“And he was amazed at their unbelief.” Mark 6:6
Have people changed at all since Jesus stood up in his hometown synagogue? Are we any different now from what we were on that Sabbath morning twenty centuries ago?
A colleague tells of a lovely harvest festival service in his church: the church was full, the singing was great, the harvest offering was large, but at the door afterwards, there were two women engaged in a heated argument. Was it something in the sermon? Was there some theological disagreement?
No, the row was because someone had arranged a vase of flowers and put it on one step at the front of the church and someone else had dared to move it down a step. How would Jesus have reacted?
“On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded”, Saint Mark tells us. Doesn’t it seem odd that the people reacted in that way? They know who he is—they name his mother and his brothers—doesn’t it seem odd that they were astounded when he began to teach? Knowing his family, would they not have heard stories about Jesus, and wouldn’t those stories have grown in the telling?
The word used by Saint Mark that is translated as ‘astounded’ meant ‘amazed’, ‘overwhelmed. But what has overwhelmed them? Not a sense that they are encountering the Son of God; not a sense that their lives will never be the same after this moment. Look at their reaction; these are not people who are going to repent and believe the Gospel, these are hostile people. Being overwhelmed by the words of Jesus, they become defensive.
‘Where did this man get all this?’ they say. ’What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!’ It is a confused response; they are questioning, they wish to express their doubts, but in their opposition there is a recognition that this man is someone special. ‘Deeds of power’, they have a sense of the miraculous taking place.
They will not allow themselves to accept that Jesus might be something more than just an itinerant teacher. They cannot argue with what they have seen and heard, so they resort to the tactic always adopted by those who have lost arguments; they resort to asking personal questions. If they can establish Jesus is of humble parentage and has no social standing, then they can convince themselves that his teaching has no authority.
‘Is not this the carpenter?’ they ask. They know who he is; their point is that this man is an artisan, a working man, in their view of the world, he can be ignored. ‘The son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ Whatever astonishment, amazement they may have felt; however overwhelmed they may have been; they are going to try to bring Jesus down to Earth; to present him as someone who is just an ordinary person from an ordinary family. It’s the sort of tactic employed by politicians in our own time; if you can’t cope with the message, go for the man instead.
‘And they took offence at him’, says Saint Mark in Chapter 6 Verse 3, but wasn’t that their intention, anyway. Being confronted by the truth, how do we respond? Either we accept that truth, and we are changed by it, as happened with Jesus’ disciples, or we reject that truth and try to reinforce ourselves against it. The offence taken by the people in the synagogue is their psychological defence against the truth they meet in Jesus; it is their way of convincing themselves that they are right and that they do not have to listen to what Jesus might say.
‘Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house’. It’s much easier for the place and the family and the home of a prophet to reject him because they are the ones who may most easily resort to personal arguments rather than principled ones. Knowing someone’s personal background is assumed to give one the right to diminish what a person might say. It is a trait in human nature as much with us today as it was in the time of Jesus.
The saddest part of the story is that the diminishing of Jesus by the townspeople, the rejection of any thought that he might speak with authority, hurts no-one except the people of the town, ‘And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them’.
Twenty centuries later, we remember them for their failure to grasp the opportunity to welcome the most amazing man in history; their pride closed their eyes to who it was standing among them. Even Jesus wonders at the reception he has received, ‘And he was amazed at their unbelief’, says Saint Mark.
Twenty centuries later, and have we changed?
The lady complaining about the vase being moved would surely have realized how absurd her complaint was if she had stopped for one moment to ask what Jesus would have made of it. When we reach the point where people are arguing after church about a vase being moved from one step to another, then we must really asked if a word of what Jesus said has been absorbed. How could such matters even merit a mention if there was a real sense of Jesus being present?
Are we like the people in the synagogue, so filled with our own preoccupations that we turn Jesus away from our company?
Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. Would he not feel a similar amazement if he visited most of his churches today?