You often hear bands comment on how much they look forward to hometown gigs – after all, it’s where they grew up. Everyone’s supportive and excited to see their town’s favourite sons return home and play a few numbers.
Sadly for Jesus, this wasn’t the case in Nazareth.
He’s been travelling around Galillee, establishing his ministry, performing miracles and teaching. He returns home for a while, whereupon he starts to teach in the synagogue. The locals are freaked out by this, hardly able to believe what they’re seeing:
“Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon?”
In other words, Jesus should have been making tables, not presuming to take on the role of a religious leader. Sure, he had authority; sure, he did miracles. But he’s Mary’s son. we know his brothers, they’re nothing special – look at them!
It’s a strange tension: on one hand, the crowds acknowledge his wisdom and authority. On the other… Well, he’s just the local carpenter. It’s a bit like the “Who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays” controversy, because how could an unknown from a humble background like Will produce some of the greatest plays ever written.
It’s easy for our words to build cages for others, and for ourselves. Snobbery, prejudice, lack of ambition, lack of confidence, fear… They all conspire to confine us. This even affects Jesus somehow – look at verse 5, which reports that “he could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.”
This is no triumphant hometown gig. This is a bodyblow to Jesus, who’s stunned by the lack of faith on display by his own neighbours – by his own family. “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home”, he says, and he’s right, because sometime’s it’s those who are closest to us that can hurt us the most.
And maybe there’s an even nastier slur. Someone pointed out to me that this same story is reported in Matthew’s gospel, although there’s a key difference in a key line:
“Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?”
What key word does Matthew use that Mark omits?
Now this could be innocent. It could just indicate that Mark’s pointing out that Joseph has passed away and that the responsibility for the family business had passed to Jesus at some point. There could, however, be something darker going on – were there questions about Jesus’s parentage? Neighbourhood gossip?
(Of course, it’s possible that Mark didn’t want to say Jesus was a carpenter’s son because he was the Son of God. Fair enough, but the context of the story doesn’t imply that Jesus is held in much respect by the townsfolk – at the very least they seem to think he’s getting above his station.)
Whatever the reason, Jesus’s reception in Nazareth is another example of him going through the same trials we all do – gossip, dismissal, insults, lack of respect. And yet look at the story that immediately follows this in Mark – Jesus sends out the twelve disciples to teach and perform miracles. And these are people from a similar background to himself – tradesmen, mostly, with the odd political radical and collaborating tax collector thrown in. They’re a motley bunch, but Jesus believes in them, in what God can do through them. Despite the words and cutting looks that can be thrown our way, it seems that Jesus trusts his followers – he believes in them more than they believe in themselves, despite their inadequacies and lack of faith.
That’s because he can take a smidgen of faith – a mustard seed – and do something spectacular with it. He just needs us to take the first step, take that leap of faith, walk towards the unknown and every other religious cliche you can think of. Through ordinary, confused, messed up people, God can do great things. Both throughout the world and right there on your doorstep.