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The Power of Unbelief

He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works 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 offence at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief. Mark 6.1-6.

In this morning’s reading we have Jesus, who had left his hometown of Nazareth as the village carpenter, now returning as a rabbi (complete with disciples) and, in that role, exercising his right to expound the Scriptures in the local synagogue. The consternation and bewilderment of the townsfolk is understandable. Of course, they had heard the rumours of his miracles — such stories spread like wildfire in a region like Galilee — and now those rumours are being given some substance by the fact that Jesus’ teaching is certainly extraordinary … but where does the power to teach and do miracles come from? It can’t be from Jesus’ family — they are next-door neighbours of the folk listening to him teach and there is nothing extraordinary or supernatural about them. So is the power from God? The suggestion is laughable. Why would God empower a village carpenter — particularly one who was conceived out of wedlock and whose real father has never been identified (see my post “Be Fruitful and Multiply” on 19 January 2009). So he has to be a phoney, hasn’t he? And the cheek of it … to come here, playing the rabbi with us, expecting us to lap it all up and fall for his fakery. No way! “And they took offence at him.” The verb is skandalizeo which means to be deeply affronted on a religious level. It implies a total rejection of the claim that his words and works would make on them were they really from God.

Surprisingly, by extending the familiar proverb of his day and adding the words “and among his relatives and in his own household,” Jesus was clearly saying that there were, at that time, those in his own family who sided with the townsfolk in taking offence at him and rejecting a divine source for his power and authority. And in John’s gospel we are told who those members of his family were: “Not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7.5).

Belief and unbelief. That is what it all comes down to. Where there is faith, Jesus can do “mighty works,” but where there is unbelief he cannot. Or should that be “will not”? Was Jesus actually disempowered by the unbelief of his townsfolk or was it rather that he did not feel free to use his power in such an environment of rejection and unbelief? Surely it was the latter. To perform miracles among people who were adamant that Jesus’ power was not of God would reduce Jesus to the level of a wonder-worker, a thaumaturge, a magician … and that he would not allow. All his miracles were to be “signs” pointing to the loving Father and if people would not allow them to be that then they must be withheld.

We talk about the power of faith, but here I see the power of unbelief. It can cause Jesus to withhold what he not only could do but would do, were that unbelief not present. How many people in Nazareth that day forfeited their opportunity to receive healing of body, mind or spirit simply because they were not prepared to move beyond the limitations of their own thoughts and beliefs about Jesus?

It says that Jesus “marvelled” because of their unbelief, and this is the only time in Mark’s gospel when Jesus is said to marvel. To him, faith was the very air he breathed. His whole life was lived in total trust in and dependency upon the power of his Father — power that faith channelled into his life and word and works. How could people … supposedly some of God’s people … be so devoid of faith!

But I have to ask myself this morning: How often is Jesus left marvelling at my unbelief? And how often can he do no mighty work because of it?

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