The Dishonor of the Prophet

Scripture can be found here...

If we’re going to talk about prophets, we have to talk about the truth. Mark Twain had a lot to say about the truth. He said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

And from J. K. Rowling: “The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

Prophets are in the business of telling the truth. That is who they are, and what they do. In that sense, any of us can be prophets. But remember: In the words of Joe Klaas: “The truth will set you free, but first it will [tick] you off.”

We have tales of prophets today, and they bookend our passage. First, we have Jesus and his experience of returning to his hometown. Last, we have a flashback to the terrible fate of John the Baptist, who pays for his truth-telling with his life. And in the middle of these stories, Jesus sends out disciples, two-by-two.

First, Jesus goes home.

The gospels tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but he was raised in Nazareth, a little backwater town where not much (besides Jesus) ever happened. If you’ll think back to the stories we’ve heard so far in this gospel, you might come away with the impression that Jesus has become the first century equivalent of a rock star You’d be right. Everywhere he goes he is followed, and harassed, and made to heal people late into the night, so that he can’t even get a bite to eat. People crowd around the houses in which he stays, they take off roofs and lower their friends into his presence, they come to him, begging for miraculous cures, and they chase him down in crowds.

Jesus goes back home, and he stands up in the synagogue to share the truth as he understands it, which boils down to: “The time is now. The kingdom of God has come near. Turn around, change your thinking, and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15). Everywhere else, the people are swept away by Jesus’ words, and immediately ask for his touch, his healing, his blessing. But in Nazareth… the place where Jesus grew up, where he perhaps went to school, where he had a best friend, and maybe got into trouble for stealing a handful of grapes from Old Man Abraham’s vineyard (hey, we don’t know)… the people are less impressed. Significantly less impressed.

“Where did this man get all this?” they ask. “What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:2-3)

Of all the ways in which the Gospel of Mark exposes the humanity of Jesus to us, this may be one of the most vivid: the combination of fear, embarrassment, and indignation that can result when the local kid hits it big, and the family, friends, and neighbors just don’t get it. We are meant to hear disdain in these voices. Notice how they insinuate—by mentioning Jesus’ mother, but not his father—that there was something sketchy, questionable, about his parentage. They took offense at him, not just his teaching, him. He was no longer “one of us,” but now, an outsider. An “other.”

Jesus’ response is icy, maybe a bit shocked. “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Listen to that palpable sense of rejection. Feel that shame, that shock, that those who are supposed to love us—mother, sisters, brothers—turn their heads away and murmur that we have really gone over the edge this time. Prophets are honored, except at home. Never there.

Why is that? What makes it so that the folks who watched Jesus grow up “can’t handle the truth”?

It’s complicated. It’s very difficult for people who see us one way to change how they see us. For some, Jesus would always be the little kid who followed his dad around his carpenters’ shop (or the little creep who stole the grapes). But for others—maybe even for the majority—Jesus’ message was just too hard.

Look at how Jesus has embodied the kingdom of God since he began preaching it. He has spent every minute of his work striving to open doors that had been shut, to welcome those who had been pushed aside or out, to heal those on the margins, even to say, flat out, that the requirements of religious correctness take second place to the requirements of human kindness, mercy, and connection. These are issues that cut to the core of religious identity, now just as much as then. There will always be those who favor law over grace, because, with the law, we can look it up, and reassure ourselves we are in the right. But with grace… grace is a wild thing, uncontrollable, insurgent. Grace asks us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Grace welcomes those who don’t deserve it. Grace raises our hackles, makes us wonder why we bother being good if people who have been bad can get ushered in and given the best seat. Grace ticks us off.

Grace ticks off the good people of First Synagogue Nazareth. And so, in this little vignette from Jesus’ return home, we see fairly benign consequences of discomfort with the truth. A turned back, a scowl, a few harsh words. It takes the terrible story of the death of John the Baptist, for us see the real lengths to which some will go to shut the truth up, shut it down, and bury it. Literally. In John’s story, we see Jesus’ future.

John had only spoken the truth. Herod was a client-king, his family hand-picked by the Roman Empire to serve as Jewish royalty. This means that Herod was a traitor to his people, a traitor who lived very well and opulently, while the regular folks were brutally oppressed. John had criticized Herod’s marital situation. Herod’s wife had previously been married to his brother, which amounted to incest, according to Jewish law (Leviticus 18:16). Interestingly, Herod kind of liked John. He liked to listen to him. He even protected him, for a time. But then a bone-chilling series of events backed Herod into a corner, and John was beheaded to satisfy the bloodlust of a breathless dancer. The prophet is without honor, sometimes, even when he is not at home.

John and Jesus are two truth-tellers who face dire consequences. If we leave the story there—if we only note the painful bookends—we miss this truth, the truth as Mahatma Ghandi tells it:

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it—always.”  

That is because God never gives up.

After the hometown debacle, you might imagine Jesus would decide to take some down time, lick his wounds—maybe lift a pint with his buddies down at the pub. He does no such thing. Immediately, he goes out among the villages to teach. And then he sends out the Twelve—the ones known as the apostles, a word, itself, which means “one who is sent out.”

Jesus sends them two by two—maybe, so that no one will get into a funk if they run into a skeptical cousin or a scornful aunt. He sends them out with orders that sound strange to us, as if he’s sending them completely unprepared for the road: “no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (Mark 6:8). Maybe what we see as vulnerability and unpreparedness actually serves the twelve in ways we can’t foresee… opening them to experience hospitality and care with more gratitude, and reliance on God’s providing for them. But the thing that seems most important to me, is the part about shaking the dust off your feet when there is no welcome—not because, “The heck with them,” or “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” but because one of the most important things in life is to learn to join in the persistence of God.

A friend reflected this week on the way we often approach new ideas in ministry—ideas like, “Let’s have a food pantry in the basement!” Or “Why not have an after-school drop-in center in the Fellowship Hall?” He wrote,

Before we launch a new program or project we want to be sure that “it will work”. How many possibilities in life are squashed by the simple question “are we sure it will work?” or “what if it doesn’t work?” Jesus says you shake your shoes and try again in a new place (or possibly in a new way). Are we prepared to fail on the way to what we think success is?[i]

Jesus, who judged his ability to cure “only a few sick people” to be a failure (!), sent people out with instructions on how to fail forward... how to respond to failure in the best possible way. Simply, we start again. Equally unprepared in material terms, but very prepared in spiritual ones. Prepared to receive hospitality. Prepared to be surprised by grace. Prepared to weep at the goodness and generosity of strangers (which is all the sweeter after you’ve been rejected a time or two). Prepared to notice the kingdom of God blossoming and unfolding all around them. Prepared to take part in God’s beautiful and dependable persistence, which is not deterred by mockery, or cruelty, or even death. Prepared to continue to share the truth that they knew, beautiful and terrible—that the kingdom of God is here, and it consists of a kind of gorgeous explosion of healing and connecting, and we can’t control one bit of it.

Everything we do reveals what truth we believe. Gautama Buddha said, “Three things can not hide for long: the Moon, the Sun and the Truth.” In the stories of John and Jesus we see the real consequences that can occur when the truth meets with fierce and powerful opposition. But truth remains stronger than anyone who cannot abide it. Like the new moon, or the sun behind heavy cloud cover—the truth is still there even when hidden, still ready to shine forth at the earliest opportunity.

I invite you to dream with me, about how we here at Union Presbyterian Church might join in the persistent, undaunted, and uncontrollable kingdom of God. How will we live it? How will we show it? How will go out together, from our little corner of the Body of Christ, to bring the healing and connection and love of God to a world that so badly needs it?  How can we say “yes” to our God, who never gives in, never gives up, and who insists that truth and love will always win?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rev. Gord Waldie, Comment on Narrative Lectionary Blog “If At First You Don’t Succeed,” by Rev. Stephanie Boardman Anthony.