Commentary on Mark 6:1-29
Turning the Tables
The stories leading up to the beginning of chapter 6 have generally been taking place in Galilee, but in 6:1 Jesus specifically goes home.
Things do not go well. His teaching in the Synagogue produces amazement, but also questions as to the origin of Jesus’ insight. This is not the first time that an encounter with Jesus results in the question: “Who is this?” There has been a nice reversal, however, from Jesus’ first encounter at home in 3:19b-35.
In his first episode while at home, no one questions Jesus’ identity, only his sanity. Jesus, however, reconstitutes his family: “Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (3:33-35 New Revised Standard Version). Almost as if to mock Jesus for his question in chapter 3, in chapter 6 Jesus’ family questions his identity: “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon?” (6:3 New Revised Standard Version).
Mark turns the tables in another way as well. Previously, characters with faith sought out an encounter with Jesus, which resulted in a healing and widespread amazement. Here, at Jesus’ home, things happen in reverse. The encounter with Jesus produces few miracles because of a lack of faith. More pointedly, it is Jesus, not the crowds, who marvels (a reversal also noted by Clifton Black, who says “now Jesus is the one flabbergasted”1).
The stories in chapter 5 suggested that both societal and religious institutions do not control how the Kingdom of God works. In Mark 6:1-6, this dynamic extends even to the family. They question where Jesus is getting his wisdom and power, and their reaction is “offense” (New Revised Standard Version). Perhaps a better way to translate this would be to say that they were “scandalized by him.” He presented a stumbling block.
Finally, Some Success
If the pericope at the beginning of chapter 6 confirms Mark’s pessimism regarding human volition, 6:7-13 reverses things. Other than their initial decision to follow Jesus in chapter 1, this may be the zenith for the disciples’ success in the entire gospel. Jesus sends them out two by two, and they have some success: casting out many demons and curing some who were sick. This good feeling will not last long. The story about John the Baptists’ death intervenes, but by the end of chapter 6, the disciples will be further ensconced in their lack of belief and hardened hearts.
A Morbid Interlude
This brings us to the story about the death of John the Baptist, which is anomalous for several reasons. First, it is one of the longest episodes in the gospel where Jesus is not present on stage. The other instances of Jesus’ absence are easily explained: plots to kill Jesus and the post-resurrection account of the empty tomb. From a narratological point of view, it also stands out because it is a flashback. The reader has heard nothing of John the Baptist since chapter 1, when Mark reports that Jesus’ ministry begins after John was arrested. One wonders, then, with Jesus off-stage, and John already dead anyway, why Mark lingers on this story at this point in the narrative?
Clifton Black uses Alfred Hitchcock to help explain the tension in the intercalated stories in 5:21-43.2 Here, a different movie may be instructive in understanding the narrative technique Mark is using. The story about John’s death interrupts the flow of the narrative, and at an important point. For two chapters, Mark pummeled his reader with the idea that human initiative is moot; the Kingdom of God does its own thing independent of, or, more pointedly, in spite of, humanity.
The story in Mark 6:7-13 disrupts this tendency, as the disciples have some success. The reader might very well then be forced with a question: are the disciples complete failures, or are they capable of some success? Just as this tension builds, the scene cuts to a flashback with some gruesome details. Nevertheless, the reader may still feel the initial tension about the disciples’ ability.
It reminds me of the movie, “The Two Towers” from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The climactic scene of that movie is the battle for Helm’s Deep, a rain-soaked orc barrage on the last stronghold for the people of Rohan. Peter Jackson, director of the movie, deftly cuts between the battle and the Entmoot, a meeting of the talking trees: slow, serene, the embodiment of inaction. Cutting away from the main plot to an important yet ancillary one creates even more tension, as the observer must wait for the real action to return.
Mark does not revel in the story of John the Baptist’s death only to create tension, however. There is a shape to John’s life that Jesus himself will share. John is a gadfly to those in power. He has specifically criticized Herod’s marriage to Herodias. The more pressing problem for Herod, however, is Jesus’ fame (and presumably that of John the Baptist, too). When word gets to Herod of a rabble-rouser, John is immediately brought to mind. Running afoul of those in power in this way does not end well for John. He ends up laid in a tomb. So also will it end for Jesus. While this episode is, on its face, a flashback, it simultaneously anticipates the end, it is a “flash-forward.”3
1C. Clifton Black, Mark (Nashville: Anbingdon Press, 2011), 147.
2Black, Mark, 142.
3Black, Mark, 157.