Jul 8, 2018

“A Prophet without Honor” 7-8-18

Ezekiel 2:1-5; Mark 6:1-13
July 8, 2018

As I begin my ministry among you, I intend, Lord willing, to follow the Revised Common Lectionary gospel lessons as the general outline for preaching Sunday by Sunday.   During July, these readings take us from Mark 6 to John 6 to eventually explore Jesus’ Feeding of the 5000.  One of the important sub-themes of the readings, though, is the ministry of the prophets as it reaches its fullness in Christ.  So, if you read ahead in these two chapters you should soon appreciate the way the gospels witness to Jesus as a prophet. 

Our text this morning calls attention to Jesus as a prophet in an indirect and ironic sort of way.   Whether this saying, “No prophet is without honor, except in his own hometown, and among his kin and in his house.” is an original saying of Jesus or popular wisdom that he appropriates, it is one of the few places where Jesus affirms his identity as a prophet.  In the apostolic preaching, Jesus is proclaimed primarily as Lord and Christ, yet there is no hesitation to also present him as a prophet of God.  In Acts 3 Peter preached that Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise that God would raise up for his people a prophet like Moses, a point Stephen reaffirmed in his speech to the Jewish council in Acts 7, concluding the speech of course with that endearing question, “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?”  In 1 Thessalonians 2 St. Paul echoes the same identification of Jesus with the prophets who experienced persecution at the hand of those to whom they were sent.  

In his book Jesus through the Centuries, Yale church historian Jaroslav Pelikan shows how Jesus, in his original Jewish setting, was regarded as a rabbi or teacher in the tradition of the great prophets of Israel.  (Cited in David Smith, Liberating the Gospel, p. 15)   However, Pelikan goes on to observe that the prophetic side of Jesus’ ministry recedes into the background of church teaching after Nicea (325A.D.) and never really reemerges as a prominent Christological theme.   So, it is good to be reminded that he was a prophet, not only in the eyes of the crowds in Galilee, and in the proclamation of the apostles, but that Jesus himself understood this to be essential to his calling.

In this message I wish to touch on three things.  First, I will briefly examine the saying “a prophet without honor"--what it means and doesn’t mean.  Second, I will note the connection between Jesus' rejection at Nazareth and the sending of the 12 as they are uniquely placed side by side in the gospel according to St. Mark.  Finally, I will close with a few remarks about the prophetic ministry of the church.

"A prophet without honor" is an adage about how hard it is to step into a position of moral authority among those who know you well.  This is clearly not an esoteric truth that Jesus uniquely reveals to the world.  Rather it is an observation about how things usually work.  A similar view is expressed, for example, by the first century Greco-Roman philosopher Dio Chrysostom who remarked that “Life is hard for philosophers in their hometown.”  Jesus' words, directed to his hometown detractors in the synagogue, chide them as a perfect example of a common human failing.

Jesus words are sometimes construed as a directive, almost a rule, about where prophets (and by extension, pastors) ought or ought not to go in following God's call.   This, however, pushes the saying too far.  After all, Jesus had done this very thing.  He did not exclude Nazareth from his mission trip, even though the hostile reception was easily anticipated.  Jesus’ words do not forbid prophets or pastors to take up a hometown ministry.  (In fact, there are more than a few examples in church history of hometown ministries working out well.)  Instead, Jesus' words offer a realistic caution about what to expect. Returning home can have a strong appeal to many people.  Woe to the pastor who contemplates that possibility through rose colored glasses!
I would note in passing that the "prophet without honor" saying should help us appreciate the work of church sociologists and pastoral theologians.  Their work brings to light predictable trends or tendencies in congregational life.  They identify strategies or group behaviors that tend to work out better than others—that sort of thing.  Transition ministers try to be familiar with this research and use it to advise churches.  For this reason, they sometimes get a reputation as "problem solvers."  However, this is a misconception.  Most of the challenges that churches face do not fit a problem-solution paradigm, any more than a prophet in his hometown.  These challenges call forth wisdom and courage and certain ways of behaving.  But they do not have "solutions."

It is also important to remember that this saying is a word about prophets.  There is nothing here to discourage Christians from going home and sharing the good news about Jesus with friends and family.  Shortly before this episode, Jesus set a man free from a Legion of demons and sent him home to tell his own people all that God had done for him. 

But, of course, this passage is not here primarily to warn prophets about going home.   In biblical and theological perspective, the real burden of this passage is signaled by words of contrast.  The first contrast is signaled by words of amazement.   The hometown folks were amazed (6:2, Gk. ekplesso) when they heard Jesus expound the word in the Synagogue.   Jesus was amazed (6:6 Gk thaumazo) at their unbelief.  Those of you following in your Greek testaments will note the words are not the same, but they express the same thought.  Mark’s focus on amazement draws our attention to the nature of unbelief (1) and also to the mystery of Jesus’ true humanity (2).

Unbelief is deeply ingrained in the human heart.  The unconverted heart is always suppressing God’s truth, always looking for a way to blunt its force and its claims.  When the bearer of the word is a hometown son or daughter, the sinner does not have to look far for a reason to dismiss the word out of hand.  “We know you,” they say.  “You’re nobody special, no different than rest of us. What makes you imagine that God singled you out to speak on his behalf."  This is actually a sinful resentment born of pride.  The Nazareth folks brought a hometown boy who seemed to have outgrown his britches down to their level where he belonged.

Mark calls attention in a striking way to the depth of their hardness of heart with the most expanded form of the "prophet without honor" saying.  Mark alone among the evangelists sketches circles of narrowing familiarity: in his hometown, among his kin, and in his house.  These are the people who were in the best position to observe the hand of God at work in Jesus' life, but precisely here pride and envy blind the eye and heart such that they take offense at him.  Or as John observes in John 1:11, "He came into his own things, and his own people did not receive him."  Their response is more than even Jesus fully imagined.  He was amazed at their unbelief.

We can pause here in passing to observe that Jesus’ amazement is another reminder of his true humanity.  The church always has to be on guard against various forms of the ancient heresy called Docetism.  Docetism taught that Jesus had the appearance of humanity, but not the full reality.  This idea always keeps popping up in various guises.  In the gospel narratives, though, we are repeatedly reminded that, as the writer to the Hebrews says, "He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every make a sacrifice of atonement." (2:17)   Jesus was amazed.   Now amazement seems to involve an element of surprise—and it is inconceivable that an omniscient God can be genuinely surprised or amazed.  Yet the eternal son of God, in the mystery of the incarnation, can be amazed at unbelief. 

The second contrast in the Gospel lesson is between the few and the many.  In Mark 6:5 we are told that Jesus "could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them."  In Mark 6:13, as the twelve go out on their mission trip, "They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them."  The contrast could not be more vivid.  Jesus, among those who knew him well and who had every reason to regard him as a man who lived and spoke the truth, was able to accomplish only a little.  The twelve, sent out as strangers to whoever would listen to a call to repentance, accomplished much.   In his hometown, among his kin and in his house, Jesus had a full support system.  The disciples were sent out, though, with nothing to fall back on.   In the flow of this narrative, in which Mark alone places the sending of the twelve immediately after the rejection at Nazareth, the lesson about faith is clear.  Where there is faith, the Lord works great things and brings blessing into broken lives.   This is how it is with the ministry of prophets, of those sent by God to call people to repent, to turn and look for the kingdom of God.  As the Lord said to Ezekiel, "Whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.

Finally, it is appropriate to conclude with an observation about the prophetic ministry of the church.  Followers of Christ "share in his anointing."  That is what it means to be called a Christian.  (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A32)  The church has understood this to mean that it has a prophetic role in the world, that there are times and situations when the church needs to say, within the public and even political sphere, "Thus says the Lord."  This has always certainly been part of the self-understanding of churches in the Presbyterian tradition. 

Of late, though, this has become more difficult.  Presbyterians, for example, were a major voice in the forming of the American republic and in the past often spoke out, as churches, public issues, beginning, of course, with advocacy for the American Revolution itself.  In our own time, though, when secularism and pluralism dominate public life, it is much harder for churches to speak into national life.  Moreover, our society is now deeply divided and polarized and needs more than ever to hear a word from God. 

Ironically, this polarization is due in measure to the decline of churches themselves.  Niall Ferguson identifies churches as "networks of discourse" where, in the past, people could discuss politics in ways that helped mitigate polarization.  (The Square and the Tower p. 364)   But not only that, one may observe that discussion of politics has become increasingly taboo in church life because the conversation itself is perceived as a threat to the "peace" of the church.   The result is that churches focus more on personal, "spiritual" themes and less on the thorny questions of what a faithful prophetic presence in American society might look like.  At the very least, it must mean that churches attempt the hard conversations from which insight into these hard questions, by God's grace, might emerge.  Where there is faith, even this can be possible!  Amen.


Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906