Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Prophet without Honor: Mark’s Picture of Jesus

A summary of the sermon made at St. Mary's Orthodox church, Houston on Jan 29, 2011. Listen here.

While Jesus was travelling from place to place proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, he arrived at his hometown too (Mark 6:1-6).  We expect that the people of his hometown must have welcomed him warmly. However, that is not what happened. Jesus was not welcome in his hometown. The people who knew him as a child, the people who grew up with him, refused to acknowledge that he had become a celebrity. This raises several questions in our mind: Why was Jesus not welcome in his hometown? What is the relevance of this story for the author of Mark’s gospel?

In order to understand the gravity of this situation better, let us imagine that one of our children sitting here grows up to become a celebrity. A child who grows up among us goes to the medical school. I know that some of our children are already in the medical school or are planning to go there. Let us imagine that one of them completes medical school, then does higher studies, and makes a breakthrough in the treatment of some sort of illness so far considered incurable. She publishes her findings in journals. She is considered for a Nobel Prize and she is invited by universities to give lectures and to receive honors from them. She is out there in her tour for a year. One day she comes back and visits us. How would we receive her? She is one among us, and her success is our success. We will welcome her warmly and shower honors upon her as much as we can.

Jesus grew up in that village. He was brought up by the village, which was like a family for him. Everybody knew everyone else. They shared their joys and pains together. They knew Jesus as a child. They knew how Jesus helped his father build houses and make furniture. Later when Joseph passed away, Jesus became their carpenter. They approached Jesus to make their homes and furniture.

At the age of thirty, Jesus took a job with a greater responsibility. People began to see him as a prophet of God-- someone who talks to people on behalf of God. In Israel a prophet’s position was higher than that of the king. A prophet could walk straight to the king and rebuke him. Prophet Nathan did that to King David. Prophet John the Baptist did that to the King Herod. A prophet was directly appointed by God. Jesus received the appointment when he was baptized by John in river Jordan. He heard the voice of God from heaven, and he saw the spirit of God descending on him.

Jesus began to travel around from place to place proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. Everywhere he talked to people authoritatively representing God. He also healed the sick people and cast out demons. Everywhere people welcomed him and honored him as a prophet of God. Jesus resembled one of the great prophets they had heard about such as Elijah and Elisha.

In his hometown, Jesus probably met people who knew him as a child. Some of them might even have been the playmates of Jesus. They must have felt proud that one among them had risen to the highest position in their nation. However, they did not welcome him. They refused to see him as a prophet of God.  They even dishonored him by calling him a carpenter. There is nothing wrong about being a carpenter. But by calling Jesus a carpenter, they refused to acknowledge that Jesus had risen to a far higher position. They talked offensively to him and about him. They called him Mary’s son. There was a rumor among them that Jesus was born to Mary before her wedding. This attitude of the people of his hometown must have given so much pain to Jesus’ heart.

It is in Mark’s gospel that we read this story. What did Mark want to tell his readers through this story? In order to answer this question, we need some background information about Mark. Mark was the first one to write a gospel. It was in A.D. 70, about forty years after Jesus’ time. The gospels of Matthew and Luke appeared at least ten years later, and they were both written by modifying and elaborating Mark’s gospel. Mark’s gospel was thus an original work independent of any existing work. It gives us the most truthful account of the life of Jesus.

Imagine that you live in A.D. 75. You receive Mark’s gospel in your hand. No other gospels exist then, and you have nothing to compare this to. Forget about the other gospels, and read this from beginning to end as if you are reading it for the first time. Mark’s picture of Jesus slowly becomes clear before your eyes.

Jesus is presented as God’s beloved son. He becomes beloved to God because he chooses to do the will of God. As opposed to Adam, the first son of God, who disobeyed God, this son is fully obedient to God. When Adam chose the broad path of disobedience, this new Adam chose the narrow path of obedience.

When we choose a life of obedience, we often expect to have a comfortable life. Was Jesus’ life comfortable? Not at all! Jesus had to suffer severe pain-- both physical and mental. When he was tortured and crucified, the pain was physical. When he was misunderstood and rejected by his own hometown and his own close friends, the pain was mental. Imagine how he felt when his close companion betrayed him by a kiss. Imagine how Jesus felt when Peter, his best friend, denied him three times. Imagine how he felt when all of his disciples deserted him when he was caught.

Mark presents Jesus’ life as a role model for his community at his time. It was a time when Christians faced severe persecution. Nero began his mass persecution of Christians at that time. Both Peter and Paul were killed by Nero in Rome at that time. Just a few years earlier, James, the brother of our Lord, was killed in Jerusalem. He was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and he was stoned to death. Another catastrophic incident was the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, never to be rebuilt. Mark wrote this book to encourage Christians to hold on to their faith in the midst of all these earth-shattering events.

What does Mark tell us today? Be fully obedient to God like Jesus. Let us be in the family of Jesus by following the will of God. Once when Jesus was teaching people somewhere, his mother and brothers came to visit him, and Jesus took this as an opportunity to teach an important point. He said: Those who do the will of the heavenly father are my mother, brother, and sister. But let us not do the mistake of expecting this to be a comfortable path. It is not. We need to expect all sorts of pain-- both mental and physical.

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