JULY 8TH, 2018: FOURTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me
and set me on my feet,
and I heard the one who was speaking say to me:
Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites,
rebels who have rebelled against me;
they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.
Hard of face and obstinate of heart
are they to whom I am sending you.
But you shall say to them: Thus says the LORD GOD!
And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house—
they shall know that a prophet has been among them.
Brothers and sisters:
That I, Paul, might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.
Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples.
When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue,
and many who heard him were astonished.
They said, “Where did this man get all this?
What kind of wisdom has been given him?
What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!
Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary,
and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?
And are not his sisters here with us?”
And they took offense at him.
Jesus said to them,
“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place
and among his own kin and in his own house.”
So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there,
apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.
He was amazed at their lack of faith.
Why would anyone choose to be weak, especially when they could choose to be strong? Yet for some weird reason that’s precisely what the risen Jesus calls on his followers to do.
The earliest Christian author, Paul, reached that tough conclusion very quickly after his conversion. “I will . . . boast most gladly of my weaknesses,” he tells the Corinthians, “in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Seems to be a total contradiction in terms, something that doesn’t make sense on paper.
Yet it works! Using a modern idiom, the Apostle’s telling his community, “Try it! You’ll like it!” It’s a hard to explain faith experience. Unless we’re courageous enough to actually experience it, it’s something only theologians discuss, rarely a truth we make our own. But if we’re serious about becoming other Christs, we have to be willing to imitate the first Christ.
With that imitation in mind, it’s important to listen carefully to our gospel pericope. Though this passage is from Mark, subconsciously we’re probably hearing Matthew, the account which better fits into our catechism theology, especially at two points in the narrative.
First, Mark initially mentions that one of the reasons Jesus’ hometown folks put him down is because he’s a nobody. “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother . . . .?” Obviously carpenters were far down on every first century CE Palestinian economic ladder. It didn’t take a lot of smarts to make your living just sawing and hammering nails in wood. Certainly didn’t make anyone an expert in theology, nor provide them a platform from which to preach Yahweh’s word. No good Jew is obligated to listen to an uneducated bumpkin.
Second, at the end of the passage Mark makes an unbelievable (for Christians) statement: “He (Jesus) was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from . . . . He was amazed at their lack of faith.” How can this be? We were taught Jesus, as God, is able to do anything. (We even had a grade school discussion on the possibility of his drawing a “square/circle!”) You mean Mark’s informing us there’s something not even God can do? Without peoples’ faith in him, Jesus is helpless.
In copying Mark, Matthew took care of these two missteps. First, he changed Jesus from being the carpenter to being the “son of the carpenter.” Quite a switch. This itinerant preacher no longer has a lowly occupation. The gospel Jesus becomes, like Ward Cleaver, a man without a profession. No longer can he be put down for where, or how he works.
Second, Matthew also changes Mark’s comment that Jesus “could not” work any miracles to Jesus “did not work” any miracles. The presupposition is he could have done so, but for some reason, freely decided not to. A huge difference.
In both situations, Mark, agreeing with Paul, provides us with a weaker Jesus than Matthew. We presume the historical Jesus found no problem serving Yahweh in a way that exposed his weaknesses. No doubt he frequently reflected on the problems Ezekiel experienced as a prophet in today’s first reading.
The late Rudolf Bultmann often reminded his students that Jesus, the preacher, eventually became Jesus, the preached. Long before his followers began to preach him, the historical Jesus had to deal with the weakness that accompanies preaching God’s word. If we’re really another Christ, we’re the preaching, not the preached other Christ. We imitate a mentor who had to discover the strength that comes from falling back on God’s strength, not his own. There’s no other way to do what God expects us to do.