Do you remember the gospel from two weeks ago when they were caught in a big storm on the Lake of Galilee and the disciples asked, “Who is this who can calm the wind and the waves?” They were not sure of just who this rabbi was that they were following. More accurately, they wanted to know the source of his amazing authority and power. In today’s gospel, the people of Nazareth, his hometown, think they know exactly who Jesus is. They know he is the son of Mary, he has four brothers and an unknown number of sisters who still live in town. He is a carpenter – “tekton” in Greek. That word should really be translated as “builder” because in English a carpenter works in wood, whereas a builder works with many materials. That would be true of a builder in first-century Galilee, where wood was in scarce supply and most buildings were made of stone or a material we would call adobe.
Galilee was prosperous during the time of Jesus, so his family was not living in poverty. Most of the people were peasants, hired to work the land. There was an artisan class which included builders, a little above the peasants, but still considered lower class. Then there was the upper class which included merchants, landowners, religious authorities, lawyers, judges and rulers. 97% of the people were illiterate. There was no middle class.
As far as his neighbors were concerned, Jesus was trying to be something that he was not destined to be. He was born into the lower class, a member of a family of artisans, and was now claiming that he was a rabbi, and even worse, a prophet and a healer. They believed that one’s place in society was determined by birth and family, and it did not change. On top of that, the religious authorities were already against him and spread rumors that he did not honor the law, even that he was perhaps a little bit “off his rocker” as we would say. So, in spite of his success in other areas of Galilee, the hometown folks in Nazareth were not having any of it.
Mark tells us “and he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Unbelief, lack of faith, is linked to Jesus’ ability to teach and heal. We can infer that the few people he was able to heal had faith in his power and so it was a success. Even though Jesus had known these people all of his life, he was still amazed that they do not believe the message of God’s love, mercy, compassion and righteousness that he was proclaiming.
The author of Mark, in his blunt, no-nonsense style, does not mince words. The mission of Jesus to his hometown is clearly a failure. Yet he never gives up. Presbyterian pastor Moffet Churn is encouraged by this story. He recalls how years ago he had to take bowling in order to fulfill the physical education requirement and receive his bachelor’s degree. He was never an athletic person, so at first, he enrolled in judo, inspired by the kung fu films that were popular at the time. But even though he tried twice, each time he took an incomplete because, as he puts it, “for the life of me, I couldn’t learn to fall.” Fortunately, he managed to pass his final exam in bowling and graduate with his class a few weeks later. But he still remembers how fragile and frightened he felt at the prospect of being a beginner in a class that required skill he did not possess. In order to graduate he had to learn both how to fail and how to succeed.
Even though Jesus fails during his visit to his hometown, he does not give up. Instead, he leaves Nazareth and goes out to the surrounding villages to teach, where presumably he had more success. At that time, he also decides to send his disciples out on their first mission trips. He wants them to learn by experience, so that when he is no longer with them they will be able to proclaim the gospel message.
He sends them out two by two for a few reasons – safety, since the roads were dangerous to travel alone, because two witnesses were always required in order to corroborate a story, and for mutual encouragement and support. They were to have complete faith in the laws of hospitality that governed the Middle East and take nothing with them. Food, shelter and any other necessities would be provided. If they were not welcome in a particular place, they were to “shake off the dust on their feet as a testimony against them.” Shaking the dust off one’s feet was a gesture of cursing a place, symbolizing a complete break so that not a trace of it would remain with them.
The indications are that the disciples had some success on their trip. They proclaimed their message of repentance, cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. But Jesus had prepared them for the possibility of failure by the rejection he experienced in his hometown of Nazareth.
This particular story raises a lot of questions. Are we unable to hear the message because we have difficulty in accepting the messenger? Pastor Brian Stoffregen recalls about 45 years ago when he was in a gospel singing group for the summer. They learned afterward that at the first church they visited one of the members came for the performance but said, “if one of those kids has a beard or plays the guitar, I’m leaving.” Stoffregen still has a beard and plays the guitar. The man kept his word and left. Other people from his congregation said it was a shame that he could not hear the message presented in such a wonderful and enjoyable way simply because he would not accept the messenger.
Mark’s implication is that if the people of Nazareth believed in Jesus he could have done a great deal more when he was with them. The spiritual climate of a congregation, the sense of expectation, the sense of openness to God’s power will have a great deal to do with how much God’s power can accomplish in that community. Unbelief does not completely destroy God’s ability to work, but an overwhelming sense of negativity or doubt can have a dampening effect on God’s miraculous power. The lack of faith in the people of Nazareth was revealed by the fact that the people did not seek Jesus out. They did not bring their sick for healing, they did not bring their children for blessing, they did not gather to hear him teach. Faith is not passive, it requires action. Without faith, the people did nothing. In a congregation, faith must be present during worship, at council meetings, in all the many activities that take place.
Jesus says that a prophet is often without honor in their own hometown and among those who know them the best. The basic meaning of the word translated as “honor” means to put a price or value on. We honor those people or things on which we place a high value. To the people of Nazareth, Jesus was just Mary’s son, he was just a builder, he was just one of many siblings. He wasn’t anyone special, why would they bother to seek him out. They resented the fact that he appeared to elevate himself above the status he was born with.
Faith opens us up to receive what God wants to give us. Sometimes it is miraculous, sometimes it may seem to be a burden – like the cross. Even when we are empowered by the Spirit, sometimes we will meet with success and other times we will fail. Even Jesus’ divine power did not prevent failure at times. Yet faith implies action, it implies that we will never give up, that we will always find people and communities – often the most unexpected – that are open to hearing the Good News. Amen.