Mark 6:1-13 — Hometown Rejection and Missional Action

Jesus leaves the shores of the Galilean lake and enters the Galilean hills east of the lake. Numerous Jewish villages, as well as a few Greco-Roman cities (like Sepphoris), dotted the hills of Galilee. One of those villages was Jesus’ own home town of Nazareth (Mark 1:9, 24). This is not necessarily the first time Jesus returned to his origins, but if this is a separate incident from Luke 4, it had a very similar result. One might imagine that Jesus would visit his mother and family on occasion, especially as he ministered nearby.

The contrasts between Capernaum and Nazareth are significant. Jesus taught in both synagogues on the Sabbath (1:21) and both audiences were “amazed” (1:22). However, that is where the similarities end. While in Capernaum they marveled at this teaching authority, in Nazareth they questioned his audacity. While in Capernaum huge crowds followed him, in Nazareth they were scandalized by his presence and teaching. While in Capernaum Jesus healed all the sick brought to him (1:32), in Nazareth he only healed a few.

The hometown folks are unimpressed. They recognize him as a common carpenter (a wood-worker) and the son of Mary. Perhaps Joseph was already dead at this point and thus Mary is the focus of his parentage. (Another textual tradition in Mark calls him the “carpenter’s son” but the better reading is “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?”) The question, however, is disparaging and demeaning. Jesus is not only a blue-collar laborer but his mother is Mary who conceived Jesus before she was married–we might imagine a stigma might still be attached to her. Jesus is not simply “one of us”—like his brothers and sisters—but his origins are perhaps considered shameful. Jesus is no one special and he certainly does not have the authority to call these hometown folks to “repent and believe” (1:15).

Apparently, the family of Jesus is part of the synagogue audience or at least well-known in the environs. Mary, four brothers (named as James, Joses, Judas and Simon), and an unidentified number of sisters are referenced by the synagogue attendees. In the late fourth century, Jerome suggested that these “brothers and sisters” were actually cousins and Epiphanius at the same time suggested that they were Joseph’s children but not Mary’s. But there is no biblical reason why they could not be the children of Mary and Joseph after the birth of Jesus and thus Jesus’ younger siblings.

Jesus’ response to the reaction of the synagogue’s audience includes his family, most likely his siblings rather than his mother (though we cannot rule out that she thought him a bit “out of his mind” as in Mark 5:21, 31. The proverbial line that a prophet is not without honor except in his own country (city of Nazareth) is extended to include his relatives and his house (where he lives). It seems true everywhere, “you can’t go home.” The memories of childhood and old stereotypes remain, and those hinder any recognition of how a hometown child might have excelled.

Mark characterizes the synagogue’s response as “unbelief.” Whereas Jairus believed and the woman who touched Jesus believed, his hometown does not. Faith was a key ingredient in the Galilean stories in chapter five but is lacking here. Just as many marveled at the witness of the demoniac in Mark 5:20, so Jesus marveled at the unbelief of his hometown folks.

Why does not Jesus conduct a healing ministry here? It would be unwise to read Jesus’ inability here as some sort of metaphysical reality, that is, he did not have the power to heal in this situation. It is perhaps better to read this as a decision by Jesus. Since his message was rejected and he was personally demeaned, Jesus refused to conduct a healing ministry in Nazareth. Jesus is not interested in being a side-show or a crusading miracle-worker which might only solidify their unbelief and harden their hearts in any event. In this sense, he cannot heal in Nazareth. Where there was no receptivity, Jesus moved on (as he counseled his disciples in 6:11); but even this is not absolute here since he did heal a few.

Leaving Nazareth, Jesus becomes a “circuit rider” preacher. He travels around the Galilean villages teaching about the kingdom of God (cf. 1:14, 28), just as he had done in Nazareth. Given the context, Jesus is not only widening his Galilean ministry but is also apprenticing the Twelve which enables him to widen it even more.

Jesus called the Twelve “apostles” (“ones sent”) in Mark 3:14 because he intended to send them into the field in order to participate in his mission. Jesus now widens his ministry by sending the Twelve out in pairs. They will extend the mission of Jesus from village to village. Six pairs can cover more territory in Galilee than one group led by Jesus.

The Twelve fully share in the missional ministry of Jesus—they “herald” the good news of the kingdom in order to turn the people toward repentance. They proclaim the same message as Jesus: the kingdom of God is near; repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:14-15). The Twelve fully share in the missional ministry of Jesus—they demonstrate the presence of the kingdom of God by exorcizing demons and healing the sick (Mark 1:34). The Twelve were given “authority over unclean spirits” just as Jesus had authority over them—Jesus shared the authority of the kingdom of God with the disciples (Mark 1:27; 3:15). The Twelve are full participants in the kingdom ministry of Jesus.

Why does Jesus restrict their travel baggage? They are forbidden to take extra clothing (tunic), food, money (and begging for money, that is, the beggar’s bag is excluded), but they are permitted sandals and a walking staff. In general, we see an emphasis on total dependence. The Twelve are to trust God for their provisions. The disciples are on probation; they are hereby tested.

However, more is going on here. Going out in pairs may reflect the requirement for truthful testimony in the Torah (Deuteronomy 17:6), but the significance of their sending and the restrictions mirrors God’s instructions to Israel as they left Egypt. In Exodus 12:11 Israel is instructed to eat with tunic, sandals and staff in hand for their flight out of Egypt, and then in the wilderness they depend upon God’s provision. The disciples, as new Israel—a remnant of Twelve, go out among the people to herald a new Exodus which is the inbreaking of the kingdom of God.

The Twelve are also given a criterion for staying or leaving in a particular village. If they are welcomed, they stay and practice the kingdom of God by heralding and healing. If they are rejected, they leave for another village. To shake the dust of the feet was a symbolic gesture of disassociation and judgment. If the village rejects God’s missionaries, they heap upon themselves their own judgment.

Jesus himself faced rejection and unbelief. The disciples will face the same. Not everyone will accept the message. If they will not listen to Jesus, they will not listen to the disciples. As we follow Jesus, sometimes we are welcomed and sometimes we are rejected. Nevertheless, we have a mission as Jesus has invited us to participate in his redemptive mission.

6 Responses to “Mark 6:1-13 — Hometown Rejection and Missional Action”

  1.   rich constant Says:

    ya know john mark
    every time you write, i always would have you write something longer.
    i guess i will never change…. 🙂
    may our Father continue to bless you and yours.
    as always

  2.   Gardner Hall Says:

    Thanks for good commentary. Someone asked me once to harmonize 6:8 where disciples were told to take a staff and Matthew 10:10 where they were told not to take one. The texts seem parallel and I didn’t give an answer because I didn’t feel that I had a good one. Do you have any ideas about it?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      This is a difficult problem; and one of long standing. Mark says–wear sandals and take a staff. Matthew says–no staff, no sandals. Luke (9:3) says–no staff.

      My concern is what Mark was doing with the story. The harmonization problem is a wider problem. I don’t think harmonization is necessary as the writers are doing something different with these points. They do say that Jesus said different things to the disciples on what seems to be the same occasion.

      What are they doing? That is part of the problem. Some think “staff” means one thing in Marcan culture (Rome) such as something one uses for walking, but “staff” means something different in Palestinian culture (Matthew and Luke) such as “a rod for protection.” I don’t know if that is true or not, but it seems to me that all three writers were trying to convey dependance upon on God and were attempting to express that point in the best way possible for the cultures with which they were engaged.

      If we think that both Matthew and Luke used Mark, they know they are saying something different. Consequently, Matthew and Luke had a point or a reason for saying it differently. I think we have to look to their contexts to assess that.

      Not an easy problem, but it is more of a problem is we insist on some kind of harmonization rather than letting the texts speak on their own terms.

  3.   riverwindfire Says:

    Hi, John Mark – I really like how you’ve brought out the “new Exodus” side of how the disciples are equipped in Mark. This makes good sense to me.

    I also appreciate how you’ve handled the question of harmonization. It makes sense to me that if MT and LK used MK, they know they’re saying something different – which means they haven’t compromised a real harmonization, they’ve merely re-defined harmonization in terms of their theological purpose with the story – did I get that right?

    Re the question of metaphysical challenge … I saw in an article some years ago called “How Many Baskets Full?” (by someone from Emory, I think) how in Mark 5 you’ve got a peak of power display, followed by a “brownout” in 6.1-5 – followed by the disciples’ ministry and the feeding of 5000 men with 5 loaves and 2 fish and 12 baskets left over, and a stilling of a storm – with a curious motif of misunderstanding on the part of the disciples. The misunderstanding motif continues and deepens in ch. 7. A deaf-mute is healed only with considerable effort, followed by a feeding (of Gentiles?) of 4000 people with 7 loaves and a few fish, with only 7 baskets left over. This is followed by more disciple-incomprehension, a 2-stage healing of a blind man (not unlike the deaf-mute), Peter’s complete incomprehension of Jesus’ messianic disclosure, a misunderstood transfiguration, a very difficult exorcism, even more disciple incomprehension. Mark reports only 2 more miracles in the rest of his book, until the resurrection. (Or something like that.)

    I’m not saying that it would be easy to explain, but isn’t there some plausibility for considering a metaphysical challenge of some kind?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I agree that the misunderstanding motif is a major them throughout 6-8. But I don’t think this factors significantly in the fewer miracles in Mark’s narrative.

      Rather,I suggest that it is about the difference in purpose of the narrative from 1-8 and from 9-16. The former is located in Galilee but the later is the journey toward or location in Judea. The focus becomes the teaching and passion of Jesus in 9-16 rather than his ministry. It is partly a shift in the focus from identity to passion. Fewer miracles are narrated in 9-16 due to the focus of the story.

      However, it is interesting to pause and think about your suggestion. Thanks. You could be right.

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