“There’s no place like home.”
Most of us are familiar with that saying. And I’ll bet there have been many times when we’ve been blessed to experience its truth, especially if we’ve been away from home for an extended period of time. There really is nothing quite like sleeping in your own bed again after being away, is there? At the same time, if there’s no place like home, it’s also true that sometimes homecomings can be difficult. How many movies, for instance, have been made about adult children coming back home to celebrate a dysfunctional family holiday?
One of my most vivid memories of a homecoming was Thanksgiving break back in 1983. It was my freshman year in boarding school, and I had been away from home for almost 3 months. After such an extended immersion experience of communal living and academic work, I found myself feeling both excited and anxious about returning to family and old friends. Would things be the way I had remembered them or would they be different? It turns out it was a mixture of both. And that was especially true of friends I had left behind. Some of them were glad to see me and we picked up right where we left off. But in other cases, things had changed. There was aloofness where, just a few months prior, there was a close connection. And I even learned that my decision to leave home to go off to school had alienated some people in town from my family. It turned out that coming back home was a bittersweet affair.
Today’s Gospel lesson is about a homecoming that starts out good but then goes sour. After touring around Galilee, Jesus goes back to his hometown of Nazareth. The folks back home are amazed at the things Jesus says. And the things he’s been doing are nothing short of mind-blowing. Jesus has exorcised demons, healed lepers, dared to claim the authority to forgive sins, run afoul of the religious leaders for violating Sabbath laws, calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee, and even raised a little girl from the dead. This goes way beyond what even the most famous of Israel’s prophets said and did. It all suggests that the power of God is working in and through Jesus, offering a foretaste of the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven. Indeed, it all suggests that Jesus himself is the incarnation of that kingdom, the one in whom and through whom we most clearly see the love and justice of God.
In his words and deeds, Jesus reveals that the long hoped-for kingdom of God is breaking into the world. And yet, his family and the folks in Nazareth who knew Jesus since he was a baby turn their backs on him. Why would they do that?
Part of the reason could be good old-fashioned prejudice. You see, back in Jesus’ day, wherever you were born into the social hierarchy is where you stayed. There was no such thing as social mobility, at least not as we know it. Jesus was born into the artisan class, the son of a carpenter. Under his father’s tutelage, Jesus learned the family trade. And he was expected to carry on the family business, passing it down to his own children.
But at some point in his life – maybe in his mid to late-twenties – Jesus experienced a growing awareness of God’s call leading him away from social and family expectations. It was a call driving him to assume the authority and the risks of being not merely a prophet, but the Messiah, the Christ, the Holy One of God sent to deliver God’s people from bondage to sin and evil. Being fully human, Jesus had the freedom to say “no” to this calling. But as the Son of God who freely chooses to align his will with the Father’s, Jesus chose to say “yes” to his identity as the Christ. So it’s little wonder that earlier in Mark, we’re told that Jesus’ family thought he was crazy and that they tried to put an end to his messianic pretensions.
In today’s lesson, when Jesus comes back home to Nazareth and teaches in his hometown synagogue, folks are initially impressed. “Wow, Jesus! We never knew you were so smart! We didn’t know you had it in you to teach like this!” But then the mood suddenly changes from surprise to hostility. “Yeah, but this is Jesus, the carpenter’s boy. Seems like he’s gone off from home and started thinking he’s somebody important, getting all high and mighty on us! Where’s he getting off telling us all of this kingdom of God stuff and how we need to repent? Who made him into a preacher? He’s stepping way out of line. Has he forgotten who he is?”
Mark sums it up by saying: “And they took offence at him” (6:3). And he tells us that Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them” (6:5).
By assuming the mantle of the Messiah, Jesus was saying “no” to the deeply taken-for-granted belief that “geographical and hereditary origins determine who a person is and what his capacities will always be” (Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, p. 192). A lowly carpenter’s son claiming such an exalted status is a big reason why the people in Nazareth take offence at Jesus.
But there’s more to it than that. There’s something else, a deeper reason why in this Gospel, elsewhere in the New Testament, and down through the centuries to our own day, Jesus causes offence and people either walk away or they try to turn him into someone more manageable and less demanding.
I’m reminded of a clergy colleague who once told me about an interesting interaction with a non-Christian. Upon learning that my friend was an Episcopal priest, this person said: “You’re offering a cure to a disease I don’t have.”
Could it be that the deeper stumbling block to receiving Jesus as the Christ is that we have to admit that we have a disease called sin? Is it offensive to be told that we have a problem that no amount of education, therapy, or will power can eradicate: a predisposition to seek our own wills rather than the will of God? Does it challenge our faith in the powers of science, technology, and politics to be told that we live in a world so broken by sin and captive to evil that even our best intentions and initiatives can’t set things right? Could it be that the biggest reason for taking offence at Jesus is that he reveals to us the truth that we need a Savior?
“[Jesus] could do no deed of power [in Nazareth]” and “he was amazed at their unbelief” (Mk 6:5, 6). It’s a striking contrast to Nazareth that elsewhere in Mark, it’s precisely the persons who acknowledge their desperate need for help who receive Jesus and the salvation he brings. We saw that last week, for instance, when a leader of the synagogue named Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to heal his daughter who is at the point of death (Mk 5:21-24, 35-43). We see it when the Gentile woman who suffered from hemorrhaging for 12 years approaches Jesus in a crowd to touch his garment and she’s made whole (Mk 5:25-34). We see it when, blocked by the crowd, four guys trying to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus climb up on a house top and cut a hole in the roof to lower their friend down into Jesus’ presence (Mk 2:1-12). And it happens again when blind Bartimaeus, upon learning that Jesus is passing by, insistently shouts out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” until he gets Jesus’ attention and receives his sight (Mk 10:46-52).
Over and over again, those who see themselves as self-sufficient, those who trust in their own wisdom and might, and those who deny their need for repentance are offended by Jesus and his message. Over and over again, they choose to go it alone. But those who know they need healing in body, mind, or spirit; those who admit that they’re stuck in destructive patterns of behavior that they just can’t break out of, no matter how hard they try; those who acknowledge their need for forgiveness and amendment of life; and those who confess that they can’t make any of this happen by themselves – these are the ones who are receptive to Jesus. And these are the ones who are open to receiving the gifts of healing, hope, and new life.
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope,” Jesus says, for “with less of you there is more of God and his rule” (Mt 5:3, The Message). Sometimes it is in the pain of our brokenness that we discover not only our need of a Savior, but also the first inkling of hope that there is, in fact, One with the love and the power to touch the depths of our being, restoring us to wholeness and newness of life.
We have come to know and believe that that One is Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, the Kingdom Bearer, our Good Shepherd and Great Physician. He comes among us proclaiming the Good News that the kingdom of God is breaking into this sinful, broken world, and that God’s justice will prevail. He comes among us calling us to repent – to turn around and change course – so that we can know the abundant life of that kingdom. He comes among us to save and to make all things new.
Like the folks in Nazareth who knew him so well, we are free to say “no” to Jesus. But if we say “yes,” we will discover a meaning, purpose, and joy to life that nothing and no one can ever take away. We will discover that our true home lies in the heart of God.
Jesus is the Savior. May we always put our whole trust in his grace and love.