Listening to the Community (2 Samuel 5:1-5; Mark 6:1-12)
Today’s Gospel Lesson puts together two seemingly unrelated stories: the story of what’s often called Jesus’ rejection by people in his hometown of Nazareth, and the story of the mission of disciples to extend Jesus’ ministry in and around Galilee. To understand them and their relationship better, let’s pretend that we are, maybe, second or third generation Christians in about the year 75, listening to these stories from the Gospel of Mark that has recently become available for us to hear. We’re a mixed congregation. Some of us have Jewish backgrounds, some of us don’t. Our congregation isn’t doing very well. Recently the Jerusalem temple has been destroyed and that worries us for the future, for whatever our background, we know that Jesus and his earliest followers were Jewish. And yet, the Christian movement isn’t doing all that well among the Jewish folks among whom it was born, and more and more non-Jews are coming on board. We also wonder about that. Would Jesus have approved of that? Aren’t things getting too diverse?
To hear the stories a little more as they would have been heard then we have to understand that people then were different than we are. They didn’t share many of our deepest cultural values. Where our culture is driven by individualism and we value individual thought and initiative, they thought these things were bad and even harmful. The most important value for them was honour for their family groups. Honourable people conformed their values to those of the community, mostly by tradition.
Again, our deepest value is economics. What we are worth in the end of the day is based on how much we have. When I see people in trouble today, the nearest cause is almost always economic. Either they don’t have resources or the community doesn’t. The most important value for ancient Mediterranean culture, because they did not value individualism, nor economics, was the community, the family, the village and town, the tribe. Yet again, if we seek reasons for anything, whether it be for our problems or our successes, it’s almost always psychological. There is some individual flaw or feeling, or weakness, or strength in an individual person’s inner self that needs addressing. Psychology was of no interest to the people we’re pretending to be. The way honourable people acted was what was important. And the honourable way was the way their community had always acted. The community defined roles and honourable people stayed within them. They virtually had no identity that was not a part of their community identity. They did whatever they could to ensure that their community was as it was supposed to be, which was as powerful, and as traditional as possible. Other communities (all outsiders) were to be treated as, pretty much, the enemy to be feared and hated.
It’s hard for us not to attach “good” to our way of doing things, and “bad” to other ways, but cultural norms are just that. We prefer ours, and think God ordained our values, So did they. Different cultural values are not better or worse, but different. Until we understand that, we’ll not understand these texts we call the Bible, written in and to a different culture than ours, and many times we’ll ask the wrong questions. Maybe this is enough to understand for us to pretend this morning.
This will surprise you, I think, but all I want to say about the Old Testament Lesson is that gives us the pattern for how one could be a leader in that culture. 2 Samuel 5 is the third of three texts that address the choice of David as king of all Israel. At first it was only God that saw that David had the right stuff, but later the people of Judah saw it, and finally the people of all Israel. What is crucial, however, is that David became king only when the people affirmed that he had the traditional characteristics that defined a king in their culture. It is only then that he is anointed. This is the pattern of all the good and evil kings of Israel. The good ones met community expectations and the evil ones didn’t. The Bible is interested in making a statement about how God sees all this, and so, makes it clear that God had seen this from the beginning. As I said before, Israel saw their own culture as divinely ordained, much as we do.
The Old Testament Lesson provides the pattern that will help us see the two stories in Mark 6 more clearly. The first tells of Jesus’ rejection by his hometown folk. Most sermons on this passage are hard on these people. Some of this comes from our individualistic, psychologizing cultural perspectives that we read into this story. Let’s try to hear the story in a way more like those hearers who listened to the Gospel of Mark for the first time. Their cultural perspective would have been very similar to that of the Old Testament and that of Jesus. The story of chapter 6 is similar to one in chapter 3 where Jesus’ family and town folk (probably in Capernaum) thought he was out of his mind. Why they might have thought so?
Well, how about this: although his home and family were in Nazareth, he chose to go to Capernaum (a rejection of home and family). Jesus had also been out and about, when most honourable ordinary people stayed where they’d been born. Travel or moviing might seem good to us, but, if the expectations of the community define what is right, he was honouring “others” and “outsiders,” thus shaming his own community. In addition to choosing to mingle with people outside his in-group, he had actually touched and healed such people (called “unclean”), he had eaten with them, even women. In 3:31-35, we read:
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers? ”And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Do you see his family is on the outside? His culture told Jesus he should be inside with family. But who surrounded him? It says simply, “a crowd.” Those who were not of his group. His mother and brothers weren’t just calling him to “come home,” but to declare loyalty to family and community. By raising the question of who is family was and answering his own question by saying those who do the will of God, implied that his family did not. This was not honourable for Jesus and it shamed his family, and I assure you he was understood that way.
As if that weren’t enough, he then proceeded to teach in parables, as a learned rabbi might – although not just like a learned rabbi, but (in the words of Mark 1:22) “as one with authority, not as the scribes.” He taught without footnotes, as if he had the ability and authority to make it all up himself. Our individualism says, “Yes, that’s good.” The thousands-year-old culture of his people said, “No!” Loudly.
By the time Jesus and his disciples get to his hometown of Nazareth (where 6:1-6 probably occurred), Jesus’ so-called rejection was already a “done deal,” by word of mouth. Word had spread about this uppity boy who grew up there, who had chosen strangers, and, so, rejected and dishonoured his family and his community in every way possible already. If we understand this, perhaps, we’ll lighten up on these folks a little because they were doing what we probably would do to someone who denied the deepest values of our culture.
As he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus, again, began to teach. Now, while it’s true that any adult male could technically express an opinion in the synagogue, that’s not what Jesus did. He took over. It’s as if some young person walked in here and stepped into the pulpit while you and I are sitting here and started to preach – uninvited mind you. The word that is used to describe the synagogue’s reaction literally means they were “knocked out.” They were bowled over. This word can be used in a good or bad way, and, unless one understands the background here, it’s not clear, at first, which Mark means. But it soon becomes clear, “Where did this guy, get all this stuff, what is this wisdom that has been given him?” Then, they say, “Isn’t this, you know, the carpenter, Miriam’s kid?” “Don’t we know his brothers Jacob, Joseph, Judah, and Simeon?” “Aren’t his sisters here in Nazareth with us?” How is it that only this guy, who has left town, and gotten too big for his sandals, talks like this to us? He probably thinks we’re hicks – but we already know how he’s treated his family and us.” The text describes their reaction by saying, literally, they were scandalized at him. This verb doesn’t usually just mean that someone was offended. It means they actually reject someone or something as outside what was normal, defined and affirmed by the community. An individual was never right all alone.
Jesus then quoted a proverb that we know in several forms: “Prophets are not without honour except at home.” This is sometimes explained as meaning that no one does very well doing what they do at home. That’s probably true. I know I used to have a little trouble preaching at First Baptist, Eau Claire because I grew up there, and, even at age 71, someone in the congregation would remind me of when I was just 5. To get a fuller understanding of Jesus’ saying, however, we must remember that a prophet was one who spoke for God and didn’t worry so much about other people. In a culture where not caring about the community’s approval was just about unthinkable, it may not be surprising that prophets were not much admired or followed, and were often shunned and killed. Jesus’ words more like a sigh of resignation than anything.
Without community support, it’s not surprising that Jesus could do very little in Nazareth and had to move on. If no one is following, no one is leading, even if it’s Jesus. Without community support and affirmation, no one in Jesus’ day could function. He is amazed at what the text calls their “no-faith” (“’unbelief”), which we have sometimes misunderstood to mean the psychological state of not believing he was God’s man or the Son of God. It’s not about psychology. In that culture it would much more likely mean that Jesus was amazed that his own hometown folk, his community, his extended family, could walk away from him and fail to affirm his gifts. Of course, in their view, he had walked away first. How would he react?
What Jesus did next was to send twelve disciples out, not singly, mind you, but in pairs, the smallest community possible. In Deuteronomy, one witness was not sufficient, it took two. He sent them together with authority over the demonic (as his own mission had been summed up back in 1:39). Rejection did not bring on reprisals, nor a going it alone for Jesus, but a mission to build community with community “out there” where he’d always been headed. He sent them out with very little so that they had to depend on the community for support. Even though Jesus went outside his community, and experienced rejection by it, he was no lone ranger that encouraged solo independent evangelists without community support to go out shooting from the hip, but sent out communities to be among communities, and to form ever larger communities.
Perhaps one thing our imaginary readers of Mark would have heard here was that there was a great similarity between what happened when Jesus, working outside of his community, experienced rejection, and their own experience. Their own decision to widen the community had been foreseen by Jesus. How should they react to their lack of welcome in the synagogue? Not by reprisal, but by simply continuing to turn their mission outward into the wide world, where new communities could be formed in ever widening circles – in the words of Jesus himself – “into Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.”
One thing that we, in our individualistic, economically driven age, can learn here, is that our call is to do what we do in community, forming newer, bolder, more diverse communities of faith and learning, so that Jesus’ reign may come, and Jesus’ will be done here on earth, as it always is in heaven.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.