The gospel for July 4th begins immediately after the intertwined episodes of Jesus healing the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years as soon as she touched his cloak and of raising the dead daughter of Jairus. When he healed the woman, Jesus said that her faith had healed her. When the mourners at Jairus’s home laughed when Jesus said the girl was sleeping and not dead, he told Jairus, just believe.
The faith of these two people contrasts starkly with the lack of faith in the opening verses of this morning’s gospel, Mark 6:1-13.
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
These “identity questions” about Jesus’ power and wisdom reveal a transition from amazement at his wisdom and miracles to skepticism about how the ‘little boy’ they had known could have become so wise and powerful. Mark used compact sentences to describe what was likely an extended shift in the thinking. A paraphrase of their conclusion might be that ‘He’s one of us. We know his family and how he grew up. There’s no way that he could be our teacher.’ They had labelled him in their own identity and could not open themselves to the wider possibilities in faith.
It may also be that Jesus’ teachings about God’s love for people on the fringes of society and even about God’s welcome to non-Jews upset people. He may have challenged their smug complacency about their status as God’s chosen people. Alternatively, it could be that his wise teaching and authoritative miracles had begun to attract so many people that synagogue leaders felt displaced by the following that Jesus was gathering and they fomented opposition.
The question of who Jesus is runs throughout Mark. In the first chapter, he establishes Jesus’ identity clearly at the time of his baptism, when a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) Despite this, the people who encounter Jesus constantly ask about his true identity. In the gospel several weeks ago, when Jesus calmed the storm during the crossing of the Sea of Galilee, his disciples asked “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41))
The gospel for the day continues, Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” While he uses a third person reference…a prophet… Jesus is speaking of himself and his identity as one sent from God.
He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.
Their lack of faith was the reason he could not do any miracles. The townsfolk had decided that they knew everything that was relevant about Jesus and refused the possibility that he had been gifted by God’s Spirit and to recognize that he was God’s beloved Son. (Mark 1:10-11) They were so certain of their understanding that they dismissed him. Their blindness kept them from accepting him as anything other than the carpenter. They were locked inside their own perceptions of him and rejected the reality of his mission and miracles.
Some biblical scholars worried that the phrase, he could not do any miracle, implied a limit to Jesus’ powers. Others interpret it as a way of saying that even his miracles could not compel their acceptance of his mission.
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Apparently, other villages did not suffer from the same limits to their understanding, and they accepted him and his teaching.
Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.
Jesus gave his disciples an opportunity to drive out impure spirits themselves. This commission may have surprised some of them. While they may have become used to hearing Jesus teach and seeing him cure possessed people, doing the same, themselves, might have seemed like a bigger step than they were ready for.
They had witnessed his teachings and had seen him drive out demons and cure people. But in addition, Mark also told us that when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything (Mark 4:34). Jesus had given them a ‘small group tutorial’ on interpreting his teachings and his miracles. While they still misunderstood some things, it appears that Jesus thought that they were ready for a training mission. He saw their potential and knew that they needed to internalize their understanding by experience. They also needed to act in faith…to just believe… as he had told Jairus.
Significantly, he sent them out two by two. They were to support each other, perhaps critique each other’s style, interpret their common experiences and learn by doing. They would learn to ‘fly solo’ in pairs. Especially when walking into uncertain situations, the mutual reinforcement would help.
These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
They were to travel light and rely on the generosity of those they encountered. On the other hand, they carried the good news of God’s love and that, as a sign of that love, they came to drive out demons.
Driving out demons was more than a spiritual benefit for an individual. When Jesus had driven out demons elsewhere in the gospels, (Mark 5) not only did the demons leave, but the person was restored to normal living in the community. The authority over impure spirits would also be a social benefit to the community. For this work, most villages would welcome the disciples.
Despite these freely offered benefits, Jesus’ own recent rejection by the people of Nazareth prompted Jesus to advise them, if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place. They should not be surprised if some people refuse to hear their message and to believe.
The next chapter of the gospel picks up the story of this training mission when Mark wrote, the apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. (Mark 6:30)