By Ched Myers, the 6th Sunday of Pentecost (Mk 6:1-13)
Note: This is an ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B, 2015.
At this point in Mark’s narrative we are given some background on each of the three major “protagonists” of this story: Jesus (6:1-6), the disciples (7-13) and John the Baptist (14-29, the gospel for 7 Pentecost). These three episodes each concern “rejected prophets,” which opens up a central theme of the second half of the gospel: the cost of discipleship.
This narrative sequence begins with Jesus’ return “to his own country” (6:1). For a third time, he teaches in a synagogue on the Sabbath (see 1:21ff; 3:1ff), and for a third time he encounters opposition. But this time it is not from the authorities, but from his neighbors and kinfolk. They are suspicious of this local boy’s notoriety, objecting that he has no distinguished lineage (6:3). Because of the domesticating constraints of nationality, kinship and household expectations (6:4), the “prophet without honor” is unable to effect change in his hometown, and returns to his itinerant mission (6:5f).
For a second time Mark re-generates the story in the wake of “failure” with a discipleship commissioning story:
3:1-6: Rejection in Capernaum synagogue
3:13-15: Jesus summons disciples, appoints them to preach and cast out demons
6:1-6: Rejection in Nazareth synagogue
6:7-13: Jesus summons disciples, sends them to preach, heal and cast out demons
This episode is often extolled by commentators as the “beginning of the Christian mission.” However, gospel “proclamation” (Gk kērussō) by someone other than Jesus) in fact was inaugurated in the epilogue to the story of the Gerasene demoniac, who upon being healed “went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him” (5:20). Indeed, those touched by grace are often ahead of the church in bearing witness to good news.
Here, however, Mark is more interested here in Jesus’ groundrules than in the disciples’ mission itself, which is reported only in summary fashion (6:12f). They are explicitly instructed to take only the bare necessities for travel on “the Way” (6:8-11). This suggests that Jesus is articulating something fundamental for the life of the “apostolic” church (the disciples are called apostles by Mark only in 6:30).
The point of this “dress code” is not asceticism, since Jesus has already rejected cosmetic piety (see 2:18-22). Instead it enjoins missionaries to be dependent upon the hospitality of the people to which they go. Rendered a “stranger at home,” Jesus is instructing his community to learn to be “at home among strangers.” The rule of thumb is simple and clear. Where the gospel is received and embraced, disciples are to remain; where it is rejected, they are to move on (6:10f). This severs evangelism from any practice of domination or conversion-by-coercion; indeed, it roots it in vulnerability. Simply put, the history of the world would have been vastly different had Christian missionaries heeded these few directives!
The symbolic act of “shaking the dust from under your feet” (Gk ektinaxate ton choun, 6:11) signifies dissociation and/or protest (the phrase “as a witness against them” also appears in Mark 1:44 and 13:9). The gesture clearly was an important expression of missionary mobility in the early Jesus movement, reflected not only in both other synoptic gospels (Mt 10:14 and twice in Luke: 9:5 and 10:10f) but in Acts 13:51 and 18:6 as well (it worked both ways, too; see Acts 22:23). This may be an allusion to Is 52:2: “Shake yourself from the dust (LXX ektinazai ton choun), rise up O captive Jerusalem,” and probably alludes to dust as a sign of mourning (Josh 7:6; Lam 2:10; Rev 18:19). It was, in any case, a nonviolent gesture, and stands in stark contrast to the swords, flags and guns of western missionization over the last five centuries.
Finally, as we’ll see in next week’s reading, intruding between the departure and return of the disciples (6:30) is Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s fate at the hands of Herod. This “Markan sandwich” functions to underline the vulnerability of those proclaiming repentance. Opposition from the powerful will be part of the discipleship vocation; nothing, on the other hand, is said about missionary conquest!
The politics and spirituality of explicit or implicit coercion has so infected Christian evangelism since Constantine that it is almost impossible to disentangle from imperialism. (For an exploration of indigenous oppression and European Christian culpability see a film just out on the “Doctrine of Discovery” here.) I might add that secular political and commercial movements in modernity have parroted such aggressive tactics—think sectarian recruitment or American salespeople at home or abroad. The liberal wing of the contemporary church has thus abandoned the vocation of evangelism altogether, while conservatives persist in using all manner of material or psychological carrots and sticks.
Jesus, however, insisted that the ecology appropriate to a proclamation of both the good news and bad (repentance) requires two thing: vulnerability of the messenger, and hospitality, given and received. May we recover this radical vision of how to build a movement!