“On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue,” writes Saint Mark in Chapter 6 Verse 2. It is hard for us to appreciate the full meaning of those words, to comprehend what a powerful place the synagogue was in the life of the local community. To be put out of the synagogue literally meant being excluded from membership of the community, it meant being ostracised by everyone, so to teach in a way that would challenge the synagogue and its leaders was something that might cause people to literally turn their backs on you, to walk past you in the street, to treat you as an outcast. The Christians were to find themselves put out of the synagogues in 85 AD and it was an experience that left them alone and in danger. Jesus has gone to the centre of power in his hometown and his words have clearly challenged them because, we are told, they were astounded. We can almost imagine the muttering among them, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”
Jesus approaches the synagogue as an outsider, he approaches the place of power as an outsider; it is a lesson to his followers that the places of power should be approached with caution and a critical mind. Churches were never meant to be part of the state, never meant to be “established.” Once churches became part of the ruling group they became compromised and they became corrupted.
Jesus has clearly rattled the religious leaders because they straightaway launch an attack in Verse 3, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him”. Ad hominem criticism, attacking the person rather than their arguments, is the refuge of those who cannot stand their ground on their own principles, who cannot argue the case on the basis of what they believe. It is the stuff of the tabloid media, instead of arguing on the basis of convictions, they will seek stories, fabricate them if necessary, in order to try to discredit those with whom they disagree, and so affect the chance of ideas being embraced. Jesus would have been subjected to the most vicious of attacks.
Is there a warning note there for followers of Jesus? Does Jesus’ experience suggest that truth and integrity will bring out the worse in those who do not want to encounter such things? If churches do not meet with this reaction, is it because they do not behave as Jesus did?
Jesus gives his followers a stern warning about their lifestyle, in Verses 8-9, it says, “He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” The teaching of Jesus would have been troubling to those who had grown up with Old Testament teaching on wealth representing blessing from God, it would have been troubling to those who were rich but considered themselves religious. Such verses were to become quickly ignored by the church, once it had become powerful the idea of such austere lives was to be set aside in favour of magnificent buildings and opulent lifestyles. The medieval church was a contradiction of everything that Jesus had taught.
In the Twenty-First Century, such radical discipleship has all but disappeared. Roman Catholic theologians who spoke on an option for the poor were silenced. Protestant churches rarely engaged in such thinking. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are more likely to embrace the theology of Deuteronomy, where doing the right thing will make you rich, than to say that people should live plain and simple lives. How many churches would urge such a simplicity of lifestyle?
In Verses 10-11, there are words that are particularly appropriate to the present time, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Jesus is telling his followers to disengage from fruitless conflicts, if people disagree, just to walk away and avoid a fight. In times when religion was imposed, the idea that people were left free to choose was radically different. Jesus is looking for people who freely choose to follow him, not those who are forced to do so.
Fruitless arguments abound in our own times. The social media on the Internet are filled with people repeating the same lines, again and again and again. Civility and good manners have disappeared, to be placed by a vitriolic rudeness and the confusion of prejudice with principle. Do you know what Jesus say? Walk away from it. Switch off the computer or the phone. Shake the dust of pointless conflicts from your feet. If enough people said that bitter arguments are not the way, the world would be changed.
Is it likely Jesus’ followers will follow him?