So Much for Home Field Advantage (Mark 6:1-6)
Leaving home is hard enough. But it’s nothing compared to coming back. Thomas Wolfe may have claimed the phrase, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” as a book title. But he was naming an experience as old as human connections. Leaving home means rejecting to some degree, whether we wish it or not, the values, priorities, and practices that make “home” what it is. When and if we return, home has changed. And so have we.
This is a pressing issue for many as family conversations have become more political, more fraught, more prone to explosive outcomes. Do an internet search on how to survive difficult holiday conversations with family members. The returned results will number in the tens of millions. Producing advice on such survival has become a literary genre and a publishing bonanza – especially for those prone to the listicles, the “Ten Ways to Survive Thanksgiving with Your Crazy Relatives” sorts of things.
So, perhaps, we should not be surprised that leaving and returning are fraught moments for Jesus as well. The home folks expect the returning hero to support the values and people that raised and nurtured him. They expect to get a certain amount of credit (known in sociological terms as “honor”) for the success he has become. They don’t expect him to be an irritant, a disagreeable and critical outsider, or an ungrateful snot who has forgotten where he came from.
Why does this story appear in Mark’s account? I was quite taken by Leif Vaage’s 2009 article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, “An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism.” Perhaps that article will spark some thoughts for you as well. Vaage wants to make and then expand on four points: (1) following Jesus requires strenuous and intentional effort; (2) following Jesus is “anti – (conventional) family;” (3) the Twelve ultimately fail as disciples, both individually and together, and (4) the successful and exemplary Jesus followers in Mark are the little people, the minor characters in the narrative (page 741).
Vaage describes asceticism not as a superficial renunciation of sensual pleasures but rather as a rejection of the normal world as normative and satisfying and an embrace of a way of life that finds real satisfaction by living against the grain of the normal world – finding a better or larger life (page 743). He argues that following Jesus requires a “domestic asceticism” – a leaving home as norm in order to find the alternative and then a return to that home to critique and change it from within.
He proposes that it is “Mark’s conviction that the proper and most effective way to enter the kingdom of God is by redoing life at home. This,” he continues, “may be the evangelist’s most enduring challenge to us” (page 744). If that is, in fact, part of Mark’s agenda, then this gospel is the most timely and relevant tract for the times we Christians could have at this moment. And the reading from Mark 6, landing as it does on July 4, could be nuclear in its explosive potential in the pulpit.
“One of the more obvious ways in which discipleship, in Mark, entails serious effort at significant social cost,” Vaage writes, “is the break it requires with ordinary family life. Following Jesus,” he observes, “means, first, leaving home” (page 746). The first disciples abandon their families and their family businesses. Jesus identifies his own family, not as those who are biologically connected to him, but rather as those who do the will of God. In our reading this week, Jesus rejects the limiting identity imposed on him by the home folks and describes himself as a prophet dishonored by them.
The project of Jesus, in Mark, is not at home in the ancient Mediterranean world of normal social relations, including the patriarchal household,” Vaage writes. “Moreover, it does not seek a place within this world,” he continues. “The goal of discipleship is not enhanced participation in the way things are; neither does it seek reform of this world or any other possible improvement. Instead,” he argues, “the first order of business for Jesus and his disciples is deep withdrawal: deliberate dissociation from so-called ordinary social reality” (pages 748-749).
It is difficult to understand how the Jesus in Mark’s gospel could be regarded as “pro-family.” As Vaage notes, the rhetoric of Mark’s gospel sees the conventional family as part of the world’s “business as usual.” The business of the kingdom is to see the world in a new way and to trust in the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, more than in any conventional arrangements of life.
The real disciples in Mark’s gospel, then, are the edgy people – the minor characters who appear on the edges of the narrative and live on the edges of society. They make single appearances in the story and “get it” right away – in contrast to the Family and to the Twelve. The edgy people are healed, saved, and restored. They are commended for their faith. They get permission, at least in the case of the Gerasene demoniac, to tell the story publicly and fully. The edgy people include pushy women who are not punished but rather are praised for their initiative and courage.
All these edgy people act “shamelessly,” to use Vaage’s description. They are guilty of “breaking with indicated cultural roles of reticence and social reserve or distance…for the sake of finding, through Jesus, a better life” (page 750). The people who stick to the cultural script, such as the folks in Nazareth, aren’t able to find that better life through Jesus, because of their hardness of heart. The Twelve are in danger of such an outcome as well and seem to have failed at the end of the gospel account.
“In summary, discipleship in Mark is, finally, not a saga of effort in vain or tragic striving plus forgiveness,” Vaage writes. “In fact, discipleship, in Mark, requires, first, that one break all customary family ties. Following Jesus is initially an act of total renunciation,” he suggests, “unless, of course, one already is a social nobody.” But what happens after one has taken that initial step?
Discipleship, in Mark, Vaage proposes, “is not homeless.” Instead, Jesus and the Twelve spend large amounts of the first ten chapters of the gospel precisely in homes. But everything has changed. “After one has stepped away from the demands and privileges of conventional social life (including the structures and obligations of ordinary kinship,” he continues, “following Jesus, in Mark, next entails returning to the same social terrain to live there otherwise” (page 753). Notice how many times Jesus sends the edgy people home rather than allowing them to follow him on the road to Jerusalem.
Thus, discipleship, in Mark, according to Vaage, “is an alternate domesticity” (page 756). In Mark, disciples must go home again. Disciples leave in order to enter a new world of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Disciples then take on the discipline of returning home to disrupt the conventional structures of life with that Good News.
Jesus is not in the business of composing listicles for how to survive contentious family gatherings. Instead, he tells stories about how to leave and then come back to piss off the home folks.
At least, that’s how it appears in our reading for this week. Vaage imagines the “ideal disciple” addressed by Mark’s account. “In this scenario, the successful disciple first forsakes his or her family of origin as well as other customary affiliations and concerns in order to ‘go after’ Jesus,” Vaage argues. “A process of unlearning is thereby set in motion, during which many standard conceptions and usual expectations – regarding, for example, the nature of salvation, social authority, the Messiah, and so on – are challenged and abandoned, even as other unfamiliar, traditionally unauthorized, socially liminal persons and experiences serve to teach the alternate way of life identified by Mark with entrance into the kingdom of God” (page 760).
Perhaps we are called to disrupt the settled structures and assumptions of our biological, church, and social “families.” I can do that, but I don’t often do it for the sake of the gospel. I’m just difficult. Doing it for the sake of the gospel is an ascetical discipline, if Vaage is right, and not merely an exercise in self-justification.
I’m still working on that one.
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.
VAAGE, L. (2009). An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71(4), 741-761. Retrieved June 25, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726614.
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.