In the last fifteen years, Bruce Chilton – New Testament scholar now of Bard, formerly of Yale – has produced, among other things, a pair of books entitled Rabbi Jesus and Rabbi Paul. In these works, the author draws together the various scriptures pertaining to each of his subjects and creates an essentially linear storyline about them. They are both very readable and helpful books, in terms of gaining a richer understanding of God’s movement, purpose and significance in and around each of the title characters. Something about the way Chilton connects the material draws the reader into clear and rich images, as well as very productive questions.
In Rabbi Jesus we learn that, even though the gospel writers did not expressly state as much, it would have been entirely expected for Jesus to have been treated by his fellow Nazareans with a mixture of something like sympathy and something like derision. Chilton asserts that Jesus would have been called, often behind his back and by those with whom he was most familiar, a mamser, an expression signifying one whose parentage is in question. This may account for the change in how he is perceived in his home town as, here in chapter 6, he teaches in the synagogue. You might recall that in chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel Jesus similarly teaches in the synagogue in Capernaum. There he also astounds the people, but does not offend them.
Look closely at the verses in today’s lesson – where the locals ask each other if he is not the carpenter – a blue-collar profession – one cited by Celsus, a second-century critic of Christianity, as a piece of evidence that, of itself, justifies ridicule of the Jesus movement. The locals also ask if he isn’t the son of Mary, moving many commentators over the centuries to suggest that reference to Jesus’ paternity is conspicuously absent here. This was such an issue for the other synoptic writers that Matthew and Luke make moves, in their gospels, toward cleaning up the paternity issue, using lengthy and fantastical birth stories.
But there’s more – more light being shed in this passage on how we are who we are as a result of relationship with God.
Despite the suggestion that the tension between Jesus and his family or hometown may have been an on-going sub-plot of Mark’s story, Jesus rises above this first depiction of that tension, and provides himself an alternative. He gives himself a new name. By referring to himself as a “prophet” he gets in line with a whole history of counter-cultural figures within his community.
And in the society through which Jesus moved and taught and prayed and healed, prophets would, indeed, have received honor. Traditional wisdom of that age, however, understood that such honor would generally occur in places where the prophet was less familiar. Aside from the “birther” element, moral culture in antiquity was such that honor was seen as a limited commodity – if someone gained, then some else lost. To be recognized as a prophet in one’s own town meant that the honor due to other persons and other families was somehow diminished. Claims to more than one’s appointed – and that’s appointed at birth (hence the need for elaborate birth narratives, not just of Jesus but of many leaders in antiquity) – claims to more than one’s appointed share of honor threatened others and would eventually trigger attempts to cut the claimant down to size. This was very much a part of what was at play in this gospel scene, according to Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, the authors of a 2002 volume entitled Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.
Honor was a limited commodity.
My first response to this observation was, I confess, something like relief I suppose. “Thank goodness”, said I, “we’ve come such a long way in the last two thousand or so years.” But there’s still an uneasiness vibrating in me that suggests maybe we humans still operate in a hazy spiritual remnant of such limiting thinking.
Can it be that a trace memory exists in us whereby honor can be limited or put at risk if it is too broadly shared? Can that be part of what still undergirds our beliefs regarding our own value and the value of others? History shows this kind of thinking at work in pretty much any circumstance in which something like ethnic cleansing occurs – the Holocaust being, perhaps, the most obvious and egregious example. But other examples exist as well, ranging in scope and complexity from the retaliation of nation against nation, to the drive of an individual to acquire power and resources, to the entire system of capitalism that enriches some at the expense of others. It’s a time-honored dynamic that we….well….we just seem to take for granted.
It had to be at least thirty years ago. I can’t recall who the interviewer was, but the subject was Nelson Rockefeller, then one of the wealthiest people in the world. Probably the interviewer was Mike Wallace – David Frost and Dick Cavett were not so hard-hitting – but the question still rings in my ears, “Do you have enough money?” Rockefeller paused momentarily, then shook his head. The next question came, “How much would be enough?” And, a moment later, holding up forefinger and thumb close together an answer came that was shockingly powerful in its telling of the truth, “…just a little more”, said Rockefeller.
We are not enough. I get the feeling that Jesus is aware that this internal struggle is always, in varying degrees, part of the human condition. And some of the ways in which we survive such a belief about ourselves – some of the ways we cope – have to do with the, often unwitting, construction of a mechanism by which we try to prevent our own perceived diminishment. In our world culture, that mechanism might be the amassing of material wealth and power, or domination over others who appear to threaten us on some level or any number of efforts toward differentiation.
I will be diminished unless I minimize you, or silence you, or somehow demonstrate to myself and/or others that I am greater than you. This kind of thinking – this belief – plays out in myriad ways in our day to day lives, some examples more troubling than others, perhaps. But it is just such an ethos – or belief system – that undergirds ethnic cleansing and, for that matter, all acts of racism or victimization of any kind. It is, naturally, at the foundation of the horrific violence at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston SC, a profoundly tragic event that may have the power to point us toward examining how we are who we are. And for us as members of faith-community, that examination has to do with what kind of impact relationship with God might make.
Prior to entering seminary I had the honor of serving as Chair of the Ryan White CARE Act Planning Council that served nearly the entire central section of the State of New Jersey. I share this with you only because some of my work with this project radically changed my views on racism. As a policy writer I received an enormous amount of training from the Federal government on how to conduct the planning and decision-making processes attendant to a program that brought funds directly from the feds and, sometimes literally, into the hands of those receiving care. All the key players in the service sector were required to take part in deciding how the federal money should be spent and on what kinds of services. Both the users and providers of clinical and other services were called upon to enact the planning and decision-making processes required, and it was impossible for all those at the table to completely leave behind self-serving agendas. I was on the team that developed conflict of interest policy and, as a result of a very long and awkward series of attempts to institute fairness, we eventually came to the place where we began to grow a little more comfortable during some of our spirited exchanges over what might be the best course of action involving expenditures – comfortable enough to be able to ask, “…can you tell me how what you just suggested does not represent a conflict of interest?” It became clear to us that in this feature within the process of service delivery, conflict over what may or may not be deemed self-serving could not be eliminated. It can only be managed. And, at best, it is managed without rancor. As a result of that learning experience, I’m very tempted to admit that I am a racist. I’d also tempted to suggest that you are too. I don’t believe it is something that can be eliminated from how we move through this world. It can only be managed, at best without rancor.
But while I’m ok making such an admission, I also harbor the hope that you and I are better than we were – such hope strengthening me to become even more mindful of discerning more and more effectively all the time how to identify when I may be most at risk of offending or behaving unfairly or out of fear. It’s becoming a process of leaning toward a painful or challenging reality in such a way as to stop short any of my own behavior that might be deemed irresponsible, or that which meets my needs at the expense of others.
Because of that conflict of interest training, I’ve begun to think of this issue of racism as a hallmark of the kingdom of God. It is already among us – it is, if we recognize it as such, an opportunity to release the kind of fear that makes us want to differentiate ourselves – raise ourselves up in gestures of comparison-making.
But we need guidance – and this is something Jesus recognizes as well. Even as he marvels at their unbelief Jesus, of course, models the best behavior for us in the face of assault, or criticism like the snarky remarks of his homeys. As we noted earlier, he rises above the attempt to minimize him. And then he goes further.
The rejection of Jesus’ hometown did not hinder the mission for long. In fact, it may have provided a catalyst – the commissioning of the disciples follows immediately. Here they are sent out in pairs on their first assignment. This is why Jesus had chosen twelve, perhaps, in chapter 3. Since that point they were preparing for their own mission. Through parables in chapter 4, Jesus taught about God’s reign, even providing private instruction for them. In chapter 5 he performed liberating acts of healing for them to witness and learn from: the demoniac and the swineherd, the hemorrhaging woman, and Jairus’ daughter (“Talitha cum”). Finally, just before he sent them out, the mission experienced unexpected rejection as a signal of what may well occur in their work in the movement.
It’s genius. The mission of the disciples mirrors Jesus’ own mission. Ours is meant to mirror theirs. The implications in Mark’s writing should be clear to us: Jesus’ disciples are not passive beneficiaries of their teacher – they are partners – he gives them a mandate to witness and to heal – to replicate his mission – to be that which continues his work.
And even more exciting and more to the point is how he sends them empty-handed. The equipment for the ministry he calls us to seems to us, at first, astonishingly meagre. No extra clothing is allowed, no bread, no bag, no money. The paltry resources echo Jesus’ own. 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”. Later (in chapter 6) 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 we can do with so little.
What would the world be like if we could live from this kind of thinking and believing? Would we be changing how we show the world who we are when we let go of a tendency to grasp after things like wealth and power? What would this place be like if trust in God’s providence undergirded how we live stewardship – you mean I get to keep 90%? That’s cool! – I suspect it could only lead to a stronger sense of God’s mission in the world – where all we say and do and are communicates to everyone with whom we come into encounter, “I am enough. And God is why. So you are enough too!”
In the end this story is one wherein rejection, instead of generating vengefulness, births a fresh approach to ministry – indeed the next level of development. And in the gospel, it is a ministry that is enacted by some pretty dimwitted and empty-pocketed guys who, surprise-surprise, get the job done.
Y’gotta love Mark’s gospel – there’s no stopping the good news. In chapter 13 Jesus lets his friends know that they will indeed be persecuted in his name, but they must continue to proclaim it nonetheless. He promises to them and to us that we will know, by the workings of the Holy Spirit, what to say and do when the time comes. The good news cannot be stopped. Despite the mysterious ways of human freedom – ways that include power issues and comparison making, we’re shown in today’s lesson that our efforts stand a much better chance of success when we remember to operate in partnership with God.