Commentary on Mark 6:1-13
This is one of those instances where the lectionary disturbs the narrative flow of Mark’s gospel.
Verses 1-6 of chapter 6 are really a self-contained unit, but who wants to end on that challenging verse 6? So we get verses 7-13 added on, and the preacher can choose to move to these more positive admonitions related to the sending of the disciples. We don’t hear the rest of this story, however, until two weeks later in the lectionary when the return of the disciples is narrated in Mark 6:30.
I will treat these units separately, but I will also suggest how they may be related.
The reason why the people of Nazareth reject Jesus in Mark 6:1-6 has never been entirely clear to me. I am more familiar with instances where a small town celebrates, even exaggerates, the success stories of locals who have made it big.
The text suggests an initial positive reception, but somewhere in verses 2-3 everything changes. Why might this be?
- Did they wonder if Jesus was ‘crazy smart,’ and then decide that he was just crazy? Earlier in Mark 3:21, Jesus’ own family had come to get him because they thought he had “gone out of his mind.”
- In Mark 6:2, the people asked, “Where did this man get all this?” Did they decide, like the scribes had in Mark 3:22, that he got it all from a demonic source? (This makes for a nice connection with the earlier, similar synagogue scene in Mark 1:21-27 where the question about Jesus’ authority was first raised.)
- In a social system where status was understood as fixed (i.e., your status at birth defined who you would always be) and honor/shame considerations were important, did they simply regard it as impossible for Jesus to amount to anything? The people of Nazareth indicate this negative perception when they identify Jesus as a “carpenter” (i.e., a low-status manual laborer) and as the “son of Mary” (i.e., hinting at a questionable fatherhood).
In its breezy style, Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message probably gets it right.1 Because people think they know who Jesus is, they end up asking disdainfully, “Who does he think he is?”
The identity of Jesus is a consistent issue in Mark. In the gospel, we hear the opinions of rulers, religious authorities, crowds, disciples, and family members. For the author of Mark, the important question keeps coming around to “who do you — the reader — say that Jesus is?” And if you do honor Jesus as a prophet (or more than a prophet), who does that make you? Does it mean new allegiances that supersede traditional country and family values? As you answer those questions, Mark is leading you into a confession of faith.
But what about Jesus’ inability to perform miracles? Apparently it caused Jesus to wonder too! A couple things to note:
- The problem is not a matter of whether they have enough faith but that they have no faith.
- Elsewhere in Mark, a person’s faith is not necessarily tied to the success of a miracle. Sometimes faith is not mentioned at all. Sometimes the faith of the restored one’s friends or family is noted, or, as in Mark 9:24. Sometimes it’s a matter of “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Ultimately, what didn’t happen in Nazareth is not much of a surprise. A miracle is not just an event but it is an interpreted event. If Jesus is not regarded to be capable of healing, any healing that does happen won’t be attributed to him. So, there is nothing here to see. Move along, move along…
We move on to Mark 6:7-13. The sending of the twelve does not have an encouraging setup in the gospel. We’ve only seen the disciples a few times in the immediately previous chapters:
- In Mark 4, they fail to understand Jesus’ parables and need explanations.
- At the end of Mark 4, Jesus charges them of being fearful and lacking faith when he stills the storm, and they wonder, “Who then is this?”
- In a cameo role in Mark 5, they question Jesus for wondering who touched him in the crowd.
Now, Jesus sends them forth to preach repentance, heal the sick, and cast out demons.
How does this preach today? I have heard plenty of sermons on how God doesn’t necessarily choose the qualified but qualifies the chosen. If you want evidence, this text is proof. Maybe someone needs to hear that kind of encouragement. However, I’m not sure how good of a sermon it will make or how much Gospel it actually is.
What’s harder to preach is the business about all the things that are not supposed to be taken “for the way” (Mark 6:8). Jesus describes an itinerant ministry where the evangelists live solely on the kindness of strangers, and on faith that Jesus knows what he is talking about.
Times and cultures change, of course, and I’m not advocating this practice as the best way to spread the Gospel today. Still, it should give us some pause as many of us worship in well-appointed sanctuaries and live with salaries, pensions, and any number of shoes and extra clothes. The text is not intended to be a scolding, however, and isn’t even the only model for ministry. (Did you note that after being rejected in Nazareth, Jesus forgot to shake off the dust from his sandals!)
Would you agree that we are living in a world that is more and more characterized by unbelief?
If so, doesn’t it feel as if we are living in a Nazareth-world — a culture that is, at best, disinterested in Jesus?
If so, isn’t it utter folly to think we can change anything by preaching Christ?
In fact, isn’t any Christian whose life has been transformed by Christ living defenseless in a world where security and status are calculated commodities?
We do have one thing those disciples did not, and it makes all the difference. We have experienced the faithfulness of God in Jesus crucified and risen. So, we may marvel at the unbelief around us, but still we go forth, proclaiming and practicing our faith in Christ.
1Peterson’s translation of Mark 6:1-6 reads: He left there and returned to his hometown. His disciples came along. On the Sabbath, he gave a lecture in the meeting place. He made a real hit, impressing everyone. “We had no idea he was this good!” they said. “How did he get so wise all of a sudden, get such ability?” But in the next breath they were cutting him down: “He’s just a carpenter — Mary’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a kid. We know his brothers, James, Justus, Jude, and Simon, and his sisters. Who does he think he is?” They tripped over what little they knew about him and fell, sprawling. And they never got any further. Jesus told them, “A prophet has little honor in his hometown, among his relatives, on the streets he played in as a child.” Jesus wasn’t able to do much of anything there — he laid hands on a few sick people and healed them, that’s all. He couldn’t get over their stubbornness. He left and made a circuit of the other villages, teaching.