|"If I Were a Carpenter . . ."
November 14, 1999 / Mark 6:1-6a
To get started today, I’d like to perform an experiment on you. Now this won’t hurt! Nobody will be embarrassed. And your answers will stay your private property forever. Okay? Here goes. I want you to take a little test with me, just for fun. Fill in the blanks in these six questions with the very first words that come to your mind:
1. All blondes are __________________.
2. All Democrats/Republicans are __________________.
3. All teenagers are _____________________.
[Alternate question for teens: All parents are __________________.]
4. All Jews are ___________________.
5. Everybody who has AIDS is __________________.
6. People who don’t support Jubilee or the Billy Graham Crusade are _____________.
Don’t worry about having to remember your answers. You’ll have enough general recall to get the point of what we’ve just done — a bit later in the lesson. For now, let’s read Mark 6:1-6a and try to get the message it has for us fixed in our minds.
The Towns of Jesus’ Life
Unlike John the Baptist, Jesus was not a desert recluse. Oh, he occasionally went for rest or took a vacation in quiet places. But he was an urbanite. Three cities or towns figure prominently in his life: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Nazareth.
Bethlehem was "the city of David," and the unlikely occurrence of his birth in that city — unlikely simply because Joseph and Mary didn’t live there — fulfilled a prophecy about Israel’s Messiah (Mic. 5:2; cf. Matt. 2:1-6). Jerusalem was the site of the Jewish temple, the focal point for discussions of Torah, and the place where any rabbi — certainly one claiming to be the Messiah and Son of God — would have to present his claims and credentials (Mark 3:22; 7:1; cf. 14:53ff). Nazareth could have found its distinction as the permanent base for the life and work of the Son of Man who grew to manhood there. Instead, the people of Nazareth rejected him.
When you read the text for today’s lesson, you might almost think John wrote these lines as commentary on it: "[Jesus] was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him" (John 1:10-11).
There is a valuable lesson for us in Nazareth’s reaction to Jesus. There is a warning. And there is a challenge.
The likelihood is that most of us would never have heard of Nazareth except for the fact of Jesus’ association with it. It was somewhat secluded and isolated from the caravan traffic that passed from Gilead to the south and west through the Plain of Esdraelon. And the main road from Ptolemais to the Decapolis — a road over which the Roman legions frequently marched — passed north of the town. It was nondescript, unremarkable, ordinary. How ironic that such a commonplace, unremarkable place would reject Jesus for his ordinariness! Nazareth had such a bad self-image that even its own citizens couldn’t believe that anything good would come from there!
Nazareth was never important to the national or religious life of Israel. It doesn’t even rate being mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament. These facts, coupled with a poor reputation in its moral life and a certain crudeness about its Galilean dialect, prompted Nathanael to make this "crack" when he first heard of Jesus of Nazareth: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46).
If you remember the details of his birth story, you will recall that Joseph and his little family had to flee Bethlehem shortly after Jesus was born. The Magi who had come to see Israel’s king and to present him gifts had made the mistake of stopping in Jerusalem at the court of Herod the Great. Following the star that would guide them to the one born to be the King of the Jews, they naturally assumed that stopping in at the palace of their current king was prudent. How wrong they were! They simply succeeded in making an already paranoid Herod more determined to protect his base of power. So he instructed the Wise Men to continue on their trip toward Bethlehem, find the exact location of the child, and come back to tell him. "As soon as you find him, report to me," he ordered, "so that I too may go and worship him" (Matt. 2:1-8).
When they found the child and presented their gifts, the Magi were ready to make their report to King Herod. But God warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they returned home by an alternate route (Matt. 2:9-12). The Lord next warned Joseph that Herod would be searching for the baby and sent them to hide for a time in Egypt (Matt. 2:13-18). When Herod died a year or two later, it was as if the "all safe" had sounded for Joseph. He was eager to get out of Egypt and back to his homeland. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him to return to Israel (Matt. 2:19-20).
From the scant biblical data, it appears that Joseph intended to go back to Bethlehem. The wonderful things that had happened there had surely been on his mind all the time he had been in Egypt. Besides, he had probably made the connection himself at some point that Bethlehem was the predicted birthplace of Israel’s Messiah. Didn’t that mean he was to grow up there too? But when he heard that Archelaus — a son of Herod the Great who was already known for his cruelty — was ruling the part of his late father’s territory that contained Bethlehem, he knew it would not be safe to go there. So he and Mary took the baby to their original home city of Nazareth.
For about a quarter of a century, Jesus had grown up in Nazareth. He had learned from Joseph how to be a carpenter. The Greek word tekton may refer to a stone mason, a smith, or a carpenter. Its commonest meaning, however, is "carpenter" and would refer to a range of skills that included hewing beams for houses to making cupboards to crafting simple furniture. Such craftsmen also made items like wooden yokes for oxen or wooden plows for them to pull.
A man didn’t work at this trade with the crude hand tools of the time without being strong and rugged. His arms would have resembled Darrel Stewart’s or Mark McGwire’s rather than mine. And his hands were calloused and strong. The Jesus of Scripture and history was anything but the sad-eyed mystic Hollywood has typically typecast to play him in the movies.
Growing up, he had been Joseph’s apprentice. So he is sometimes called "the son of a carpenter" in the text. But Joseph is almost surely dead now. The shop belonged to Jesus. He was the proprietor, perhaps with James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude apprenticing now to him. In fact, maybe he left the shop in their care several months ago when he left to find John the Baptist, to be immersed in the Jordan River, and to go public with his claims and ministry.
Word had gotten back to Nazareth about what Jesus was doing. And it obviously caused some embarrassment for his family. After all, Mary and the other boys had sought him out earlier in Mark’s narrative. They thought he had gone crazy and were hoping to persuade him to go back home, rest a while, and get back to work at what he really knew — carpentry, not theology! (3:20-21). So we should not be surprised that others in Nazareth had formed their own unflattering opinions of him as well.
Jesus Returns Home
Now Jesus is back! He hasn’t been seen in Nazareth for months, maybe for a year or more. But now he returns home not as a carpenter but as a rabbi. He has a little band of disciples. And he shows up at the synagogue and speaks up at the point in the sabbath service where people are permitted to make their comments about the readings for the day. "When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed."
But their amazement quickly turned into scandalized rejection. "And they took offense at him" (v.3b). Literally, the Greek text says that the people "were scandalized" (eskandalizonto). And why so?
They weren’t indignant at what he said. In fact, they were "amazed" at his teaching. "What’s this wisdom that has been given him" is a rhetorical question with the force of a declaration — "What wisdom he has!" And they weren’t outraged by or appalled at his miracles. Again, they voiced a certain sense of astonishment at his powers. "He even does miracles!" they exclaimed. So what was their problem? Their problem was with the man himself — his humble background, his familiarity to them, his lack of mystery. He was just another bumpkin like them. He was a peasant, for heaven’s sake! A carpenter! Just an ordinary fellow like us!
We today may be no different. If Jesus were issued identity papers, his profession would list him as a carpenter, not Messiah. He is blue collar. To paraphrase a popular song from many years ago, he might ask us today, "If I were a carpenter, would you believe in me anyway?" His dress, style, and background might be off-putting to those who want a Savior more at home in high society. . . . One can only imagine the reception that Jesus might receive if he showed up [in one of our churches today] in his tradesman’s attire.1
In post-Lincoln America, every politician who comes from a poor family or who had a "humble beginning" in any sense wears it as a badge of honor. It makes him "one of the people" that he picked cotton or was an enlisted man. Not so in the ancient world of class consciousness! To be of noble parentage was a necessity, if someone aspired to greatness.
Celsus, the bitter and vituperative enemy of Christianity from the late second century, thought it quite enough to dismiss Jesus on the basis of his humble origins. His remark that Jesus was "only a carpenter" appealed to the low view of manual labor so common to the Greeks and Romans. In the ancient world, the notion that God would come to an undistinguished family in a unremarkable town and do commonplace labor was nothing short of — well — scandalous! How dare anyone try to get us to believe that so ordinary a person could at the same time be Savior, Lord, and God to us!
Then, because they weren’t about to believe his claims, they attacked him with what we call abusive ad hominem (Latin, "against the man") arguments. "Isn’t this Mary’s son?" sounds innocuous enough to us. But it likely didn’t sound that way at all in context. It was meant to be slanderous and defamatory. "It was contrary to Jewish usage to describe a man as the son of his mother, even when she was a widow, except in insulting terms. Rumors to the effect that Jesus was illegitimate appear to have circulated in his own lifetime and may lie behind this reference as well."2
When people turn on you, they tend to get nasty in a hurry! And they don’t pull any punches. They certainly didn’t with Jesus. And the result was that Jesus was "amazed" — and surely hurt as well — by their lack of faith. Furthermore, because of their unbelief, Mark adds this: "He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them." Clearly the limited number of miracles was due not to any limitation their unbelief placed on Jesus but because of the small number of people willing to come to him or to bring their sick to him for healing. Their disbelief didn’t handicap Jesus, but it did keep them from asking for what he would have gladly given them — yet would not force on anyone.
The Meaning for Us
Have you ever lived long enough to regret a terribly wrong judgment you made about a business opportunity, a stock purchase, or a person? When Myra and I lived in Memphis thirty years ago, I made the astute decision to pass on buying Holiday Inn stock at $5 a share! But we’ve all done far worse in some of the friendship opportunities we’ve missed because someone was the wrong color or attended a rival school or wasn’t in our social class. We’ve probably all done worse in some fellowship opportunities we’ve passed on because she wasn’t a member of our congregation or our denomination or our non-denomination.
Judging others is a tricky thing. None of us wants to be judged. Most of us like to think we don’t judge. The truth is that all of us are and do! Do you remember that little six-question quiz you took at the start of this lesson? It was a trap! It was an attempt to help some of us see what we don’t like to admit. We stereotype. We pigeonhole. We typecast. We judge — just like those people from Nazareth. And we need to guard against it lest it cost us opportunities, friendships, spiritual serendipities. Maybe even our souls. Your answers could have revealed anything from sexism to anti-Semitism, narrow-mindedness to bigotry, intolerance to smugness.
This text is Mark’s way of warning the church — Jesus’ family, Jesus’ community — against missing out with him! Being close is not the same as being faithful. Being excited about something he said or did isn’t the same as having your life transformed by his daily personal presence. The affirmation of grace as a central theological tenet doesn’t mean that you are gracious toward people who are different from you or that your life is marked by grateful obedience.
We marvel that Jesus’ own family could be so blind, that his own hometown could be so dense. Then we turn right around and keep Jesus from doing his mighty works among us. Nobody got healed that day in Nazareth who didn’t want to be healed. Nobody gets saved today who doesn’t want to be saved. But to all who will receive him, to all who believe in his name, Jesus gives the right to become the children of God! (Cf. John 1:10-12).
1David E. Garland, The NIV Application Commentary: Mark (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), pp. 236-237.
2William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1974), p. 203. Note: Lane cites John 8:41 and 9:29 as New Testament references that reflect this same allegation of illegitimacy about Jesus.
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