Commentary on Mark 6:1-13
Before Mark reports John the Baptist’s death, the only story in which Jesus is not the primary subject (6:14-29), Mark tells the story of Jesus’ hometown rejection.1
Rejection at home (Mark 6:1-6)
For the first time in Mark’s story, Jesus entered his hometown synagogue. (Compare the parallel account in Luke [see Luke 4:16-30], which occurs at the opening of Jesus’ public ministry.) His successful activity in neighboring synagogues, like Capernaum (e.g., 1:21-27), would have led readers to expect positive results here as well. Also, the previous healing occurred in the home of a neighboring synagogue leader (cf. 5:35-43). These positive results would not continue here.
The audience’s “astonishment” (exeplessonto) at Jesus’ “wisdom” (sophia)—perhaps a reference to his parables, as some scholars suggest—would remind readers of the first synagogue appearance in which the spectators were “astounded” because “he was teaching them as one with authority unlike the scribes” (1:22).
On this occasion, however, the amazement immediately turned negative as the crowd vocalized a series of questions that led them to the issue of Jesus’ own origins. And, they—hometown folk—seemed to know all too well from where he came. If anyone had the right to question Jesus’ origins, it should be those who knew him best. Their description of him as “the carpenter,” “the son of Mary,” ignored any mention of a father figure.
So, they know a lot about his family. This information would be a direct insult on Jesus’ character, his honor, in first century culture, hinting at one who was conceived illegitimately. This type of history, with a fatherless lineage, would be “scandalous” to them (skandalidzo is translated as “took offense” at 6:3). Unlike Matthew and Luke who cleaned it up, Mark did not alter the tradition and include a father (cf. Matthew 13:53-58; Luke 4:16-30). Rather, the tension between Jesus and his family or hometown was an ongoing subplot of the story (cf. 3:20-21).
Despite the hometown’s assessment, Jesus provided an alternative self-designation: “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown” (Mark 6:4). By referring to himself as a “prophet,” he associated himself with a long line of countercultural figures within Israel. In the Gospel of Mark, others would also view him in this way (cf. 6:15; 8:28).
In an honor/shame society, “prophets” would have received honor (cf. 11:32). But the traditional wisdom of the age was that this occurred generally in places in which prophets were less familiar. Indeed, as Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh stress about the cultural mores in antiquity, “honor was a limited good. If someone gained, someone else lost. To be recognized as a ‘prophet’ in one’s own town meant that honor due to other persons and other families was diminished. Claims to more than one’s appointed (at birth) share of honor thus threatened others and would eventually trigger attempts to cut the claimant down to size.”2 This was the issue at stake.
Their reaction seemed to surprise Jesus. Such “faith,” or the lack thereof (apistian, “unbelief” in Mark 6:6), amazes even Jesus! Furthermore, the absence of faith challenged Jesus’ ability to perform healing miracles. At first, the text indicated that he could not do anything there (6:5); then, the author corrected himself by adding an exception clause.
On the one hand, it was clear that Jesus’ healing authority was intimately interrelated with the faith of others (see Mark 5:34, 36). On the other hand, Jesus could overcome the absence of faith when he desired to do so. Throughout the story, Mark promoted faith as a critical element in the healing mission of Jesus. But faith was not essential. Faith was not a necessary condition in any absolute sense. God’s freedom cannot be limited in that way. The end of this passage provided an explicit example of this perspective. (The language hinting at Jesus’ inability due to lack of faith was apparently too difficult for Matthew who altered these words to emphasize Jesus’ volition: Jesus “did not do” [Matthew 13:58].)
The disciples’ mission (Mark 6:7-13)
The rejection at Jesus’ hometown synagogue did not hinder the mission for long. In fact, it may have given impetus to the commissioning of the twelve for their first assignment. This was why Jesus had chosen “twelve” in Mark 3. Since that point, they were preparing for their own mission. In Mark 4, Jesus taught about the nature of God’s reign, providing private instruction for them. In Mark 5, Jesus performed liberating acts for them to witness. Finally, just before he sent them out, the mission experienced unexpected rejection, as a signal of what was to be expected in their work in the movement (see verse 11).
Differences in the Gospel accounts may simply have reflected the various missionary strategies in early Christianity. For example, only in Mark did Jesus command the disciples to take a staff and wear sandals. This may imply the length of their journey. Dependence on hosts would be important in each Gospel strategy, but in the Markan missionary plan the disciples were more prepared. Also, there are two other significant features in Mark which should be highlighted.
First, they were to continue the Jesus movement in households. This was not unanticipated, in light of Jesus’ own successful activity in the homes surrounding Galilee. In this narrative, Jesus’ message and activity in the synagogues had been growing less impressive as the story went on, including the latest rejection in Mark 6:1-6. Synagogues, with established religious traditions and authorities, were not always susceptible to new ideas and activities that may have represented a new move of God!
So, Jesus prepared his disciples for potential rejection. Wherever rejection existed, so would judgment: “shake off the dust that is on your feet” (Mark 6:11). (The Didache suggested that a false prophet would be one who stayed longer than two days [11.4].) Yet, according to this account, their mission was successful (6:12-13). The disciples, clueless in several earlier stories, apparently understood enough to carry out this mission effectively.
Second, while continuing Jesus’ message of “repentance” (metanoein), their use of “oil” was distinctive. Such a mediating “medicine” was not anticipated from chapter 3. No provisions of this kind were mentioned in Jesus’ earlier words. Since Matthew and Luke omitted the reference, its use may actually have reflected a later practice in the Markan community. But it was a common custom that was known in the wider culture (cf. Luke 10:34) and utilized in some circles of early Christianity (cf. James 5:14).
- Commentary first published on this site on July 8, 2012.
- Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press, 2002), 212.