Context and Structure
The lectionary committee, alas, has taken texts from two different sections of Mark’s gospel and put them into one reading. Mark 6:1-6 is the conclusion of a section that begins in Mark 3 (either verses 1-6 or 7-13, depending on the commentator). Mark 6:7-13 begins a new section that may run through the end of chapter 8.
In addition, Mark 6:7-13 may be the first part of another Markan sandwich, including the sending of the disciples and the death of John the Baptist. Therefore, in our reading, we get an incomplete version of that sending and may have to fill in the results through our sermons in order to get a fuller picture.
Indeed, it is difficult to understand the discipleship mission in Mark in depth without a brief mention of the execution of John the Baptist. We will return to this text in more detail next week, but it’s helpful to read it now. Herod Antipas is convinced that Jesus is John the Baptist back from the dead to haunt and taunt him. This allows Mark to insert a flashback reporting what happened to John – an event that was hinted at briefly earlier in Mark’s account.
Just for clarity, let’s remember that one of the main issues for Mark’s account is Jesus’ identity. We get a preview of the conversation in Mark 8 as we listen in on the panicked conclusions of Herod Antipas. The same speculations that later come from the disciples now echo in Herod’s council chambers. But Herod’s conclusion is clear. This is the beheaded John, back to make his life a living hell.
“For the reader,” Moloney (2001) writes, “the issue has been raised of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, and with it the awareness that as the Baptist went to death, so also must Jesus.” Perhaps we can see that in the midst of the missionary success of the disciples, the shadow of the cross still looms. Discipleship has both rewards and costs, and the cost is everything.
I can’t help but think about Bonhoeffer’s oft-quoted line. When Jesus calls a person, Bonhoeffer asserts, Jesus bids that one to come and die. “John’s martyrdom not only prefigured Jesus’ death,” Moloney (2001) writes, it also prefigures the death of anyone who would come after him. The one who comes not to be served but to serve is the one who gives his life as a ransom for many. And we who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection are called to die to self in order to live to Christ.
John’s execution foreshadows a number of elements in Jesus’ suffering and death, as Moloney notes. Both John and Jesus are put to death by rulers who regard them as good and holy men. Both rulers are stark contrasts to the goodness of their victims. Neither John nor Jesus gives in to the pressure either of the crowds or the rulers. The difference, of course, is that John’s tomb was not emptied.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the lectionary choice is the impression that the disciples were unqualified successes in their missionary efforts. Moloney (2001) gives a summary of the issue. “The disciples of Jesus, true to the call which comes to them from God, and like the Baptist, are to commit themselves unflinchingly to the mission for which they have been empowered by their association with Jesus,” Moloney writes.
“As with the Baptist, it will cost them no less than everything,” he continues. “Despite the good signs that accompanied the initial response of disciples to Jesus’ call,” he argues, “they show the signs of their inability to accept all the consequences of that call. They return to Jesus,” he concludes, “the source of all they do and say, with whose mission they are privileged to be associated…to tell him everything they have done.”
As Moloney notes, these are the same disciples who panicked in the boat in chapter 4. I would add that they are the ones who can’t figure out who touched Jesus’ garment. They are, perhaps, wondering along with the local folks where Jesus gets his power. Moloney argues that not only can the disciples not yet figure out who Jesus is. They can’t even figure who they are and how they fit into the “power picture.” As Moloney notes, no matter how much short-term success they experience, these are the ones who desert Jesus when things get tough.
“But that is not the end of the story,” Moloney (2001) reminds us. “That can only be found somewhere in Galilee, in a meeting between the risen Lord and the disciples There they will see him,” Moloney continues, “as he promised, despite the failure of everyone in the story…”
We have noted previously that one of Mark’s concerns is Jesus’ identity. Moloney helps us to see that Mark is also concerned with the identity of the disciples and, by extension, the members of the Markan faith community. It seems likely that Mark’s gospel is, in fact, a tool in forming the identity of that faith community in at least a couple of ways.
Walker (2016) argues that this community identity was shaped by participating in the gospel as oral performance of the gospel. That performance reported Jesus’ miracles as a central part of Jesus’ ministry and “that he expected The Twelve and other disciples to carry on the miracle tradition in their mission to Israel and beyond” (page 86). As we noted above, to be a disciple was (and is) to rely on Jesus’ for the authority and power to continue the mission.
All that being said, what are some elements which can tie together the two parts of our reading? One common factor is that both the home folks and the disciples center themselves in their relationship with Jesus. The Nazareth folks are sure that Jesus is “gettin’ above his raisin’,” as the phrase goes in some parts of this country. They are sure his identity and anchoring must come from the home territory. Anything beyond that is suspect.
We will talk further about this in the next section. But the salient point here is that the home folks are convinced that their reality defines Reality. The Nazareth perspective is the definition of normal, rational, and acceptable. They know the True, the Good, and the Beautiful when they see it, because their experience defines all of the above. This Nazareth-centric perspective means that they cannot see Jesus beyond his origins. Nor can they put their trust in him to do the works of the Kingdom among them.
The disciples are apparently sure that they are the ones doing the works of power on their mission. They are like me when we got our first remote control for a television. My dad told me to stomp my foot. The channel on the set “magically” changed. He told me to do it again, and the channel changed again. I was certain that I had developed a channel-changing superpower.
My dad let me figure out reality for myself (which took a bit). Parents and grandparents have engaged in variations of this game, I suspect, for as long as there have been parents and grandparents.
I’m not suggesting that Jesus was messing with the disciples here (although I imagine he did on occasion). Instead, I’m pointing out how easy it is for us to assume that we have the power to make something happen, when in fact that power comes to us from God through Jesus in the Spirit. When good things happen, I want to take the credit for making them happen. When bad things happen, I want God to take the blame.
We know that in Mark’s gospel account, this overreach on the part of the disciples will reach a climax in chapter 8. Jesus describes the necessity of his confrontation with the powers of sin, death, and the devil on the cross. Peter takes him aside to straighten out this troubling line of thought. Jesus names him Satan and identifies the power that seeks to convince us that we are the center, in charge of the universe.
It’s not much of a stretch for us to think about life in our congregations. How easy it is to believe that our local perspective is the definition of what is normal, acceptable, and right. How easy it is for us to treat anything from the outside as perverse. That is also the perspective we have adopted as white people in a cultural where whiteness is centered as normal and worshipped as supreme. The problem in Nazareth and in our white churches is the idolatrous worship of what we think we know for sure.
And we think that we are the ones who will make our lives, our churches, and our history turn out right. We invest so much in finding the right path, program, procedure, or plan to make our congregations grow. As we learned earlier in Mark, most of the time our best strategy is to get ourselves out of the way, out of the center, so the Kingdom can arrive and flourish as God intends. Of course, we really hate that.
The good news is that even though we all respond with such resistance, the Reign of God has come and is growing among us. Even in our childish self-centeredness as disciples, Jesus invites us to come along and to be changed by the journey.
REFERENCES AND RESOURCES:
Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
MOLONEY, F. (2001). Mark 6:6b-30: Mission, the Baptist, and Failure. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 63(4), 647-663. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43727251
Walker, B. (2016). Performing Miracles: Discipleship and the Miracle Tradition of Jesus. Transformation, 33(2), 85-98. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008863
Wright, N. T.. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.