For readers of Mark’s Gospel, the passage of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth may seem somewhat familiar. But that familiarity can be easily lost on others who have not followed the Gospel narrative sequentially from the beginning. Chapter six begins in ways that are reminiscent of what we find in the first chapter; here as before, the disciples continued to follow Jesus (see 6:1; 1:16-20). For a second time, Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath and began to teach there (6:2; 1:21). Once again, the people in attendance at the synagogue were “astounded” (NRSV) or “surprised” (CEB) by what they heard from Jesus (6:2), the same Greek verb used earlier to describe the response to Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue of Capernaum (1:22). And like those earlier listeners (1:22, 27), those whom Jesus faced in this latest encounter questioned the source of Jesus’ authority (i.e., his wisdom and power; 6:2). In typical Markan fashion, we seem to have two stories that mirror one another … at least in some ways. As a result, this audience (like the previous one) missed what Mark portrays of Jesus: that he proclaimed the good news of God by announcing that “the kingdom of God has come near” (1:15, NRSV).
But there are also differences to this specific scene. The author notes that this occurred in his hometown. Interestingly, the Markan Gospel does not name the town or village, just as this narrative is silent about anything having to do with Jesus’ birth or childhood. Such silence does not place our attention on the town or on the time when Jesus lived there. Yet the immediate resistance to Jesus’ teachings by these “hometown folk” (unlike the initially favorable response that Luke describes; see Luke 4:22) infers some things not explicitly mentioned. The questions about Jesus’ teachings and miracles—which the latter half of verse 2 articulates—suggest that such activities did not fit the typical role of a “carpenter” (6:3), which is what they all knew Jesus to be. Although there was nothing inherently wrong or offensive about carpentry in the ancient world or the Jewish tradition, some considered local craftsmen to be of a lower status than the educated and therefore less qualified for the significant tasks of studying the sacred Jewish Law and making pronouncements about it. Thus, for them Jesus’ teaching and actions were in question. (This may be why Matthew’s account refers to Jesus as “the carpenter’s son”; see Matt 13:55.)
There were also questions about Jesus’ family. These questions mirror earlier questions about Jesus himself: who he was, and what he was about (see, e.g., 4:41). The crowd identified Jesus as “the son of Mary” rather than the “son of Joseph” (6:3), even though it was customary for a Jewish child to be identified with the father (as the other Gospels do with Jesus). Such questions (about Mary and Jesus’ siblings) may imply one of two things: that Joseph was already deceased, or that some doubt regarding the circumstances of Jesus’ birth still lingered for some in the area. The former is more likely, and an additional issue accompanies it. If Jesus was the eldest son of a widowed mother, then the local community would have interpreted his itinerant ministry as his inexcusable and scandalous failure to support her (although not inconsistent with his teachings; see 10:29-30). Thus, the last part of verse 3 explains that “they took offense at him” or literally “were tripped up by him.”
In other words, the ultimate problem wasn’t what Jesus said or did in the synagogue. Rather, it was the resistance that the people already embodied that caused them not to “see” what was right before their eyes and not to comprehend what they were hearing. They already “knew” some things … and maybe so did Jesus’ family, who thought he had lost his mind (see 3:21, 31-35). They had their expectations and beliefs to which they clung. They had their understandings about how God works … perhaps even how God expects sons to fulfill family obligations! There may be good reason why the proverb—“Prophets are honored everywhere except in their own hometowns”—is extended here to include one’s relatives and households (6:4).
Mark’s report of what happened as a result of the people’s rejection of Jesus is unique to this passage: Jesus “could do no miracles there” (CEB). It wasn’t that Jesus’ power was squelched by their resistance, for the narrator continues that Jesus healed “a few sick people” (6:5). What is ironic is that, in other settings, such healings would have been celebrated as a sign of divine presence and activity, but not in a place where little was expected. Whereas other scenes had ended with people’s astonishment over what had happened (1:27; 2:12; 4:41; 5:20, 42), Jesus was now the one astonished, not by a mighty work but by rigid disbelief (6:6) that has blinded the people to divine work. For seeing is not believing.
Most Bible translations and commentaries break this passage in verse 6 after the statement about Jesus’ observation of the Nazarenes’ “lack of faith” (NIV) or “disbelief” (CEB). Despite the negative ending to the scene in Nazareth, Jesus continued his ministry in villages of the region. However, what may be most significant about this is that, for the first time in this Gospel, Jesus commissioned the twelve apostles to serve as his representatives. Despite any apparent setbacks in his hometown, Jesus was not detoured in sending them. As verse 7 makes clear, Jesus took the initiative to send them and give them the authority that has marked his ministry thus far in Mark’s Gospel (6:7). And these disciples accomplish what they were sent to do: they were extensions of the ministry of Jesus (6:12-13). Given other depictions of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel, this summary of the disciples is remarkable in contrast to those in the synagogue of Nazareth, for they mirror the ministry of Jesus but embody his message of the kingdom of God coming near. By following Jesus’ instructions for basic provisions on their journey, they modeled lives of trusting God to provide for their needs, whether for each night’s lodging or for local hospitality. Even the shaking off of dust from a place that rejects them was a sign, not only of judgment but also of ultimate trust in God, so that these apostles would not take anything with them as profit … even that place’s dirt.
That’s the kind of trust that was absent from the synagogue of Nazareth. Rather than faith in what God was doing in Jesus, in their eyes they could only see the problems that Jesus represented. No matter how hard someone would try and convince them, they just wouldn’t get it, because they can only see things from their perspective. Lots of people are like that today, too. No matter how hard you try to explain something, they just “don’t get it” because they see “it” their way. Now … we can refer to many things here, but let’s keep the focus on things of God. Some people have their minds made up as to what God can or will do, the Bible can state otherwise (even in the red letters of Jesus!), and they will still be convinced otherwise. Their spiritual eyes may seem open, yet they still seem to miss what the Spirit is saying to the church. The good news is that the living Jesus is still at work, even when those who do not see cannot see him.
It has been said that those who expect nothing from God will not be disappointed. But this passage from Mark’s Gospel also suggests that those who trust in Jesus will affect the good news of the inbreaking kingdom of God. For seeing is not believing. But those who believe can also see what that kingdom might look like.