mark, and the problem with the second is that there is no hint of it in the text. The fact that Joseph is mentioned neither here nor in Mark 3.21, when as the head of the household he would be expected to lead, strongly suggests that he has already died. The fact that Jesus has abandoned his family to engage in ministry, rather than taking on the role of head in succession, would add to the rift reflected in chapter 3.
The detailed listing of Jesus’ brothers together with the mention of his sisters does two things. First, it portrays Mary as mother of an ordinary Jewish family, who gave birth to other boys and girls after giving birth to Jesus; the suggestion that the adelphoi and adelphai are step-siblings from a previous marriage of Joseph, or more distant relations, is without any foundation at all. The whole point of the comment is to show what an ordinary family Jesus comes from. Secondly, it is remarkable that Jesus’ biological family were of such relative unimportance in the early Jesus movement. Mary was amongst those gathered in the upper room at Pentecost (Acts 1.14) but she plays no special role; James became the leader of the Jerusalem church, and was likely the author of the letter of James; Judas is possibly the author of the letter of Jude. (All the names here, including Jesus, were very common amongst Jews in Israel at the time; the sisters are never named.) Otherwise the family have no special roles—though 1 Cor 9.5 does suggest that the whole family eventually became believers.
The verb ‘to take offence’, skandalizo, has huge theological importance. Paul’s preaching of Christ crucified is a skandalon to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks (1 Cor 1.23), and 1 Peter 2.6–8 brings together the cornerstone of Is 28.16 with the stone the builders rejected of Ps 118.22 and the stone of skandalon of Is 8.14. Even those who met Jesus in the flesh could stumble because of him.
The proverb ‘A prophet is not without honour, expect in his hometown’ has parallels in Greek and Roman literature, and this might be reflected in the smoothing out of Mark’s double negative in Luke 4.24. We have our own parallel in the saying ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’. Jesus elsewhere is happy to accept the title ‘prophet’ (Mark 6.15) even if that did not tell the whole truth about him (Mark 8.27f). But Jesus expands the saying to specifically include his ‘relatives and his own household’, reflecting again the incident in Mark 3.21f and adding to the negative portrayal of Mary and the rest of the family.
Mark is, as usual, happy with paradox: Jesus ‘could do no miracle there’ but he did heal some people, a contradiction Matthew once more smooths out (‘he did not do many…’ Matt 13.38). Rather than having supernatural knowledge of their attitude as elsewhere, the human Jesus here is ‘amazed’ at their lack of faith, ironically a term thaumazo usually used of the crowd at Jesus’ teaching and miracles. Just as the ‘overwhelmed’ at wonders becomes a sign of cynicism, the ‘wonder’ at miracles becomes astonishment at lack of faith.
Jesus therefore leaves Nazareth and goes to the villages ‘around’ (literally ‘in a circle’), practising what he is about to teach the disciples to do (‘if any place does not receive you…’) and suggesting that the scepticism was in Nazareth alone.
Two remarkable things flow from all this. First is the power of familiarity to make us sceptical. It is a curious thing that a visiting speaker who comes from elsewhere can appear to speak with more authority than someone we know from our own context—and conversely it is sometimes easier to minister ‘away from home’.
Secondly, it is clear that Jesus never imposes himself where he is not welcome. Here is a narrative that stands against both universalism and the idea of ‘meticulous providence‘. These people stand face to face with Jesus; they have heard his teaching, and have heard of his remarkable miracles; yet they are allowed their astonishing unbelief. It appears that God is willing to curtail the reach of his sovereignty to give room for human freedom, despite the consequences.
Jesus had called the Twelve in Mark 3.13 to be with him, and now he calls them to be away from him, in fulfilment of the original intention (Mark 3.14). This is Jesus’ consistent plan; he calls us close to him so that we can then go and be close to others, and bring the power and presence of Jesus to them. Once more, we see the inceptive ‘he began to send them out…’ indicative a new narrative episode.
Sending the disciples out ‘two by two’ doesn’t appear to make any connections with the animals entering the ark, and does not have any obvious OT precedent—except the requirement for two witnesses to agree for their testimony to be accepted as true (Deut 17.6). But it is a common sense practice, where each can give each other encouragement and support (Eccles 4.9–10), and establishes a pattern both for tasks later in this gospel (Mark 11.14, 14.13) and in the approach to mission all through Acts. The only place where Paul does not establish a community of faith is when he is on his own in Athens in Acts 17. Leadership, whether pastorally or on mission, is always plural in the New Testament.
They now receive the authority which had earlier been promised and (at the end of Matthew) is proclaimed anew by the risen Jesus (Matt 28.18). Although Mark only relates the sending of the Twelve, rather than a wider group of 72 as in Luke 10, and on their return designates them (for the only time) as ‘apostles’ (Mark 6.30), there doesn’t appear to be an intention to limit this to a defined group. Others also become disciples, and might expect to be sent in a similar way.
The list of prohibited items causes some problems, and is often cited as a classic challenge to the harmonisation of the gospel accounts. In Mark, Jesus prohibits the Twelve from taking the normal provisions, including a second tunic which would give protection if they had to sleep outdoors in the case of having no house to go to, but allows for the carrying of a staff—travelling anywhere without one would be almost unthinkable. Matthew 10.10 prohibits both staff and (apparently) the wearing of sandals; Luke 9.3 prohibits the staff, but not the sandals. There are some variations in vocabulary, such as the two different words for ‘sandals’ (though only one kind of footwear was known in the region for that period), and surely Matthew is prohibiting a second pair of sandals, as it is unlikely Jesus is calling them to go barefoot. Yet the differences remain, and Dick France comments that ‘the disagreement about the staff remains unresolved’. Do add your suggestions in the comments below!
The offering of hospitality was expected as a matter of course in the Middle East at the time, as it still is in many places today. Luke makes the dynamic here more explicit: the disciples offer those they visit the gift of the good news, along with deliverance and healing; and in return those who receive them offer hospitality and the meeting of their practical needs. This is a very different pattern from most modern approaches to mission, where the offering of practical help goes with the gospel, rather than in exchange for it. But the challenge is less to trust those the disciples are sent to, but rather to trust in God for provision.
‘Shaking the dust of your feet’ doesn’t appear to have any OT precedent (I thought I remembered one, but cannot find it anywhere; again, suggestions in the comment welcome!). But it was a common rabbinical practice, to shake the dust from their feet when they had been outside the territory of Israel, so that nothing Gentile would pollute the Holy Land. It then comes to be a sign of judgement, signifying that the people are outside God’s plans and purposes, as practiced by Paul and his companions on the ‘first missionary journey’ in Acts 13.51.
But this action also has Christological significance. Those who reject the message of the good news about Jesus and the kingdom are accorded the status of Gentiles, in contrast to those who receive it who are now the true Israel. The people of God are already being redefined not in relation to the promised land but in relation to the promised messiah.
It is striking that Mark summarises their message as ‘the people should repent’; apparently this is good news! We should probably assume that their message include other elements of the coming kingdom, but this summary aligns them as much with John the Baptist as Jesus—which makes it fitting that their sending and return is wrapped around the long narrative about John’s death.
The exorcising of demons or unclean spirits is, as elsewhere, quite clearly distinguished from the healing of the sick. Anointing with oil for healing is only mentioned here in the gospels, and whilst oil had medicinal qualities its use here appears to be symbolic rather than practical. Jesus is never recorded using oil (though he does make other symbolic gestures) but James 5.14 shows this was an early practice of Jesus’ followers.
So we have found that, amazing and confounding though both Jesus’ teaching and miracles were, on their own they do not produce faith. Familiarity can breed contempt, even (perhaps especially) for those closest to Jesus. And if Jesus is refused, he will move on until he finds places where his demanding message of repentance and costly good news will be received. If all that was true for him, it will be true for his disciples—and yet they are to preach, deliver and heal just the same.