Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 8, 2018
Mark 6:1-13 Commentary
This lection from Mark 6 provides a curious set of contrasts as well as a wonderful irony.
First, we twice read the word “amazed” here: first in verse 2 and then again in verse 6. Jesus here is doing what he’s been doing ever since Mark 1 and 2 when he began his public ministry of authoritative teaching and wondrous miracles. This time, however, he’s doing this work back home among people who “knew him when.” And so although we are told that they were “amazed” at his work, this is a different Greek word than the one used in verse 6.
The people are, in Greek, ekplesso, a word that contains more than a hint of incredulity. This kind of amazement is not the fall back in awe sense of wonder you have when something amazes you in a delightful way but more the astonishment you feel at something you’re not 100% is even real. Sometimes people amaze me by what they say but a good portion of the amazement I feel stems from my disbelief that ANYONE could ever think in so odd or illogical a way! (The Greek word here explesso may have no linguistic connection to “perplexed” but part of this word reminds me of “perplexed”.)
For his part in verse 6, Jesus’ amazement is from the more common Greek word thaumazo, which is the kind of astonishment that contains little doubt but that bowls you over with power. When a gifted violinist whizzes through a series of arpeggios in a Bach violin solo, I am amazed, blown away, simply left speechless at the wonderful thing I just experienced. That’s how Jesus felt: he had no doubts as to what he was seeing before his eyes, it just took his breath away that the situation was what it was.
Jesus’ amazement stems from their dubious amazement as to what Jesus was saying and doing in their midst. The reason is that the crowd can’t quite believe what they are witnessing. This has to be some sort of conceit, some trick, some chimera that is not what it appears to be at first glance. Notice how they move themselves from dubious astonishment to a wholesale impeaching of what arrested their attention in the first place.
Literally translated, here are the people’s collective comments in verse 2: “What’s all this now? Who gave this fellow such wisdom? What kind of (miraculous) power is this that flows through his hand?” These comments are peppered with vague words of the “how now?” and “wassup?” variety. The Greek is littered with tiny particles and interrogatives of a general and generic nature.
But precisely by stating and framing things just this way, the people are implying that the obvious conclusion—viz., this is all from God himself—cannot be the right conclusion. SOMEthing is up, but who can say just what it is? All their “whither” and “whence” queries darkly hint at the possibility that the source for all this is something shady, something underhanded, maybe even something evil. It’s almost as though they are sputtering, casting about for some explanation, ANY explanation, other than the obvious one.
They then further back this up by mentioning Jesus’ pedestrian origins in a simple family from their community. Who does he think he is anyway? He’s parading himself around as someone great, but everyone in his hometown knew better than to accept that at face value! And so they rather quickly manage to transform their initial (albeit dubious) astonishment at Jesus’ words and deeds into a scandal—a hometown scandal. In verse 4 the Greek skandalizo—literally to be tripped up by someone—is the word translated as “offense” in some versions of Mark 6. They found Jesus to be a stumbling block, a cause of falling down instead of a source of inspiration that could lift them up.
Jesus could not do much for or with people who viewed him that way. Doubtless there was a little envy going on here, and as we all know (and see the Illustration Idea on this text) once you are the target of envy, there is little you can do to defuse that envy. You’re rendered powerless by those who envy you—anything you do to try to get around their envy merely deepens their suspicion.
In a wonderful twist, however, Mark shows us that Jesus turns right around and far from being undone by the treatment he received at the hands of his fellow townsfolk, he actually EXPANDS the mission by sending out the disciples (who will soon be referred to as “apostles” for the first time ever in verse 17 of this same chapter) armed with more power over disease and demons than they ever had before. That’s the great irony here. The more the world tries to tamp Jesus down, impugn his character, hinder his ministry, the more the Holy Spirit responds by sending out more workers to do even more miraculous teachings and deeds!
And THAT, very properly, should evoke amazement from us all!
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
In Mark 6 is it the case that Jesus couldn’t do many miracles or that he just wouldn’t do them? On the assumption that Jesus could do whatever he wanted with his power—that is, on the assumption that even yahoos and yokels were not sufficient to actually sap Jesus of his divine abilities—I tilt more toward the “would not” side of the ledger.
You see, miracles and deep teachings of the type Jesus had been performing were meant to redound to the glory of God. They were not sideshow spectacles designed only to be eye-popping for their own sake. This was not titillation for titillation’s sake. No, these were signs of the kingdom, arrows pointing to the new day dawning through Jesus’ presence on the earth.
But when people were torn up with envy and riven with disbelief, none of that could happen. Criticism replaced praise, doubt displaced thanksgiving. And if people were not going to glorify God for what they see—if they were not going to become more hungry for the kingdom as a result—then the very purpose of the whole enterprise was short-circuited from the get-go. What’s the sense of even trying in that case?
Maybe it was like trying to hold a party in the midst of one of the most sour, dour, and gloomy folks you could imagine. Imagine whipping up some excellent cuisine—some perfectly cooked lamp chops perhaps, a side of melt-in-your-mouth good whipped potatoes with hints of truffle and cream. But then imagine placing this great food in front of people who just poked at it, sniffed it, and then pushed it aside. “Got any burgers or fries?” they might say to you.
Your goal in producing great food was to create a festive atmosphere, to throw a party for heaven’s sake to celebrate some great thing. But how can that happen when the best you have to offer is scorned? It reminds me of a moment on the videotape of our wedding. We’d just had a wonderful lunch at a fine Grand Rapids restaurant. My bride and I had selected the menu ourselves: Dijonaisse Amish Chicken Breast, Pan-Roasted Vegetable Medley, Caramelized Onion Tart. But at one point during the video footage shot just after lunch, you can hear my father-in-law ask one of his relatives how they enjoyed their meal, only to hear one of our grumpier relatives grouse, “There were no potatoes.”
That kind of comment just does not put one in mind to have this person over for a meal sometime!
Jesus did not do many miracles in his hometown because people flat out missed the point.
As noted above, the Greek of this text contains some interesting clues as to how to interpret what is going on here. First, there are two different verbs in verses 2 and 6, even though in many English translations both get rendered “amazed.” But the people’s amazement in verse 2 (Gk: ekplesso) contains a whiff of incredulity and doubt. Jesus’ amazement in verse 6 (Gk: thaumazo), on the other hand, is the more usual sense of being surprised at the situation before him. Speaking of the people’s doubt-tinged amazement, the “offense” that the people take at Jesus as reported on in verse 4 is in the Greek skandalizo, which is literally a stumbling block. This could even give you a title for this sermon: “Hometown Scandal.”
In his story “Abel Sanchez,” writer Miguel deUnamuno nicely highlights the nature of envy and why it that the envied person is often trapped. In this retelling of the Cain and Abel story from Genesis 4, the Cain character is played by a skilled surgeon who has for years secretly envied his friend, Abel Sanchez, a skilled artist. At one point in the story, the doctor is scrutinizing one of Abel’s paintings. This particular painting is a depiction of the Cain and Abel story from the Bible. At first, the doctor is convinced that the face of Cain in the painting is modeled on his own face. And he becomes furious! How dare Abel Sanchez use HIM as a model for envy? The gall! The nerve! The implied accusation!
But then, upon closer inspection, the doctor decides it’s not his face after all. Does this defuse his anger, however? By no means! Instead the surgeon becomes irate that Abel Sanchez did NOT deign to use him in one of his famous paintings! How dare Abel NOT use his face!
DeUnamuno’s point is clear: when you are the object of envy, you cannot do a blessed thing to make the situation any better. Try to be extra kind to the one who envies you, and this kindness will get written off as condescension and charity. Try to rise above things by ignoring the one torn up with envy and you will be written off as arrogant and rude, thereby merely confirming the envier’s low opinion of you. Neither approach nor avoidance can help the envied one.
It’s difficult to know how much of a role envy plays in Mark 6 but surely the sneering attitude of Jesus’ fellow townsfolk revealed at least a smidgen of envy-driven sentiments. Maybe this had something to do with his inability/unwillingness to do miracles there. He was doomed no matter what he did. Do more miracles, and the people write him off as a showboat (and/or as someone drawing off power from dubious sources). If he refused to do miracles, maybe a few would say, “What now?! We’re not good enough for ya, not WORTHY of your wonder-working power!?”
Perhaps the only thing left to do was leave town and go to other villages, from which Jesus sent forth his disciples-cum-apostles to do wonderful work in places where it could be unalloyedly appreciated.
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