Dear Sisters and Brothers,
We come to the Gospel of Mark with all sorts of expectations and assumptions. This is normal human behavior. Before we experience things, we form an opinion. When we are surprised at the beauty of an object (like a birthday cake or a sports car), we usually mean that it’s prettier than our expectations. A stranger surprises you by being different than your usual idea of a stranger. We have expectations of everything from toothpaste to politicians to flowers to skyscrapers. Professional critics (of food, art, movies, etc.) are always comparing the thing they are looking at with the perfection they hope for. Unfair expectations and assumptions about things like gender, race, orientation, or social standing are called “prejudice.”
So, Jesus goes home to Nazareth and he meets criticism. People have their expectations based on the man they have known. People have their expectations of religious leaders, teachers, and even messiahs. And the people of Nazareth can’t figure it out.
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.
“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
The people of Nazareth are amazed at what Jesus says, because it is so unexpected that these words were coming from a neighbor that they thought they knew.
In fact, we would love to know what these people knew about Jesus. They had upwards of twenty years of experience and memories of this man and we have very little knowledge of Jesus between his birth and his baptism by John. They knew his face, and his voice, they knew his work as a carpenter. They knew how Jesus treated his mother, brothers, and sisters. They would have hundreds of stories to tell of their neighbor Jesus, before he was revealed to be the Son of God. Jesus has a brother named Joseph (or Joses), but he is apparently named after their father. The only one of Jesus siblings we know much about is James, who the Apostle Paul visits in the book of Acts, and is the leader of the Jerusalem church after Peter. The letter of James is credited to him. This is not the fisherman James ( the brother of John) but is usually called “the brother of the Lord.”
Some Christians are made uncomfortable by this passage because it doesn’t match up with the later images devised of the “Holy Family” (Joseph, Mary, and Jesus). Some good-intentioned people want to explain Mary’s other children away by saying that her husband had many children from a previous marriage, but the Bible doesn’t say that. The Gospel of Mark doesn’t even mention Mary’s husband, Joseph.
Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.
This homecoming is not the happy picture we might have expected. We see no meeting between Jesus and Mary, nor anyone else of his family. The people of Nazareth know Jesus and they can’t reconcile their ideas with the truth that he is also the famous healer and teacher known all around the Galilee.
Some locals might have even resented that Jesus had not healed anyone in his earlier life. We have no indication that Jesus performed any miracles before he was thirty years old. He would have had some status as a reader of the Bible in the town synagogue, but nothing prepared the people for this new reality. Jesus had better expectations of his neighbors: he was “amazed at their lack of faith.”
For us, the main lesson is that we must overcome our expectations. For many Christians, the biggest wall that stands between us and getting to know the real Jesus is that we were raised in Church. While it is a great help to be raised with biblical teachings, it is easy to lose Jesus among all the false expectations we built before we started reading the Bible or being in relationship with him.
I remember being surprised to know that Jesus didn’t speak English. I was surprised to learn that all those pictures at home and at church were based on ideas about what he looked like. I also had confused Jesus with the stories of many other people in the Old and New Testaments. On top of this, I got many ideas about Jesus from popular culture and misheard lyrics of church hymns. To me, Jesus was this bizarre mix of adorable baby, judge, and hippy who might send you to hell if you did the wrong thing. I had a lot of un-learning to do to get to know him better.
For the people of Nazareth, Jesus was just “the carpenter.” After so many years, it was like learning that “Bill the Mechanic” or “Sarah the Librarian” was someone amazingly impressive. The people of Nazareth were as dumbfounded as if dogs could suddenly talk and cats could fly.
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.
These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
From the disillusionment of Nazareth, we move back into a time when Jesus could reveal more of his identity. He demonstrates that his power can move through his followers to do great things. Jesus sends out the twelve in pairs to different nearby towns. To show them that their needs will be met, he sends them out without food, money, or extra clothing. He sends them to trust in the kindness of God working through people.
He even tells them what to do if they are not welcomed in a town. “Shaking the dust off your feet” is an old insult. It means that you disapprove of a place so much that you don’t even want its dust to touch you. The biblical purpose of insults like this was to make people feel ashamed for their lack of kindness and hospitality. In a world where everyone walked on dirt roads in sandals, their feet got very dirty, but this suggested a town’s dirt was worse than most dirt. To this day, in the Middle East and elsewhere, to shake the dust off your feet as you leave someplace is considered very insulting.
For a time, the disciples begin to learn how to preach and do work in Jesus’ name. It is the first training for the work they will do after the first Easter.