Reading Mark 6.1–13
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Today’s Gospel sees Jesus back in his home town of Nazareth. He was invited to preach and what he said evidently stirred up a hornet’s nest and set off a train of questions. The first two questions are probably the only serious and genuine ones in the passage: ‘Where did this man get these things’ and ‘What is this wisdom that has been given him that he even performs miracles?’ We have already met this reaction of genuine surprise and wonder at the things Jesus does earlier in Mark’s Gospel. After the stilling of the storm, the disciples had wondered, ‘Who is this, that even the winds and waves obey him?’ So these first two questions might be seen as ‘steps to faith’ in Jesus. But the residents of Nazareth then get bogged down with more questions, which degenerate into derision, prejudice, hostility, even character assassination. First they ask, ‘Isn’t this the carpenter?’ It was deeply ingrained in Jewish thinking that manual workers were intellectually inferior: for Jesus’ hearers, it was unbelievable that a mere carpenter should be the one to convey God’s truth, so many of them simply did not believe it.
Then the next bit of the question: ‘Isn’t this the son of Mary?’ This is where we enter the realm of character assassination. It was an insult in Jewish society to describe anyone as the son of his mother alone. One look at the many places in the Bible where people’s ancestry is mentioned makes it plain that the custom is always to mention the father. One noted theologian has suggested that it is more than possible that the phrase ‘son of Mary’ reflected local rumours that Jesus’ birth was illegitimate. And then the third part of the question: ‘Isn’t this the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon, and aren’t his sisters here with us?’ It’s as if the people of Nazareth remember these children playing in the village, so what could possibly be significant about Jesus? There was certainly a strong belief among Jewish people in the time of Jesus that God would send a Messiah, but they expected God’s messenger would be someone new or special – not someone who was already known by them, indeed one of them, and so very ordinary. There are two very different kinds of questioning here. On the one hand, there is the genuine questioning that arises from wonder. On the other hand, there is a kind of questioning that merely reinforces our personal opinions and prejudices and which provides us with an excuse not to listen or to change anything.
A prophet, in biblical terms, is not so much one who looks into the future, but rather one who has insight into the present. It is not difficult to accept the prophet whose message affirms you, but when they criticise your community and challenge it to repentance and reform, the messenger often gets rejected along with the message. This was the case with both Ezekiel and Jesus, as we see clearly in today’s readings.
When people are criticised, they feel threatened. All that they stand for and believe in is shaken. We know enough about Jesus’ preaching and healing to know that accepted Jewish traditions and perspectives were under attack. Healings took place on the Sabbath; Jewish purity laws were challenged; attention was paid to the needs of those routinely treated as outcasts or considered moral reprobates. Why were Jesus’ hearers scandalized? It was because Jesus was saying in his parables and healings that God was concerned with everyone, and particularly those the religious leaders and institutions tended to ignore. What Jesus seemed to be saying was that God himself was scandalized by the state of the religion of the time. This sort of talk was taken as judgement and, whether or not people accepted it, they certainly knew that a prophet was in town! ‘Where does he get these things?’ they asked. ‘How can this be?’
And so to today. Who, I wonder, are today’s prophets, and what might their concerns be? What challenges might be levelled at the way we run our society, our views of right and wrong, who’s in or who’s out? What do we cling to as truth and value that Jesus might well brand as false and worthless? What yawning gaps might Jesus identify between our institutional religion and what he might consider ought to be at the very heart of our faith in God? In that modern phrase, what would Jesus say or do when it comes to, for example, financial ethics, including our personal use of money; how we do politics; big ethical and moral questions such as assisted dying; the care of the elderly; climate change; relations between faiths? We might also be asked about attitudes towards today’s neglected or outcasts. Who do we judge most negatively, or too easily write off? For it seems clear in the Gospels that it was not so much individual sins or personal peccadilloes that Jesus was most concerned about, but rather false directions and improper focus in society as a whole – including society’s religion.
Human nature being what it is, we don’t care much for people who think they have a monopoly of the truth, or claim to know ‘God’s will.’ Very often that suspicion is justified. There are just too many instances of people being led astray by self-proclaimed experts and zealots, often with very bad results. We’re right to be cautious, to be sceptical; it can be dangerous not to be. But that doesn’t mean we can afford to shut our ears to all prophetic voices, for then we may miss the truly important calls to us to re-think, reform or repent. It is risky to let our prejudices get in the way, or to expect that the only prophets we will listen to must fit a certain mould, look and sound a certain way, be of a certain social status, or to agree with us…
In a world where many voices clamour for our attention, who might be speaking the truth to you and to me today? And how are we called to speak the truth? When and what do we hear, or refuse to hear, speak, or refuse to speak? Perhaps one useful thing when it comes to speaking the truth is to tell the truth to ourselves, with heeding the still, small voice in our own conscience. We may not all be called as prophets to the nations, but we are called to discern the truth, to listen to the truth, to speak the truth. It starts with deconstructing our own carefully built walls of convenient assumptions, judgements and half-truths. Once we begin to tell the truth about ourselves to ourselves – then perhaps we will be in a better position to hear the word of the Lord, as the prophets did. We have here an invitation to assess our own beliefs, prejudices, lifestyle and use of resources, not least those things that, left to our own devices, we consider non-negotiable. If we shut our ears too tightly, we may well dismiss, or miss altogether, genuinely prophetic voices. We might find ourselves surprised, like the people of Nazareth, that the most prophetic voices may well come from people and places we least expect.