1And he left that place.
He comes into his hometown.
His disciples follow him.
2When it was Sabbath,
he began to teach in the synagogue.
Many who heard him were driven crazy.
Where did this guy get this?
What is this wisdom that is given to him
so that even such deeds of power are done at his hand?
3Isn't this the builder,
the son of Mary
and brother of James
Aren't his sisters here before us?
And they were scandalized by him.
4And Jesus kept saying to them:
Never is a prophet without honor
(except, of course, in his hometown,
and among his own kin,
and in this own house. )
5And he was not able there to do anything powerful,
except a few sick people
upon whom he laid his hands and healed them.
6And he was amazed because of their unfaithfulness.
And he was going around the villages in a circle, teaching.
7He calls the twelve.
He began to send them two by two.
He was giving to them authority over unclean spirits
8and he instructed them
that they take nothing into the road except one staff,
no money in their belts,
9but to put on sandals,
and not put on two tunics.
10And he was saying to them:
Wherever you go into a house,
remain there until you go out from there.
11and whatever place does not receive you
and doesn't listen to you,
as you go out from there
shake off the dust clinging to your feet
to serve as a witness to them.
12When they went out they proclaimed
that people should repent
13and they were casting out many demons,
and they were anointing with oil many who were sick
and they were healing them.
(This translation comes from my book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller's Commentary, The Pilgrim Press, 2005.)
A Question or Two:
- Why would anyone NOT welcome the people Jesus sent out to heal and exorcise?
- Are you sure?
Some Longer Reflections:
The people in Jesus’ hometown call him a builder.
He calls himself a prophet.
The storyteller calls him Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ (Jesus, messiah, son of God).
How do these identifications fit together?
Customary interpretation sometimes reads the locals as being wrong because they underestimate Jesus. “They think he is only a carpenter, but we know he is Messiah,” and so on.
I find such interpretation offensive. One of my grandfathers was a carpenter; the other was a farmer. My father was an Ag teacher. Before I became a pastor and a teacher, I was a butcher. Anyone who describes a person as “only a carpenter” has never worked with a real carpenter. Same goes for farmers and teachers and butchers. Our life together depends on the trades that people devote their lives to learning.
A real carpenter does complex trigonometry in her head, and then fits it into an existing structure that has only a dim memory of being level, square, and plumb. A real farmer can tell you how the current lack of rainfall will affect every acre she farms, and what that means for yield potential and financial outcome. A real teacher could tell you (but won’t) about the struggles that each student brings to class and how that affects the ways she will shape her lesson plans and adapt them. She can also tell what she will try when that doesn’t work. And a real butcher can tell you if the meat on the cutting block was from a stress-killed heifer (or steer: we know the difference), and what that will do to the flavor and tenderness of the meat. Some of this we can tell with our eyes shut (from smell and touch), some only from the color of the meat.
Jesus, the tradesman, calls himself a prophet. This makes for an interesting contrast with Amos, the prophet, who calls himself a tradesman. I’m not sure what to make of this, but you can be sure that the storyteller is aware of the contrast. Amos, like Jesus, did his work in the north of the land of promise. Both practice a trade, and both act as prophets. Apparently learning a trade does not preclude acting as a prophet. In Amos’s case, it seems even to strengthen his work as a prophet. Tradespeople have a direct practical nature, in my experience, and that might have helped Amos connect with his audience. He was no dreamy child-of-privilege, he was a vinedresser like his father before him. He knew what pruning and producing had to do with each other, and he had no sentimentality for the branches he chose to lop off. Read Amos again. I think he sounds like a man who knows his way around a lopping shears.
My grandfather could use a hammer or saw with either hand, and you could tell that by looking at him. His left hand was fully as active as his right. His hands were rough and calloused, but when he picked up a chisel, it looked like a native part of his body. He worked delicately and forcefully at the same time, responding to what the wood would let him and his tools do. “It’s a poor carpenter that blames his tools,” he used to say. He knew that the success of his work lay in his hands and what they knew how to do. And he knew, at the same time, that his skill and his well-maintained tools could only do what the wood would allow.
Jesus calls himself a prophet, but I see him with calloused, precise hands holding tools that you could tell he knew how to use. His neighbors are, it seems, both impressed and scandalized by his words and by the “deeds of power done at his hand.” (Again with the hands!). I suppose some of that could be because, if he is a prophet, he is going to wander off, and they would lose a good builder. If you find a good carpenter (or farmer, or teacher, or butcher) you want to hang on to them.
But I suppose that it could also be because carpentry is trustworthy and solid, while wisdom and prophecy can drift into dangerous (or useless) territory. Religion gets out of hand too easily, and maybe the people in town knew that. When I told a good friend (who was pre-med) that I was going to seminary, he told me that was a shameful waste of a good brain. I still appreciate his assessment of the quality of my brain, but after all these years I see what he was talking about. Religion can make people awfully full of themselves (or full of SOMETHING anyhow), and it can lead people to drift off into the spiritual stratosphere where what they do makes little difference. Maybe that is also part of the reaction of the people in Jesus’s hometown. “We know his family: mother, brothers, sisters, solid people all of them. I hope this promising guy doesn’t turn into a religious nut that we have to apologize for.”
I mean, you can generally tell a good carpenter or butcher just by looking at them. How do you recognize a good prophet? I can hear the people worrying about this. You can always use another person who knows her trade, but just how many prophets do you really need, after all? Not many. And even the ones that might be good mostly seem to cause trouble, because, again, religion can really make people full of themselves, sure that the world needs to hear their latest “word from the Almighty” (and the “Almighty” might, or might not, be God).
I have been listening in on conversations amongst people, some of whom imagine themselves to be prophets. Prophets don’t play well together. Even when I agree with what they are pointing out, I find myself wishing that they thought of themselves as carpenters or butchers. I find myself waiting (impatiently) for a hint of common sense. Not a big prophetic trait, I am starting to think. Maybe the people in Jesus’s hometown were waiting for the same thing. The longer I explore Mark’s story, the more I am convinced that you can’t make sense of this story of messiah unless you take seriously the people around Jesus. When the people in the boat (also tradespeople) say, “Don’t you care that we are dying?” we shouldn’t scoff at their concern. When the Syro-Phoenician mother tells Jesus he should think again about his decision not to help her daughter, we should agree with her. And when the people who watched Jesus grow up express a preference for him as a tradesman, we maybe ought to sit a while and appreciate what they are saying.
Mark’s story raises questions about what it means to tell a story about messiah. A messiah turns the world right-side-up. That is necessary. And disruptive. And life-giving. And dangerous. And, it appears, a messiah has to be questioned, interrogated, challenged, and even corrected by ordinary people with ordinary objections. I’m not sure we like our messiah stories this way. We want certainty, confidence. We want the messiah to be unequivocally on our side, and we want to be right. If messiah fixes the world by instituting justice, and if messiah is on our side, and if messiah is simply and easily right, then everything is easy. The world may be a bit unsettled in the process of being turned right-side-up, but we can handle a little unsettling. In the end, we will turn out to have been right all along, and we will be even more comfortable in the messianic age than we were in this one.
Mark’s storyteller does not allow us this privilege. If even messiah needs to be unsettled, if even messiah needs to be corrected, if even messiah is sometimes too full of himself, then all bets are off. We cannot predict (comfortably) how things will change. And if this story of messiah is told with so many halts and course corrections, we cannot even expect a stable end-state. We can only sign on to follow the wandering course of making things less awful, less unjust, less unbalanced. But even at the end of the course, things will still be upside down.
That may be the most unsettling matter of all. We all seem to gravitate toward apocalyptic texts that imply a perfectly stable end-state in which everything is easily perfect. I am starting to think that Mark’s story of messiah is told so as to wean us from that too-easy imagining.
But that will have unsettling consequences for the ways we learn to speak about justice. It will mess with the ways we look at politics and political parties and movements. It will trip us up every time we applaud or chastise the Church for the latest evidence that we have moved both forward and backward at the same time. And it will complicate how we speak and listen in the presence of “prophets.”
I am starting to think that Mark’s storyteller is convinced that we need both prophets and tradespeople, both uncompromising critics and carpenters who make their living by compromising between trigonometry and reality. All of life can be analyzed with mathematical precision, but it takes a real tradesperson to make the new door fit into the old wall. And maybe, most of all, Mark’s storyteller is convinced that, no matter what it means to be messiah, that long-and-impatiently-awaited corrector of all things will need to be both prophet and tradesperson, both idealistic and directly practical.