Criticizing Christ: Studies in Mark, Pt. 14

It is no mystery that when Jesus went back to His hometown, His success rate was lower than usual. In fact, I would suggest that this is one of those places where Mark seeks to remind his audience that, in addition to His divinity, Jesus was very, very human! In Mark 6.1-6, we do not see Jesus fending off mighty storms, nor do we see Him bringing people back to life, no, we see Him meeting criticism after criticism head-on.

Even 6.2, which is normally read as a positive statement, can and probably should be read as a negative remark. The English rendering “amazed” could very well have a negative sense to it. The Greek term, εξεπησσοντο, which has the connotation of amazement or astonishment, can be taken positively but does not have to be taken as such. To give a simple, common example from the English language, one could say, “I am amazed that he did that, I didn’t know he was that type of person.” In this comment, of course, the word “amazed” has a negative sense to it.

Thus, I would suggest that when the synagogue goers of 6.1ff hear Jesus speak, 6.2 reveals that the listeners have a negative sense of amazement towards Him. Further strength for this argument can be found in the concluding statement of the verse 3: “And they took offense (εσκανδαλιζοντο) at Him.” One thing that this means is that the five clauses located within verses 2 and 3, which are opened and closed by two negative remarks, are all also meant to be taken as negatives. It is each of these comments that I want look at briefly.

The first of five consecutive slanders, asks, “Where did this man get these things?” The implication may be that, in leaving Nazareth (His hometown) and relocating in another town, He stumbled upon new teachings, teachings that were foreign to what had always been taught in the Nazareth synagogue. Surely, the message of Jesus, that He was claiming to be God in the flesh and that the Kingdom of God was in their midst via Him, would have been hard for those of His hometown to swallow. The sense of the question, then, is a negative one: “Where did Jesus get these crazy ideas? Did He pick them up from some lunatic in another town?” The next remark may shed even more insight on this one.

The second statement, at least on the surface, does seem more positive than the first, it says: “What’s this wisdom that has been given Him, that He even does miracles?” However, this is not a compliment. As I alluded to before, it is connected to the previous negative remark. Here, the suggestion is that the “wisdom” has come from some crazy philosopher (perhaps someone like John the Baptist) or yet worse, as in 3.20-30, Beelzebul. And the miracles, well, the thought is that Jesus is probably a wandering magician, again, maybe even empowered by the prince of darkness.

So, we should probably take this question as a very sarcastic one. The synagogue goers are neither impressed with His teachings (He has deviated from what had always been taught in Nazareth) nor are they impressed with his “abilities” (δυναμεις), which is perhaps a better rendering than “miracles” here because it brings out the sarcasm of the remark. Lost in many English translations of this verse is the word “hands” (χειρων). This brings out the sarcasm even more, especially when it is connected to the next question.

Thus, verse 3 begins by asking, “Isn’t this the carpenter?” When taken with the previous question, the implication is, “This guy is a simple carpenter, He builds things with His hands; He must be employing magic or something because His hands are not supposed to do these types of things.” But there is even more to this question. It might be the case that in asking about Jesus being a carpenter (τεκτων), the people are actually putting Him down. For example, the townspeople might have been suggesting that since Jesus left town and did not really follow in His earthly father’s footsteps—which was the norm for sons in that time period—He brought shame upon His father. And for bringing shame upon His father, He should be shamed. That is what’s going on here.

Expectedly, another shameful slur follows and as usual, it is connected to the preceding statement. This one asks: “Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Joses and Simon?” Having already attempted to shame Jesus for not following in His earthly father’s footsteps, the crowds now take that even further. This question is actually a double slap in the face. On the one hand, by asking if Jesus is “Mary’s son,” the people are calling Jesus a mama’s boy. On the other hand, by asking this question, the people are referring to Jesus as an illegitimate child (in antiquity, to refer to a male by their mother’s name was to deem them a bastard child). This was simply one way of saying, “Your mother’s pregnancy was swirled in scandal and you’re not following Joseph’s footsteps, so, Joseph must not be your father; thus, we don’t know who your father really is!”

Furthermore, by referring to all of the relatives and then asking the question “And aren’t His sisters here with us?” was a way to say, “Your whole life you’ve been claiming to be something special, something of God, but you’re just human like the rest of us. You have brothers and sisters just like we do. Your birth was no different, your family is no different and you’re not different and you’re definitely not any better than us.” Hence the concluding statement, “And they took offense at Him.”

And Mark tells us that Jesus responded saying, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” Having already taught and performed miracles in other towns successfully, Jesus has little success in Nazareth. We might even see this story as a contrast with the previous three! Be that as it may, His carpenter “hands” (χειρων, the same term used in verse 2) could not do much in His hometown. The sense of the sentence is: His hands were tied.

We should not overlook the fact here that Mark records Jesus as referring to Himself as a prophet. As I have written in earlier studies, this is one theme that undergirds Mark’s entire narrative: Jesus is a prophet but He is also much more, He is God. Just as well, we should probably see this statement as a precursor to the next scene, where Jesus sends out “The Twelve.” Notice in 6.1 that the disciples are with Jesus in Nazareth. It could be the case that He took them there because He wanted them to see how they might be treated in their own hometowns. Indeed, they may have to “shake the dust off” their sandals and garments and move on (6.11)!

The last thing I want to point out about “a prophet is without honor in his hometown” is the “honor” element. Of course, the opposite of honor in the New Testament world was shame. Therefore, when Jesus makes this statement, He is implying the converse, “I have come to my hometown and they have not welcomed me but they have only tried to shame me.” As I noted in a previous study (click here to read it), the parable of the soils (4.1ff) is not only the key to understanding every other parable but one of the reasons Jesus tells it is to reveal to His followers the types of persons He and they will encounter as they proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God. The types of people that Jesus meets in Nazareth relate to the third soil: Persons who are close to Jesus and try to choke His ministry to death. And the disciples will also come in contact with these types of people (3.7-13).

The short of the story is: Jesus has broken with the traditions and teachings of His hometown. He has left town, He has not followed in His father’s footsteps and He has turned the religious and political leaders of the day against Him. In short, Jesus is nothing short of a rebel. And it is this rebel of Nazareth that is actually making Nazareth look bad wherever He goes. They are highly offended by Jesus; they want Him to stop. So, they try to shame Him not realizing that in the end, the shame is on their hands and heads. They not only refer to His birth as illegitimate but, as my wife noted, they do the same to His ministry. From their point-of-view, what else is there to do but shame and shun Him?

As we can see, there is a lot going on in 3.1-6. One of the things that we can learn from this episode in Mark’s account is that often times, as believers, we will face ridicule and jealousy and envy and hatred. However, that does not mean that we give-up or we give-in. Even after Jesus endured all of the shameful insults hurled upon Him, He pressed on. Furthermore, in seeing this, His disciples pressed on. Jesus had told them about the types of people they would encounter and Jesus had showed them the same, yet, they forged on. It is often the case that we are too tough on The Twelve. Sure, they didn’t understand it all, but do we? Sure, they screwed up, but don’t we? But they did keep going (at least, most of them) and that’s what we need to do as well.

We may be made fun of, called un-intellectual or anti-intellectual, we may face insults, we may be beaten or imprisoned, we may be robbed or lied to, we may be cheated, we may be denied by our family or our hometown, we may go into places to do ministry only to find that our hands are tied rather tightly, we may hear people call us evil or say that we are only causing problems by preaching our “religion,” but despite all of the mockery and insolence, we must press on. After all, the Gospel is still very alive and still has far to travel!

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