First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 6

William Loader

Pentecost 6: 8 July Mark 6:1-13

This is a very rich passage. It forms a new beginning after Mark’s three episodes which symbolise Jesus’ power to change the world (stilling the storm, 4;35-41; the exorcism at Gerasa, 5:1-20; and the healing of the two women, bringing them back to life, 5:21-43). Before those three we had the parables of 4:1-34, which reflected on the responses to Jesus, seen in the first three chapters. The second half of chapter 3 wove together the responses of Jesus’ family, thinking he was mad, and those of the Jerusalem scribes, who declared that he was empowered by Beelzebul (another was of saying he was mad). 6:1-6 is returning us to the theme of Jesus’ family. In 3:20-21 and 31-35 they are portrayed as failing to understand Jesus. 6:1-6 rather pointedly emphasises again that they, along with the rest of his kin and the synagogue gathering, do not accept him (see especially 6:4).

Both Matthew and Luke modify the direct statement about Jesus’ kin refusing to honour him for who he is (Matt 13:57; Luke 4:24; compare Mark 6:4), as they remove the note in Mark 3:30-21, which is best read as the family thinking he was mad, as the literary context shows. Such stories do not fit easily into their narratives which begin with miraculous stories about Mary and her piety. Mark is probably unaware of those stories. Some think Mark’s rather negative portrayal of Jesus’ family reflects conflict with the Christianity which came to be fostered and led by Jesus’ brother, James. This is speculation. Mark is straight forward: Jesus’ family had trouble accepting him.

Certainly Mark is telling us something about Jesus which was also part of his instruction to others: there is a higher priority than family power and obligation. Family power, meant to empower one to independent adulthood, frequently aborts the process, and becomes a source of oppression. There are many people who can identify with the experience of being reduced to ‘junior’, someone’s child and therefore no one in particular, whether by family systems or extended family or local communities and whether in outward reality or in the inward reality of the mind and memory. Some people’s salvation, liberation, therapy needs to consist in being set free from such shackles. Many will be listening to our sermons this Sunday. Preach on this aspect and you will need to ensure there is pastoral counselling available. It is major.

6:1-6 belongs closely with its twin in 3:31-35. ‘Whoever does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother’ (3:35) as much here as there. That may well mean leaving the natural family behind, a revolutionary thought - and a healthy one.

6:1-6 raises lots of questions: were James, Joses, Jude, Simon and the sisters (alas, unnamed, - a male world) really Jesus’ siblings? Mark would wonder why we ask? I’m sure he thought so. Where is Joseph? Dead? If Jesus was a tekton, which could mean carpenter, mason, would he have worked at nearby Sepphoris, which was being rebuilt during his young adult life? Possibly. The narrative tantalises us with such questions, but its focus is on the appropriate response to Jesus, so that the patronising comments which make him just ‘the kid from down the road’ enhance the irony. Mark wants to us to be shouting the answers to the bigger questions: ‘Where did he get all this from? What is the source of his wisdom and the miracles?’ From Mark’s first five chapters 1-5 we should know enough to know!

Mark leads us to believe that the disciples were present in the synagogue crowd (6:1). They saw what happened to Jesus. When Mark proceeds immediately to report how Jesus sent them out (6:7-13), we can hardly miss the point that they should expect a similar reception. Mark 3:13-19 reports how Jesus appointed 12 apostles. He then immediately begins his report of the family’s response. Here the order is reversed; 6:7-13 reports the sending of the disciples. The same point is being made: expect rejection! In 6:30 they return from their labours. In between Mark narrates the murder of John the Baptist (6:14-29). Mark is underlining the message: expect rejection!

The choice of 12 was doubtless symbolic and reflected a claim to represent Israel’s interests as God’s people. They were the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry (so Mark 7:27; also Matt 10:5; 15:24). The Q tradition preserves a saying according to which these 12 were to sit on thrones and rule beside Jesus in the future kingdom (Matt 19:28: Luke 22:30). They are all male, reflecting expectations of male leadership prevalent at the time. They were by no means Jesus’ only disciples. Many followed him, women and men, and many of these would assume leadership responsibilities in the emerging church. The 12 are called apostles (‘envoys’), but this was a term used more widely in the early communities of others as well. Later, Luke appears to reflect a view that only the 12 were apostles, but also preserves the view that the term was not so narrow (see Acts 14:4,14). Paul offers us evidence that the 12 were an identifiable group (1 Cor 15:3-5), but, despite Acts 1, nothing indicates they had any exclusive claims to leadership in the early Christian communities.

Q also has an account of Jesus sending out apostles, but probably with mention of the 12. Matthew gets around this by merging both traditions into one in Matthew 10. Luke does so, by using Mark in Luke 9 and then having a sending out of 70 in Luke 10. We are looking at the beginnings of ordered ministry. Some people who responded positively to Jesus’ message stayed in their communities and lived out their radical faith. A few others joined the group around Jesus and travelled with him. Such behaviour is thinkable in a pre-industrial, poor, economy. You were on the bread line, whether at home or travelling.

Jesus’ fellow travellers included the 12. He appears also to have asked his fellow travellers to share his ministry. He sent them to live as he lived, being hosted by sympathetic locals, living very simply (Mark says, with a staff and sandals; Q says with none). They were to do as Jesus did: proclaiming the reign of God and living it by healings and exorcisms, setting the oppressed free. They were to be bearers of that kind of good news in word and deed.

Their lifestyle was also a statement in itself. It challenged the sedentary bases of power founded on land and family/kin. Jesus promoted a radically alternative set of values. The social dislocation which he challenged some to take upon themselves was a social and a political statement, because it called into question the dominant values of society which kept the poor poor. Whether among the travellers or among those who stayed in their community, Jesus called people to be and bear good news for the poor. No wonder the established power structures of family and land and religion saw only madness and did their best to tame him and his followers. The judgement of history is probably that they have at least succeeded with most of his followers to this day.

Epistle: Pentecost 6: 8 July  2 Corinthians 12:2-10

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