Mark 6 is a longer chapter (fifty-six verses) that contains six notable stories: Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth (1-6), a sending forth of the Twelve apostles on mission (7-13), the death of John the Baptist (14-29), the miraculous feeding of five thousand (30-44), Jesus walking on the sea (45-52), and miraculous healings in Gennesaret (53-56).
Jesus is Rejected in Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6)
When I read this passage with my students, one of the things they pointed out was how little sense this passage makes to them. The people of Nazareth acknowledge Jesus’ teaching and His miracles (6:2), and yet take offense at him (6:3) to the point that he cannot perform any great miracles among them. Because they know His family and His background (Jesus would have grown up in Nazareth), it would seem they are hard-pressed to believe that He might be someone important.
There would seem to be three challenges in this passage. First, and easiest, is the fact that a prophet like Jesus is unwelcome in His hometown (6:4). I love hockey – and in particular, the Edmonton Oilers – but I have seen on many occasions how the hometown hockey hero struggles more in Edmonton than he would anywhere else. The expectations on such a person are higher – and the criticisms can be more fierce. His family can become victims of criticism as well. If we do that to sports heroes, would it not make sense that we would treat someone with a moral authority – whose family history we know – with contempt as well? It’s one thing when a stranger comes to try and correct us, but it is humbling – humiliating, even – to be told by someone we know and who knows us that we’re in the wrong.
Human pride gets in the way here, and it leads to the second problem: Jesus’ “inability” to work miracles in Nazareth. If nothing is impossible for God (Luke 1:37), then how is it possible that He can’t work any miracles? Well, I’d suggest that has a lot to do with the way God loves us – and gives us freedom. In a word: it’s God’s sense of justice: choosing not to impose Himself upon those who do not wish it. As St. Augustine would say: “He who made you without your own self, will not justify you without yourself.”
Finally, the third problem is the reference to Jesus’ brothers and sisters (6:3), which seems to fly in the face of our belief that Mary was a Virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ. When the text plainly refers to brothers and sisters, how is this possible? Keep in mind that what seems to be plain to us in English has more intricacies in its original language. Scripture would have been written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic – and we are reading a translation, and it would seem that “brothers” and “sisters” here would refer to close relations like cousins rather than siblings. What also seems to affirm this is Jesus’ words from the cross to John “behold your mother” (cf. John 19:26-27) which, beyond other spiritual ramifications for us, also points to the fact that as a first century woman, Mary needed someone to care for her – and with Joseph gone and Jesus about to die, there was no one else in the family to care for her.
Sending the Twelve Out (Mark 6:7-14)
Jesus next sends out the Twelve apostles two by two, with specific instructions on how little they are supposed to take with them (6:8-9). Their mission is to bring the Good News in word and action, and this poverty makes them rely on God’s providence to take care of them. It also frees them from material cares and ensures that any “thing” they might bring with them wouldn’t distract their hearers from the message (imagine if an evangelist shows up driving a Lexus and wearing expensive jewelry!) Jesus’ specific direction that they ought to anoint the sick with oil (6:13) is still done today by priests who celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick.
John the Baptist Dies (Mark 6:15-29)
John the Baptist’s mission was always to direct others to Jesus, a mission he embraced even in utero (Luke 1:41). It is seen most explicitly when he calls Jesus “The Lamb of God” (John 1:29). As Jesus’ mission became more and more concrete, John’s began to fade away – a fact John acknowledged himself, declaring that “He (Jesus) must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). Here in Mark’s Gospel, we hear about what happens to John as he “decreased”: having challenged King Herod’s immoral living situation (he took his brother’s wife as his own), Herod arrested John and threw him in prison. It would seem, though, that John’s words stirred something in his heart, so Herod was hesitant to have John killed (6:20). But it was at his birthday party, that he watched his stepdaughter dance and – in a fit of lust – offered her whatever she might want, up to half his kingdom (6:22-23). At her mother’s urging, she requested and received John’s head on a platter (6:24-28).
If you ever watch the movie Jesus of Nazareth, you would see Christopher Plummer offer an amazing yet disturbing portrayal of this king allowing his lust trump his reason, and snuff out whatever action of the Holy Spirit may have been working in his heart. It is the truth of many who follow in his footsteps: disordered sexual desire leads us to ignore the voice of God in our hearts, and to do great harm to ourselves.
Jesus feeds 5,000 (Mark 6:30-44)
Of all the stories in this chapter, the feeding of the 5,000 is probably the most popular. It begins with an act of care by Christ who meets the twelve at the end of their mission above, offering them the opportunity to be renewed: “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). This is something we can all benefit from – the reason why retreats and conferences are a such successful tools in ministry…. we all need to come away and rest. The only problem is that many people follow them, and there is neither enough food nor enough money to buy food to feed the crowd. The Apostles scrounge up five loaves and two fish, which Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives to the people… and once they are done, there is enough food left to fill twelve baskets.
The lessons from this story are many. There’s a prefiguring of the Eucharist – bread which Jesus will take, bless, break, and give to us through the hands of the Apostles. There is the fact that unlike the reality at a banquet or fancy restaurant, none of the food is left to waste – it is collected. There’s His care not only for our spiritual needs, but our temporal ones too – both letting His twelve rest and feeding the crowd that followed them.
A beautiful insight from this story is what Jesus can do with the little we give to Him. In a crowd that big, five loaves and two fish were nothing. But given to Jesus, they become tremendously abundant – so much so that there are leftovers. This is the reality of our spiritual lives: when we place ourselves and our gifts into the hands of Christ, He can also do great things in and through us.
Jesus Walks on the Raging Sea (Mark 6:45-52)
This echoes a story we saw earlier in the Gospel of Mark (4:35-41), where the disciples are out at sea in a storm. This time, they are paddling against the wind (6:48), and having no success… and Jesus, miraculously, walks across the sea – terrifying them – gets in the boat, and calms the storm (6:50-51). One of the most popular images for the Church is a boat – and without a doubt it often feels like being a Christian is rowing against the tide. We need to recognize the key to calming the storm and making progress is the same for us as it is for the Apostles: make sure Jesus is in the boat, and trust that He will always ensure that the storms don’t destroy us.
Jesus Heals the Sick (Mark 6:53-56)
Jesus heals the sick, even if all they do is brush the fringe of his garment (5:56). This is in keeping with the way Jesus often heals us: making tangible things like spit (John 8:23), clothing (Mark 5:28-29), clay (John 9:6), and water (John 9:7) the means of healing. All of these foreshadow the Sacraments which offer us tangible things that all perform a miraculous work.
It almost seems nonchalant to write that in this way: “Jesus heals people.” What’s new? It seems like that’s one of the main things He did – bringing healing to others over and over again. These and all of His miracles are meant to affirm that He is not just another good teacher: Jesus is much more, feeding thousands from a meager offering, calming storms, casting out demons, bringing healing, and proclaiming a message that truly is Good News. Though the disciples struggle to recognize it, all of these signs point to the fact that Jesus is no mere man: He is also the Word made flesh, God who has come to be with us, who loves us, and who will never leave us.