If, metaphorically speaking, one of the capital cities of Australia represented the earliest forms of the Christian Church, which would it be? One answer, for me, at least in terms of an old joke, would be Perth. For remember how that old joke went: in Sydney, they ask ‘how much money do you have?’ – little sadly has changed in recent decades; in Melbourne, they ask ‘which school did you go to?. in Adelaide – times have changed - they ask ‘which church do you go to?; and, in Perth, they ask ‘so what did you come here to get away from?’
Now, there is a good deal more to it than that. Yet, when they gathered together, there would have been a degree of truth in some of the earliest Christians asking one another ‘so what did you come here to get away from?’ That, as we can see from Gospel passages such as that we heard today (Mark 6.1-13), is part of the early Jesus movement story. It was also very much about where Jesus and his earliest followers were headed to. Yet what they were getting away from is vital to understand. For why did Jesus do no great deeds in his hometown? And why did he counsel his first followers to travel light, and be prepared to shake the dust off their feet, even if it meant enduring the metaphorical equivalent of crossing the Nullarbor?...
honour and shame
Honour and shame – these are keys to many stories in the New Testament. In the modern Western world, we have lost much of this understanding, even though such concepts are still vital elsewhere, not least in part sof the Middle East and Asia. In the modern world, it is money, and schooling, race, and class, and, until recently, religious affiliations, which have particularly shaped lives and destinies. In the world of Jesus, it was where one stood in terms of honoured relationships and purity codes.
As I’ve said, these factors alone can hardly explain the rise of early Christianity. Not least this is because there are also distinctive religious features at play, partly highlighted in the second part of our Gospel reading today. For it is highly significant that those who most easily responded to Jesus were those who were at least under pressure, if not dislocated, from traditional patterns of purity and honour: not least many women, slaves, and small craftspeople. These were the backbone of the early Christian movement, for they felt what historians and sociologists call ‘status anxiety’.
There are several phrases in today’s Gospel reading which make greater sense when we see them in this context. As elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, as we saw in last week’s Gospel reading, we are presented with edges and boundaries, and with challenges as to how we will respond to them. Let me therefore offer three ways into understanding the rejection of Jesus in this passage and a pathway to understanding such boundary crossing as re-integrating the dishonourable and shamed who followed Jesus…
Tall Poppy syndrome?
The first, and most obvious, way into understanding the rejection of Jesus is the Tall Poppy syndrome. For it is easy to read lines such as ‘is this not the carpenter’s son?’ in that sense. Maybe fuelled by an inability fully to affirm, by insecurity or envy, or a desire to puncture pretensions, there is sometimes a human tendency not to value what is among us. Sometimes it is perhaps because a tall poppy may seem to show up the rest of us; or because their light is found to be too bright, or challenging; or because we may simply try to carry on regardless. Was that part of what happened with Jesus in his home-town? It has certainly been a notable feature of Australian culture hasn’t it? Not for nothing have many Australians had to leave home to be fully appreciated in their callings. We might therefore reflect today how we - as individuals, as a community, and as part of our nation – may be failing to appreciate others among us, ignoring, or resisting them, as, like Jesus, they bear prophetic gifts.
the Necessity of Leaving Home
A second way into understanding the rejection of Jesus is what we might call the Necessity of Leaving Home syndrome. This, not least, is sadly still all-too-common among sexually and gender diverse people. In order to thrive as, or simply be, the people we are created and called to be, some of us have to leave our homes and families. The more we come out into the light, into being who we are, speaking and living our light, our love and our truth, the more we may find ourselves no longer honoured at home, or among our families. If, metaphorically, we are not, like Jesus elsewhere, led by our religious or other communities, to a cliff to be thrown off, then our true selves and our offerings are frozen out in other ways. No wonder that, in the second part of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus therefore encourages us ‘to shake off the dust’ of the places that will not receive us. Again, what might this say to us - as individuals, as a community, and as part of our wider society? Who, and in what respects, are we forcing to shake off the dust from our dwelling places, because we are failing fully to honour them and receive their gifts? Of what might we also need to let go?
The Tall Poppy and the Necessity of Leaving Home syndromes are very real, aren’t they? Yet there is an even more important third way into understanding the rejection of Jesus. This is what we might call the Without Honour syndrome. Jesus was not rejected simply for being a tall poppy, or for being a definitely ‘queer’ kind of person, who does not fit his home and family conventions. That may be part of the discomfiture of his community. The reality is much deeper. For Jesus was teaching and living another pathway altogether.
The ancient Roman world was built around the idea of patrons and clients in mutually enriching exchanges. As clients attached themselves to patrons, so they would both strengthen the honour of the patron, and acquire some of their honour. Maybe a modern equivalent is celebrity-advertising, albeit more clearly based on money. Relationships in both cases are clearly transactional. Perhaps the Olympics have some similarities too. If, for example, an Olympian is successful, their community, even their whole nation, may associate themselves with their honour and glory, even naming buildings, sports fields, and other things after them. But this is not the way of Jesus!
Nazareth, and not least its synagogue, must have been pretty annoyed with Jesus. Here was a clearly outstanding person, with increasing celebrity status, yet highly problematic. For Jesus wasn’t playing the game. By rights, Nazareth should have been gaining in honour. Jesus however wasn’t only failing to acknowledge his home and family. He was actively distancing himself from them. Remember at the end of Mark chapter 3, where Jesus is told his mother and siblings are waiting for him, and he responds ‘who are my mother and sister and brother? They are those who do the will of God’? Today’s Gospel passage has to be read in relation to that, and to other sayings and actions of Jesus which simply fail to play the honour game. No wonder there will be no Jesus plaque or room in the Nazareth synagogue. Jesus is failing to recognise his responsibilities to bestow honour. More than this he is deliberately associating with those who have little, or no, honour: those who have, or should feel, shame.
beyond transactional relationships
Honour and shame, as dictated by ancient, or modern, norms – Jesus just won’t have a bar of them. Other transactional, and/or de-personalising, modern norms of relating are no better – be they money, schooling, race, class, or anything else. You can’t do deals with God, Jesus is saying. That, I think, is why the Nazareth rejection of Jesus is followed, in Mark’s Gospel, by Jesus’ encouragement to his disciples to travel lightly, carrying minimum baggage, lest they get caught up in some transactional deal. It is a terrible temptation, and as individuals, and as a community, we are all vulnerable to it. The Taizé Community are one of the few religious communities I know to recognise and actively resist this. They have regularly been offered sponsorship, by all kinds of bodies, for their international Meetings, and other gatherings, which have drawn extraordinary numbers of millions of young people over the years. They have always however refused it. For once we enter into such a deal, they say, we risk losing our soul.
Does that mean that no transactional agreements are possible for followers of Christ? No. We are not all monastics and we live in an imperfect world. Yet today’s Gospel is a powerful reminder to us that the way of Jesus is, at its heart, not about such behaviours. Ultimately, it is always beyond them.
into the Jesus pathway
This brings us, finally, back to the revolutionary pathway on which Jesus encouraged his disciples. For, in the earliest generations, the Tall Poppy and the Necessity of Leaving syndromes undoubtedly drew into the Jesus movement those who could not fit repressive conventions. The Without Honour syndrome undoubtedly drew many more. For, unsurprisingly, it was those who had little or no honour, like many women and slaves, who rejoiced in the freedom Jesus offered. It also drew those whose honour and standing was rocky, like those fishing folk and fellow artisans, whose social and economic anxiety were so high. For the Jesus pathway not only overturned the honour and purity systems but the political and monetary scheming which went with them.
Sadly, Church history was often to become a story of fresh transactional systems, full of their own honour and shame relationships. Yet the pathway has always remained. It is still open to us and others to walk. Crucially however, as Jesus taught and lived, it involves the willingness to travel light and to shake off what does not work. Vitally, it involves traveling with, or without, honour. So I’m not sure that today’s Church is really like Perth. For, like Jesus in Nazareth, ‘here we have no abiding city, for we look to the city that is to come’. (Hebrews 13.14)
As another prophet without much honour in his own times, Vincent Van Gogh, put it:
everything on earth changes – we have no abiding city here – it is the experience of everybody. That it is God’s will that we should part with what is dearest on earth – we ourselves change in many respects, we are not what we once were, we shall not remain what we are now.
In the name of the One who is not interested in our honour, but only our hearts, and who shares and transforms our sin and shame: in Jesus’ Name, Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin, for Pitt Street Uniting Church, Sunday 4 July 2021