Jesus “could do no deed of power” where there was no belief in his abilities. We hear the people of his hometown looking askance at him and saying he has gotten too big for his britches, as many of us heard in childhood. Don’t stand out. Don’t get on your high horse. Don’t be exceptional. The prophet’s hometown does not recognize the prophet’s power.
After healing the woman with the flow of blood and raising the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, Jesus returned home, presumably Capernaum (see Mark 2:1). As was his custom on the Sabbath, he went to the synagogue and “began to teach.” His teaching was met with absolute astonishment and rejection. “They took offense at him,” the evangelist writes.
Jesus' response highlights a continuing Markan emphasis that those closest to Jesus—his family, his fellow villagers, his disciples—don't understand who he is and what his message is all about; only the forces of chaos and evil know. Lest his readers fail to get this, the Evangelist sums the problem up: “[Jesus] was amazed at their unbelief.” The problem is not understanding but unbelief.
. . . Verse 6b provides the transition to the next episode. Having been unable “to do any mighty work” at home, Jesus goes to the other villages to teach and, presumably, do the mighty work among them he could not do “among his own.” Then begins another decisive episode in Jesus' ministry: his commissioning and sending out of the disciples. Jesus gives the twelve “authority over the unclean spirits,” thus enlisting them in the same battle he is waging with the forces of chaos and evil. The instructions Jesus gives them very much follow the pattern Jesus has already set for his own ministry, previously a ministry totally dependent on others. –– Amandus J. Derr
Inherent in these stories is the problem of being called to do remarkable things––preach God’s good news, heal, comfort, spur others to justice action––while also avoiding negative consequences of taking on authority from God. This is a hard balancing act. No wonder pastors and other persons in positions of power can disappoint.
The battle against unbelief is fought against powers both outside oneself and within. They are real dangers: not only other people but also voices that have found their way into one’s own heart, threatening to unravel confidence. The prophetic witness is a brave course in the face of unbelief that only God’s own power can thwart.
Jesus' experience in his home town and his subsequent instruction to the Twelve are part of a continual pattern of authoritative prophetic ministry. The priest Ezekiel is among those taken to Babylon in the first exile around 595 B.C.E. Having seen a vision of “the likeness of the glory of YAHWEH” (Ezekiel 1:28b), the prophet is now confronted with the cost of prophetic ministry: some will hear and respond; some will refuse to hear; but the prophet's task is to continually proclaim regardless of the response so “they will know that there has been a prophet among them.” This pattern of vision, call, compulsion to prophecy, rejection, is part and parcel of the prophetic tradition—even convention—in the Hebrew scriptures. –– Amandus J. Derr
Paul's account [is] of the same prophetic convention: vision, call, compulsion, and (implied) rejection. For all intents and purposes, this periscope concludes Paul's spirited defense of the “weakness” of his ministry, which he has carried on through most of the Corinthian correspondence. “Weakness,” “foolishness,” his “thorn in the flesh,” all the epithets his opponents have used against him, become the very things in which Paul boasts. Consciously or subconsciously, Paul follows the prophetic pattern precisely and draws on that tradition as proof of his apostolic authority. –– Amandus J. Derr
This day is not a national holiday, even though it falls on the weekend of our nation’s birthday celebration. This day is about the reign of God on earth, a much larger scope of vision than that of one country, however important it is.
Yet, there may be something about power coming through servanthood, through what is small and even weak that might inspire our churches on this day to contemplate the meaning of national power and being “exceptional” in God’s terms.
Amandus J. Derr is senior pastor of St. Peter Lutheran Church (ELCA) in New York City.
Homily Service 42, no. 3 (2009): 59-69.