Portable Commentary

7 July 2024

Thought for the day  
Familiarity breeds…well, sometimes blindness. We do need familiarity—we couldn’t be working things out for the first time all of the time. What is regular and known can help us get on with the day or the job or the relationship. But there are times—we all have them—when sheer familiarity impedes our understanding and prevents our encounter with the new, the different and the radical.

Our case is, perhaps, the diametric opposite of that of the people of Nazareth. Our too comfortable faith familiarity with Jesus can hinder us from seeing the radical, the new, the disturbing. Sometimes a bit of defamiliarisation would be good for us!!

Lord, take away dull familiarity and shake us up that we may ask ourselves honestly, “Who then is this?” Amen.

Mark 6:1
  He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6a And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Initial observations
This remarkable story is told in Matthew 13:54-58, Luke 4:16-30 and here in Mark 6:1-6. The event is surely historical. The longer version in Luke is his own creation. Out of the material in Mark 6:1-6, Luke created a significant tableau which uses the story to present themes he wished to anticipate in this scene and emphasise in his Gospel as a whole. For example, the portrayal of Jesus as prophet (and martyr) is very important in the third Gospel. This prophetic characterisation is already present in Mark and emphasised by the proverb quoted by Jesus about a prophet.

Kind of writing
This is a vignette—a short story or chreia—which captures some aspect of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. In this case, it has a kind of summarising effect because this scene closes a major section of Mark’s Gospel from 3:7-6:6a. The questions asked by the towns-people summarise the previous chapters. The “wisdom” given to him is a reference to the parables in Mark 4 and the “deeds of power” serve to remind us of the preceding three miracles: the calming of the storm, the Gerasene demoniac, the woman with the flow of blood and the twelve-year old who had died. An important dynamic in Mark is that Jesus is misunderstood not only by identifiable opponents, such as the Pharisees, but even by those closest to him, including his neighbours and family. This misunderstanding / rejection anticipates the misunderstanding of those closest to him in the ministry and their eventual betrayal.

Old Testament background

Broadly speaking, the authentic prophets of the Old Testament were not acceptable to the people because they challenged the conventional wisdom and the “usual” way of seeing things. Sometimes the prophets were not only rejected but also persecuted and even put to death.

New Testament foreground
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

There are echoes of the present story dispersed in the Fourth Gospel:

The Jews were astonished at it, saying, “How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?” (John 7:15) They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42) For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honour in the prophet’s own country. (John 4:44) Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands. (John 10:39)

St Paul
In his own ministry, Paul too was limited by the receptivity of his hearers. One example may suffice:
“And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)

Brief commentary
Verse 1 The only other mention, in Mark, of Jesus’ hometown is in 1:9. The disciples here are portrayed as “following him” in contrast to the unbelief encountered.
Verse 2 A synagogue was a meeting house for general business of the community, for teaching and also for prayer. Synagogues from the period survive in the Holy Land and elsewhere. Astounded is a common reaction to Jesus in this Gospel (Mark 1:22; 6:2; 7:37; 10:26; 11:18). It might seem positive, but in reality it expresses a rather static reaction to Jesus which “goes nowhere”. The reaction of the townspeople reflects the common reaction when someone from humble origins comes to prominence, that is small-mindedness. As noted above, the mention of his wisdom takes us back to the parables and the deeds of power remind us of the immediately preceding miracles. Notice that they ask three questions: once “whence” and twice “what”. The initial wonder soon degenerates into a negative reaction as they recall their supposed familiarity with this Jesus.
Verse 3 The word traditionally translated as carpenter is rather more general and refers to someone who could work in metal, wood or stone (“builder’s labourer”). The three questions are matched by three notes of familiarity: his mother, his brothers and his sisters. Is not this the carpenter? No other gospel calls Jesus a carpenter. Some witnesses have “the carpenter’s son,” as in Mt 13:55. Son of Mary: contrary to Jewish custom, which calls a man the son of his father, this expression may reflect Mark’s own faith that God is the Father of Jesus (Mk 1:1, 11; 8:38; 13:32; 14:36). The brother of James . . . Simon: in Semitic usage, the terms “brother,” “sister” are applied not only to children of the same parents, but to nephews, nieces, cousins, half-brothers, and half-sisters; cf Gn 14:16; 29:15; Lv 10:4. While one cannot suppose that the meaning of a Greek word should be sought in the first place from Semitic usage, the Septuagint often translates the Hebrew “family member” by the Greek word adelphos, “brother,” as in the cited passages, a fact that may argue for a similar breadth of meaning in some New Testament passages. For instance, there is no doubt that in v. 17, “brother” is used of Philip, who was actually the half-brother of Herod Antipas. On the other hand, Mark may have understood the terms literally; see also Mt 3:31-32; 12:46; 13:55-56; Lk 8:19; Jn 7:3, 5. The question of meaning here would not have arisen but for the faith of the church in Mary’s perpetual virginity. Although Mark does not teach (or deny) the virginal conception, the mention in such detail of brothers and sisters could well have been a bit of a challenge even when he was writing, as it is today. Commentators conclude that the story is historical, on the criterion of embarrassment. The word translated (correctly) as “took offence” is “they were scandalised”. To scandalise occurs a few times in this Gospel (Mark 4:17; 6:3; 9:42-47; 14:27, 29). The literal meaning is to cause to stumble but it soon takes on a figurative sense of offence, as here.
Verse 4 A prophet is not without honour except . . . in his own house: a saying that finds parallels in other literatures, especially Jewish and Greek, but without reference to a prophet. Comparing himself to previous Hebrew prophets whom the people rejected, Jesus intimates his own eventual rejection by the nation especially in view of the dishonour his own relatives had shown him (Mk 3:21) and now his townspeople as well. Notice that Jesus too uses a three-fold formula in his reply. Sheer familiarity leads to inability to accept from this person whom we think we already know.
Verse 5 The idea that Jesus could do no deed of power is also likely to be historical. The later tradition, under the influence of the Easter faith, did not attribute incapacity to Jesus, even before the resurrection. The little correction is also interesting – he did actually heal a few people, in this case the sick, perhaps representing those who know their need of God.
Verse 6 This is a very strong verse, underlining their lack of faith. Lack of faith is itself a theme in Mark (5:34, 36).

Pointers for prayer
1. The story reminds us of how personal prejudices and agendas can block us from listening to the content of what another person has to say, no matter how relevant or wise it is. Perhaps you have experienced this? What difference has it made to you when you were able to focus on the content of what was being said and leave to one side your own prejudices about the speaker?
2. It has been said that there is nothing as useless as the right advice at the wrong time. We may want to reach out to another, but may be unable to make a useful contribution because at that moment the other person is not ready to be helped. Like Jesus we can “do no deed of power”. As Jesus had to be patient and wait for another opportunity so do we. What have you learned about the importance of patience in working with other people?
3. The topic of religion can easily bring up prejudices, leading some to dismiss religion as superstition, old hat, or based on an outdated world view. Even among believers, prejudice can make it hard for individuals to listen to an alternative way of looking at things, to consider a different way of celebrating liturgy, or to live at peace with difference. Yet a closed mind can lead to a stagnant faith. When have you found that a willingness to consider a different perspective led to a deepening and strengthening of your faith?

God of the prophets, in every age you send the word of truth, familiar yet new, a sign of contradiction.
Let us not be counted among those who lack faith, but give us the vision to see Christ in our midst and to welcome your saving word. We make this prayer though Christ our Lord. Amen.