Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

This Sunday’s pairing of Mark 6:1-6 and 6:7-13 kindles the preacher’s imagination.

"pilgrim" by Matúš Benian via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.  

July 5, 2015

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Commentary on Mark 6:1-13

This Sunday’s pairing of Mark 6:1-6 and 6:7-13 kindles the preacher’s imagination.

The first passage — “Where did this man get all this?” (6:2) — closes a section that began with Mark 4:35-41: “Who then is this?” (4:41). Likewise, 6:12 (“So they went out”) opens a door that isn’t shut until 6:30 (“The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught”). What happens when the interpreter listens only to the juxtaposition of Jesus’ return to his hometown with his sending of the twelve? We may hear each story rhyme with its mate.

1. The mission of the twelve parallels Jesus’ own mission. In Mark 3:13-15 Jesus assembled the twelve to extend his ministry of preaching and exorcism (1:21-28; 3:7-12). That extension occurs in 6:12-13, after Mark’s made it clear that “his disciples [have] followed him” (6:1). At 6:7a Jesus takes the initiative: “he called the twelve and began to send them out” in pairs (perhaps for safety and corroboration: Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; Acts 13:2-3). Their authority derives from Jesus’ power over unclean spirits (v. 7b). The implications for Mark’s listeners should be clear. Jesus’ disciples are not passive beneficiaries of their teacher; he gives them a mandate to witness and to heal, replicating his own public ministry (cf. 1:14-15; 6:5). Jesus’ adherents are not self-authorizing; they receive orders from their commander and can execute them because he has given them exousia — authoritative power — to do so.

2. The equipment for such ministry appears astonishingly meager. Some first-century street preachers carried at least a pair of shirts, a staff, and a beggar’s bag. In Mark 6:8-9 the twelve are forbidden the bag and change of tunics; they must live hand-to-mouth while on the road. In a way their paltry resources echo Jesus’s own, which so astound his listeners in Galilee. This hometown boy is only a tekton: a carpenter or stonemason (6:3a). (Celsus, Christianity’s second-century critic, mocked the religion’s founding by a blue-collar worker.) “Where did this man get all this” power to teach and to heal (6:2)? To scoff at the disciples’ — and our own — equipment for ministry is to take offense just as those in the synagogue did: literally, “they stumbled over him” (6:3b; cf. 4:14). Later, the twelve will be perplexed by the magnitude of human need compared with their paltry resources; yet, with our master’s blessing, it’s amazing how much you can do with so little (6:35-44).

3. Offers of ministry can be accepted or refused, and we see both responses in these twinned tales. Empowered by Jesus, traveling disciples cast out demons, anointed many and cured the sick (Mark 6:13; cf. James 5:14; Revelation 3:18). Even in hostile environs, Jesus laid his hands on a few sick and cured them (Mark 6:5b). Yet among his own kin he was dishonored, and that rejection short-circuited his ability to do a mighty deed among them (6:4-5a). So, too, for his disciples (6:11). Shaking dust off the feet appears to have been a prophetic demonstration: from those who repudiate the kingdom’s herald, nothing should be received — not even their dirt (see Nehemiah 5:13; Acts 13:51). No one, neither the Christ nor his followers, can ram the gospel down anyone’s throat. If people repent — turn their minds Godward — the conditions for healing are satisfied (Mark 6:13). If they refuse to entrust themselves to the good news, delivered by unlikely agents, then Jesus can do little but marvel at their faithlessness (6:6a). Those who expect nothing from Jesus are not disappointed (6:5b).

4. Rejecting Jesus and his faithful emissaries isolates; welcoming them creates community. It’s easy to miss, but this pair of stories in Mark illumines the social consequences of faith or unbelief in the good news. The aphorism about the prophet honored everywhere but at home recalls the saying in Mark 2:17b: Jesus calls, not the familiar righteous, but rather alien sinners. More than any other Evangelist (see Matthew 13:57b; Luke 4:24; John 4:44), Mark highlights the poignancy in 6:4: God’s prophet is dishonored in homeland, among kin, and in his own house. The last item is an explicit link with 3:25-27: the divided house, exemplified by Jesus’ own family who think him mad (3:21, 31-32). Another hint of division within Jesus’ family may underlie his description as “the son of Mary” (6:3). Unlike Matthew (1:16-24), Luke (3:24; 4:22), and John (1:45; 6:42), nowhere in Mark is Jesus called “the son of Joseph.” Does Mark 6 imply that had Joseph died? If Jesus was the eldest son of a widowed mother, then abdication of her support while he practiced itinerant ministry would have been scandalous, though consistent with his teaching elsewhere (Mark 10:29-30). Rejected at home in the synagogue (where Jews assemble for prayer: 1:21), Jesus directs his emissaries — those “appointed to be with him” (3:14) — to outsiders in surrounding villages (6:6b). For shelter Jesus’ deputies are instructed to stay in one house until leaving it for another (6:10), dependent on the kindness of strangers. It is a notable feature of early Christianity that so many of its adherents, ostracized by their kin (Mark 13:12; John 9:18-23), found support among surrogate families in house-churches (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2).

Mark has braided the two stories in 6:1-13 with common themes. Rather than cataloguing them, as I have done here, the Evangelist shows the attentive preacher how these tales may be twisted for today’s listeners. After days at sea and on the road Jesus astounds his hometown (Mark 6:1-2). Familiarity breeds contempt (6:3). Jesus expects that (6:4) but cannot do a thing for them (6:5a) save, incidentally, heal a few sick folk (6:5b). While such tales usually culminate in an audience’s astonishment (1:27; 2:12; 4:41; 5:20b; 5:42), now Jesus is the one flabbergasted — by an un-faith so impenetrable (6:6a). Rejection catalyzes fresh ministry (6:6b-7) by empty-pocketed dimwits (4:13, 35-41; 5:31; 6:8-11) who get the job done (6:12-13). In Mark there’s no stopping the good news (13:10) — but no telling how it breaks through (16:1-8).