This is the fourteenth installment, comprising Act 2. Scene 7, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the thirteenth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On 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! 3 Is 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 offense at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching. (NRSV)
One of the most complex and powerful scenes in the Gospel leads to one of the most mundane, at least on surface, and brings Act 2 to a close. While Jesus has been travelling far from home, healing a gentile, raising a Jewish girl from death to new life, now he returns to his “hometown.” He begins to teach in his hometown synagogue, which would not be odd for an adult Jewish male, but the response of the congregation is telling: “many who heard him were astounded” (6:2). What astounds the crowd appears to be his teaching - “Where did this man get all this?,” supposedly referring to his knowledge – but also allusion is made to unnamed and undescribed deeds – “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” Mark has created a scene in which we must imagine not just teaching, but deeds taking place; that Mark leaves us guessing as to what these deeds are, raises the tension and stokes our imagination: exactly what is taking place in this synagogue?
The synagogue crowd, “astounded” and perhaps confused, tries to “box” Jesus in, to make sense of him, bring him down to earth, to “manage” him, by a technique utilized even today: we knew you when and we know who you are now. They list his family members: “Is 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?" (6:3). The implicit claim, with tension rising, seems to be that if your family is nothing special, how can you be special? No longer astounded, “they took offense at him” (6:3). Mark places us in the dark and allows us to remain in the dark: what has he done? Why have they taken offense? We have watched him on his journey, followed Jesus and struggled to make sense of him, but in witnessing, through Mark’s narrative, his deeds and words, we know he is someone special. Has his hometown audience rejected it all? “How dare you think you are someone special, even if you do special things?”
In the same way that the synagogue crowd seems to be rejecting Jesus’ claims to uniqueness or special power, he rejects their ability to judge properly and fairly: "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (6:4). They are too close to judge the man in their midst, too blinded perhaps by who he was to be able to see who he is, but he claims something in this subtle rejection of them: I am a prophet, worthy of honor!
His task, however, requires something from them, from listeners to him, wherever they might be: faith (pistis). Without their faith, “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them” (6:5). Mark tells us, the reader, the fellow journeyer, that we have a role to play in this unfolding mystery, that we are essential to its completion: his power requires faith. Mark tells us that Jesus “was amazed at their unbelief,” but “unbelief” is a particular word in Greek that requires spelling out: apistia, “no faith.” Jesus’ teaching, which we have seen in power and might, astounding and offensive, demands a response: faith. It is not exactly that the people lack “belief,” for they have seen his deeds and heard his words, but they lack “faith.” They do not want to understand what they have seen; they are ready to reject him rather than understand him. He leaves his hometown quietly and “went about among the villages teaching” (6:6). The next stage of our journey with him is about to begin.
John W. Martens
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