by Daniel Harrell
For those of you for whom going home at Christmas means more misery than mistletoe, tonight’s passage from Mark’s gospel is for you. I had a friend in college who struggled mightily to get through his coursework and needed some serious help if he was going to graduate. Being one of those obnoxious kids for whom school came fairly easy, I told him I’d work with him to get him through statistics class. We grinded it out over the entire semester, sweating out the logic of p-values, standard deviations and analysis of covariance. The hard work paid off. When test time came, my friend pulled in a respectable B+, the highest grade he had ever received. He figured his folks would be so pleased with his progress that he decided to wait and tell his parents as a sort of Christmas present. Once home, he sprung the good news, only to have his dad raise an eyebrow and ask, “What’d you do, cheat?”
It’s the same kind of reception Jesus gets from his folks here in chapter 6. The last time we were in Mark’s gospel, chapter 4, Jesus told a raging storm to be quiet (and it obeyed) demonstrating to his disciples that God himself was in their boat. In chapter 5, Jesus went on to cast a legion of demons into a herd of swine, heal a woman with the mere swipe of his coattails, and raise a young girl from the dead—firmly establishing his divine credentials. However, because Jesus let his miracles do all his talking in chapter 5, I’m skipping over to chapter 6 since this is a sermon series on the sayings of Jesus.
Now surely news of his popularity and power preceded his arrival in Nazareth. You’d think he would have been welcomed back with open arms, you. But instead, stepping into the local synagogue to teach, all he got was folded arms. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught, but I take for granted it’s the same sort of thing he’s been teaching throughout Mark. You know, the Kingdom of God is like seeds. Throw them in the ground and watch what happens. For people with higher expectations of God’s kingdom, having Jesus talk in terms of germination had to be disappointing. Of course had they remembered their Sunday School lessons, they would have remembered how seed metaphors fit squarely within the Old Testament prophetic tradition. Isaiah and Ezekiel both described God departing his people because of their faithlessness, leaving Israel to topple like a mighty tree cut down to a stump. Yet Isaiah from that stump, Isaiah promised a “holy seed” would emerge. As we read every Advent, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD will rest on him.” Jesse was the father of the great King David, the one in whose image and lineage the Messiah would come. Maybe Jesus’ congregation did remember their Sunday School lessons. Maybe they knew that seed talk was Savior talk—and that was the reason they asked where Jesus got all his wisdom and power from. After all, Jesus didn’t look like any King David they’d ever imagined. Verse 3, “Ain’t he that carpenter boy of Mary’s?”
But before you start thinking this was an expression of community pride, Mark writes in verse 3 that “they took offense at him.” The phrase derives from the Greek word “scandalize.” In the passive voice, it means: “to have your moral sensitivities insulted.” By taking offense you realize their calling him Mary’s boy was like calling him a mama’s boy; real men were always identified as sons of their fathers. Of course everybody knew that Jesus wasn’t Joseph’s son anyway. That dirty little secret was out. Mom had been pregnant before the wedding, and not by the groom. Was this why Mary and Jesus’ brothers tried to have him locked up back in chapter 3? No need to bring any more shame on the family. No need to have the illegitimate son running around with a Messiah complex. He’d already made all the ministers mad. Given how things had gone so far in Mark, you’d think Jesus would have expected the rude reception. But Mark writes in verse 6: “He was amazed at their lack of faith.” It’s the only time in Mark Jesus is described as being surprised.
The only way he knew to explain it was with a popular aphorism: “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown, and among his relatives, and in his own house.” It’s one of the few sayings of Jesus that shows up in all four gospels. Mark does have Jesus tacking on the part about his relatives. Perhaps that’s because only Mark reports Jesus’ family thinking he was crazy. By referring to himself as a prophet, Jesus placed himself in that long line of prophets sent by God only to be rejected by the people of God. And not just rejected, but eliminated too. The very people he was sent to save want nothing to do with him. And when they finally do, it’s only because they want him dead.
Had this occurred in more recent times, Jesus might have used another aphorism: “familiarity breeds contempt.” Turns out this is true. A recent psychology study using online dating asked participants whether learning more about a potential date would lead to greater liking. The participants responded, “of course,” and were then given a list of traits about another person and asked how much they would like that person. The traits were generated to be broadly representative and participants were shown anywhere from 4-10 traits at random. The results showed that, contrary to their expectations, the more information people had about others the less they liked them. As soon as just one trait popped up that was undesirable, suddenly every other trait became undesirable, even the traits they previously valued.
This study reminded me of an article in The New York Times entitled Let’s Not Get To Know Each Other Better. The author, Joel Walkowski, writes how what typically happens with relationships these days is that, friends meet up at some sort of bonfire or impromptu game of night volleyball. Maybe that girl from your history class or office is there, and you start to talk. Neither of you has expectations. But just hanging out and swapping stories, laughing a little, creates a spark and the attraction builds, eventually leading to the big kiss that changes everything and nothing. It’s the perfect romance, a pressure-free surprise. With a stranger, everything is new and acceptable. Her quirks are automatically endearing. This first encounter is the perfect place, but where does it lead? In the best case, nowhere at all. If it continues, you have an understanding, physical chemistry and great conversations. Your relationship is good. Your relationship is strong. But it isn’t a relationship, and that’s the key.
“But,” the author goes on to write, “staying out of relationships can be just as much work as maintaining one. After hanging out with the same person several times I’m sometimes haunted by the “Relationship Status” question on Facebook, and I’ll linger over the button, wondering whether to make the leap from fun to obligation. I envision holding hands, meeting her parents and getting matching ankle tattoos. Then I come to my senses and close the window. ” He writes, “We float from room to room watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing Frisbee and finding satisfaction around every corner, if only for a moment. Out of fear, we shrink ourselves. There have been many times I should have cried but stifled the tears. Instances where I should have said, ‘I love you’ but made a joke instead. Once, a girl dumped me and it nearly ruined me. How bad was it? I ate nothing but Wendy’s for an entire week. I’m fairly certain I could have saved the entire endeavor with a soul-baring soliloquy of what was true and what mattered to me, but I couldn’t muster the courage. I don’t know many who can. We’ve grown up in an age of rampant divorce and the accompanying tumult. The idea that two people can be happy together, maturing alongside each other, seems as false as a fairy tale. So when a relationship ends, it isn’t seen as bad. It’s held as evidence that the relationship was never any good to begin with. But I do occasionally wonder: If we can’t get past ourselves and learn to sacrifice for the sake of somebody else, then what is in store?”
The mystery of the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is that Jesus is God in the flesh. It’s not that Jesus looks like God, but that God looks like Jesus. The tragedy in tonight’s passage is that by rejecting Jesus, his family and friends reject God. We like to think we would have acted differently, that face to face with Jesus we would have fallen on our faces and worshiped him rightly. But imagine God looking like one of your relatives. Any of your relatives. You see the conflict. Familiarity breeds contempt. You’d like to think the problem was that they didn’t really know Jesus at all; that if they had, they would have come around. But that usually doesn’t happen. Instead, people say “I know God,” but then say things like “I know God would never have me suffer or be unhappy or poor,” or “I know God would never cause disaster to strike,” or “I know God would never allow evil people to succeed” despite that in Scripture God does all these things. And then when disaster strikes or evil wins or suffering happens, their faith crumbles under the weight of disappointment because the God they thought they knew never existed.
I had the opportunity on Friday to speak to a gathering of medical ethicists on the question of whether terminally ill babies can be medically sedated until they die. I was invited to provide a “religious perspective,” but was told by my host not to make it too religious. She was worried that if I went overboard with the Christian references I might turn off the largely secular audience to the good stuff she thought I had to say. It’s rare that anybody ever worries about me being too religious. I respected her wishes but thought it necessary to began my presentation by laying out a few presuppositions I brought to this question (since I am a minister). Among these was that Christian ethics views suffering redemptively. The God we worship suffers unjustly himself in Christ, meaning that God is in solidarity with all who innocently suffer and that ultimately, because of his resurrection, all suffering will somehow be redeemed. In Christ there is no “meaningless suffering.” As the apostle Paul put it, “To share in Christ’s suffering, is to share in his glory.” For Christians, this is our hope and strange comfort amidst suffering and death.
The reception from the largely secular crowd was good. A number approached afterwards to express appreciation for my contributions. The only flack I caught was from another Christian, who furiously leapt up at the end of my presentation to loudly assert how “all Christians do not view suffering redemptively.” “God would never allow the innocent to suffer,” she said. Except that God does allow the innocent to suffer. Mark writes in verse 5 that Jesus “could do no miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” It’s an odd picture, isn’t it. Theologians are quick to insist that Jesus’ hands weren’t tied. He could have done more if he wanted to. But that only makes matters worse. It’s one thing to say that people’s lack of faith made it impossible for Jesus to use his power; it’s another thing to say that he chose not to use his power. OK, so he healed a few sick people, but apparently he left the rest to endure their hardships and affliction. Is that what God is like? Uh, well, sometimes. Right? But that’s not right. That’s not fair. That’s not what the Jesus I know is like. That’s offensive.
Familiarity breeds contempt. And thus most tend to opt for less familiarity. Stick to the parts of the Bible that say what we want to hear. Have Jesus be a cuddly baby who never cries surrounded by stuffed animals who never stink along with cute angels who never scare anybody. Cut out those parts about Mary’s and Joseph’s humiliation caused by God and all those innocent babies God allowed to be murdered by King Herod “in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” Un-familiarize yourself with all of that, and faith is easy. The only problem is that it’s no longer faith in Jesus.
A Neonatal Intensive Care nurse came up after my presentation to thank me. She said that the most difficult aspect of her job is always wondering why. It was enough that she had pretty much given up on God. But ironically, giving up on God had made the suffering she witnessed and worked among even harder to bear. It was one thing for a child to suffer. It was another for the suffering to be meaningless. If God who suffered in Jesus does somehow redeem suffering, that God might be worth believing in. Maybe this is why, rather than pretty presents laid out under a tree, Christ communicates his love by his body and blood laid out on a table. This is our hope and strange comfort.