Empowering Jesus – Mark 6
The account of Jesus’ rejection by the people of his own town gets at a faith problem a lot of us struggle with: not really understanding and accepting our own power as believers. Mark writes that, after Jesus preaches in Nazareth—among the people he grew up with, including his own sisters and brothers—“many who heard him were amazed.” So amazed, we learn a few lines later, that “they took offense at him” (Mark 6:2-3 NIV).
A few lines after that in Mark’s story, Jesus is also “amazed at their lack of faith” (Mark 6:6). He’s probably offended too, judging from what he tells them. “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town,” he remarks disgustedly, even “among his relatives and in his own home” (Mark 6:4).
The word “amazed,” here, is actually two different words in the Greek of Mark’s account, but translators appear to regard the Greek words as synonyms, since most translations don’t significantly distinguish Jesus’ and the Nazarenes’ reactions from each other. If you ask me, though, in neither instance does our English word amazed—or astonished or astounded, as some translations have it—get at what’s really at issue here.
The townspeople sound less amazed than outraged. “Who the heck does he think he is?” they seem to be asking. “He’s just one of us, isn’t he? Why should we believe him?”
Jesus, for his part, sounds equally outraged. And discouraged. Because of his own townspeople’s rejection, Mark writes, Jesus “could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them” (Mark 6:5).
He could not do any miracles. I looked in every translation I could find—even German and French ones—for a different read on this passage, but it’s always the same. “And he could do no deed of power there,” the New Revised Standard Version translates. “And He could do no miracle there,” laments the New American Standard Version. “And he could there do no mighty work,” according to the King James Version. “So He was not able to do any miracles there,” says the Holman Christian.
Except for healing “a few” sick people—Mark diminishes these miracles’ value with his diction—Jesus could not, was not able to, further amaze the people who knew him best.
What’s going on in this story of mutual amazement, mutual outrage? And what are we to make of Jesus’ apparent powerlessness in the midst of it?
I think an answer might be found in the story of a man and his convulsing, demon-possessed son a few chapters later. There, when the distraught father calls Jesus’ healing power into question by saying “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (Mark 9:23), Jesus once again takes offense.
“‘If you can’?” he snaps back, reminding the poor unbelieving man, “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:24).
This story ends differently than the first, though, after the man responds, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” With this admittedly paltry, unbelief-hampered profession of faith, Jesus admonishes the spirit, takes the dead-looking boy by the hand, and lifts him to his feet. The man’s sheer will to believe—however measly it might seem—empowers Jesus.
It is this determination, this half-hearted attempt at genuine faith, that lacks among Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus’ power seems curiously reliant on believers’ faith. When a bleeding woman sneaks up behind Jesus and touches the hem of his robe, Mark writes, “At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him” (Mark 5:30). After she confesses this apparent theft of his power, Jesus reassures her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you” (Mark 5:34).
We have such power, if we only knew!
The movement from amazement to rejection happens all the time, I suspect, even among Jesus’ own brothers and sisters, even in his own church. And the antidote is that poor father’s hopeless, hopeful prayer: Help me believe!
Patty Kirk is Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. She and her husband Kris live in eastern Oklahoma and have two daughters, Charlotte and Lulu, who are in college. She is the author of five books, most recently The Easy Burden of Pleasing God and The Gospel of Christmas: Reflections for Advent. PattyKirk-Writer.Blogspot.com.