Many Christians believe that if we knew Jesus in the flesh, we would have immediately understood him and believed in him. We would certainly not join the crowd that cried for his execution nor his disciples who abandoned him to the cross. I am not certain about myself, and Mark is skeptical about everyone. Let’s see why.
We find Jesus today on a roll. Last week we saw him cure the sick and raise the dead. Before that he cast out demons, cleansed lepers and performed a host of other miracles. He taught the first parables and calmed the sea itself. What could stop him? His own people.
As was his custom he went to the synagogue when visiting his hometown of Nazareth. This was a village with about 200 people. The synagogues were, then as now, the backbone of Jewish Religious formation. It was where the law was taught, and their identities formed. The service was conducted by lay people and the synagogue leadership could ask any learned layman to comment on the readings. It was not what we would consider preaching. If not a rabbi himself the speaker would reflect the teachings of his or a prominent rabbi in a dry commentary on the readings.
Jesus preached; we saw this at the beginning of the Gospel when he was invited to speak in the synagogue at Capharnaum. The people were “astonished as his teaching, for he taught them as one with authority and not as the scribes.” Jesus’ preaching was always powerful and immediately a man with an unclean spirit cried out that he knew who Jesus was. This is a satanic ploy to get power over a potential exorcist, Jesus simply exercises his authority and orders him out. The congregation was duly amazed.
As were the people in Nazareth. Indeed, they ask all the right questions: where did he get this, what kind of wisdom is this, what mighty deeds are wrought by his hands? These are necessary to ask with any experience of Jesus. Yet they do not arrive at the right answer. They are blocked by their preconceptions.
This is a small town and not only does everyone know everything about everyone else, but every person has his place in the community and there is tremendous pressure not to upset it. To stand out is to bring shame on one’s family and community. If Jesus proved himself to be a wonderful commentator on the Torah it would have been welcomed but there was no place for a miracle working preacher.
Our translation today says that the “people took offence at him” The Greek word is Skandalon which is a stone on which one trips. They were scandalized, they tripped on very nature of Jesus.
Jesus’ response is telling. Many ancient writers wrote that great philosophers and teachers were not accepted among their own people. Jesus however does not say that a teacher or even rabbi, but that a prophet is rejected. Given the history of the prophets this is certainly true and perhaps part of their job description. It is important to realize that Jesus is calling himself a Prophet, this is his self-designation. A prophet calls the people to a greater participation in the covenant, a closer relationship among God, humanity, and nature. We respond to Jesus’s invitation by faith.
Jesus was unable to perform many great works there because he did not have a relationship with the people, they saw only the carpenter’s son not the way to God.
The people of Nazareth did not have the imagination to see further. Mark is concerned that the members of his community may also fail to see and believe. At the transfiguration Jesus is revealed in splendor with Moses and Elijah. Peter, James and John have never seen anything like it and wish to build 3 tents so they can savor the experience forever. They cannot conceive of any more important or deeper experience. It is the same problem as the Nazarenes. Jesus just will not stand still; Jesus is always greater than our idea of him.
The desire to do this is my stumbling block, my scandal. We can become far too comfortable with Jesus or at least our idea of him. Our ideas may have formed during a personal crisis when we felt that he has carried us. They may have been part of an intellectual awakening when the scriptures came alive to us. Perhaps our perception of Jesus derives from great personal pain or experiencing the pain of others. These are all powerful experiences, but they are not enough. No matter how profound and beautiful our conception of Jesus, He is always more. He ss more of the same with what we have clearly understood, and he has more facets and dimensions than what we have dimly perceived. Growing in our faith is deepening and broadening our experience of Jesus.
This is rarely without spiritual bloodshed. It is easy to make our relationship with Jesus comfortable and comforting. We can make Jesus an idol. We may be satisfied with this, but Jesus is not. The better we know him the more joyful life will be, and that knowledge may require him to break the idol we have constructed. Jesus did not die and rise to give us anything less than joy. This may be a moment perhaps more than a mere moment of pain for a far greater reward. Also, this may not occur only once. Just as our experience of life requires us to make changes in what we think and how we live in many areas so too with our relationship with Jesus. As we mature as humans our relationship with Jesus must mature as well.
What married couple has not grown in their marriage? It would be very strange for someone to feel the same for their spouse on their 50th wedding anniversary as on their wedding day. How has our relationship with Jesus changed since first communion or even after the not unusual religious doubts and rebellions of young adulthood?
Mark shows us today that forming a relationship with Jesus is neither an intellectual exercise nor a moral test, it is an adventure.