"Jesus – the wandering teacher, healer, prophet” (Mark 6:1-13)

The following sermon was delivered at St. John the Baptist Church, Maadi, Cairo, Egypt on Friday 6 July.

Grace and Peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

For the past several weeks in the Revised Common Lectionary in the Western Calendar we have been following the life of Jesus during his early ministry in the Gospel of Mark.  This, Jesus “of Nazareth,” as he is introduced by Mark (1:9), has been wandering around the villages and communities of the Galilee all the way down to the Sea of Galilee, along its shores, across the sea into foreign territory in to what was then called the Decapolis - in present day Jordan and Syria, and back again.  He has been wandering in and among these towns and villages teaching and healing and doing miracles.  And, naturally, all of this work has drawn attention – and not some unwarranted controversy!

After all, these were unsettling times.  During the time of Jesus’ ministry the area of Galilee and around the Sea of Galilee was under the jurisdiction of two of Herod the Great’s sons – Antipas and Philip and no one really trusted or liked them.  (We’ll hear more about them next week.)  The Herods were foreigners themselves and had been responsible for bringing in all kinds of foreigners from across the Jordan to build their cities and monuments – and these foreigners had the audacity to stay and settle causing friction with the traditional Jewish inhabitants. 

The Jews themselves were divided into numerous religious factions, who could not all agree upon the right way to be Jewish – there were the Sadducees, Pharisees, the Zealots, and the apocalyptic types out in the desert, those Essenes.

Then of course, there were the Romans – the ever-present Romans.  Their imperial banners were everywhere.  Their troops were everywhere – marching back and forth between the coast and Jerusalem, where the Roman Governor of the Roman Province of Judea was, coming north into the Galilee on their way to Damascus in the Roman Province of Syria.

Yes, these were troubling times in the first century of Palestine. 

And into this history comes Jesus of Nazareth – a wandering teacher, healer, and prophet – but ultimately much more than that!  As we read in the Gospel of Mark (6:6), Jesus went about from village to village among the local people: the fellahin.  But, his work was also drawing attention from the civil and religious leaders who were uncertain about this Jesus. 

The Medieval Islamic tradition has developed a whole corpus of literature about this wandering Jesus that illustrates this image of Jesus very well, and may help us understand how the local people saw him.  Naturally the Islamic tradition has a completely different view of Jesus – not as the essence of God or Saviour—but as a human Prophet.  But, the stories that have been passed down through the generations of Islamic scholars, more than likely based upon early Christian and Jewish folklore, have been incorporated into Islamic writings that provide a helpful window into the image of this wandering preacher and healer that we see here in Mark.  These stories point to the power of his personality and ministry the world over.

For example, the 9th century scholar Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, from Busra in Iraq, wrote this about Jesus:

God revealed to Jesus: “O Jesus, I have granted you the love of the poor and mercy toward them.  You love them, and they love you and accept you as their spiritual guide and leader, and you accept them as companions and followers.” 

Jesus is known in many Medieval Islamic stories, especially in Shi’a tradition, as a wandering ascetic, who could perform miracles and raise the dead.  He was, in many ways, imagined in the much the same way that Mark speaks of John the Baptist: “clothed with camel’s hair,” eating locusts and wild honey (1:6). 

The famous Muslim scholar al-Ghazali described Jesus as this peripatetic healer who “owned nothing but a comb and a cup.”  He tried to live as simply as he could.  In fact, according to al-Ghazali, Jesus “once saw a man combing his beard with his fingers, so Jesus then threw away the comb. He saw another drinking from a river with his hands cupped, so Jesus threw away the cup.”

This ascetic image is reflected in Mark here when Jesus orders his disciples to “take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money … to but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics” (6:9).  Given this reflection of the wandering preacher, teacher and healer, one can see how the fellahin of the Galilee would have been fond of Jesus, seeking him out to heal them.  These Islamic stories point to the great need of humanity for someone to provide guidance and answers to their daily problems and existence.  The story of Jesus’ earthly ministry in the Galilee is about our human needs for God to act in our daily lives: and of God who does act in a variety of ways.  While we do not share similar views regarding the salvific work of Christ, we do share our belief in his earthly ministry to heal hurting people.

As a Jew, Jesus naturally went to local synagogues to worship and read Torah.  In the Gospel of Luke Jesus begins his ministry by teaching and preaching in the synagogue of Nazareth, his hometown (Lk 4:16-30).  Here in the Gospel of Mark Jesus opens up his public preaching in Capernaum, a fishing village along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  In his first public appearance in the Synagogue, the people were “astounded at his teaching” (1:21) [exeplessonton].

Now, today, he is back in Nazareth, presumably in his home synagogue teaching and preaching.  Once again, the people are “astounded” at his teaching [exeplhssonto].  However, this time – his presence draws a different reaction.  Whereas, in other places people had heard of this “Jesus from Nazareth” – the miracle worker, the healer, the “stiller of the oceans” – here in Nazareth, his home town they know exactly who he is:  “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 offense at him” (6:3) Literally, they were scandalized[eskandalizonto]!

Why would they be so scandalized at this particular teacher and healer – who they knew from when he was “yea high” as a boy? Was it because they remember him running around as a pre-teen, reeking havoc in the community, pulling pranks about which the non-Canonical Gospels note – Jesus as a boy using his “powers” to curse and scare the bullies in the town?  Or was it because they remembered Mary’s boy – “Oh I remember him, that little scoundrel – used to steal all my pomegranates… him a rabbi?  I don’t believe it!”

I remember very clearly, in my own home congregation, similar responses.  My brothers and I were very active in our Sunday school and youth groups growing up.  And when two of the three of us entered Seminary to study for the ministry – I remember hearing very clearly, “Al and Lois’s boys as pastors?  Why they were a bunch of hellions! I don’t believe it!” 

One can understand why those people from Jesus’ home town who knew him as a boy, and knew his family, might be more aghast at his becoming so religious.  The local community certainly knew all of the local gossip about the family – all of the skeletons in the closet.  “You know what I heard, I heard that Mary and Joseph had to get married.”  “Not only that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Joseph wasn’t even the actual father!”  In the villages and communities and extended families in Egypt – everyone knows everything – there’s no such thing as privacy!

But I think there is more to it than that.  Anyone who has spent any time in the Middle East knows how important names are. Names define relationships and tie us to people.  As you know, in Arab culture when a son or daughter is born, the father or mother actually changes their name to reflect their new status as the “father” (Abou) or “mother” (Umm) of the child.  People become publicly known by their relationship to their offspring.  You all have your own examples from your own friends – Abou Hasan, Umm Ahmad . . ..  For a while, I was known among some of the shopkeepers in Digla as Abou Andrew.

Here, Jesus is known as “ the son of Mary.”  The Qur’an knows of Jesus as “Ibn Maryam.”  This is the most frequent designation of Jesus in the Qur’an.  He is tied to his mother.  But, why then, is Mary not known as Umm ‘Isa?  Why, in the historical and traditional way of naming people, do the parents not become known after the son – especially in this case where Jesus has become a Prophet?

Another trait of many Middle Eastern Societies is the importance hierarchies and social castes.  Families are known for their status in a community.  Marriage takes place between couples of the same status in society.  There are those from respectable families that become – in the old Turkish word – beys. Wealth is normally controlled and distributed by those at the top, and they look out for and provide favours for those in the social castes below them. 

In the same way, how is it that this young man, the “son of Mary” – of questionable lineage, upset the carefully balanced social cucumber-cart by propelling himself into the limelight of being an important religious leader?  After all, he didn’t even have a benefactor or an intermediary (wasit) in the community to help him get started – not even King Herod.  He just assumed his newfound status himself, without asking anyone’s permission, including his uncle or the local mayor (umda), or the important families in town.  He just went up and started preaching.  Such a thing is not heard of, it is not very culturally appropriate (but perhaps it is very American)!  [“Just do it!”]

It seems to me that Jesus has such a difficult time not only gaining credibility in his hometown, and especially with the religious leaders, because he has simply trampled the delicate balance of social relationships that have kept their community going for so long.  If you are the son of so and so, or the parent of such and such a family, you know your role and your place in society and that’s it.  You are a carpenter, the son of a carpenter, and you are from the artisan class and that’s your station in life. To expect more, to desire more, to do something else is unthinkable – a scandal.

Perhaps, this is why we are living in the midst of such traumatic times in Egypt.  The social cucumber-cart has been overturned. Egyptian society had grown to accept and live in the midst of particular social-political realities.  Whether people belonged to particular families, or political parties, or religious communities, each had its place and role in the delicately balanced social-political sphere.  As of January 2010, that all changed.  And it all changed because some youth, some upstarts, who didn’t even ask permission, decided that things could be otherwise.

Now, Egyptians are all trying to figure it all out – how to move forward, how to function when their family and social relationships that had been so carefully balanced for years is now out the window.  How can one vote for a particular candidate for Parliament or the Presidency who is not a member of the family, or the village, or the denomination to which we belong?  How is one to be represented now in a new system where the traditional relationships of blood and kin and age are severed, where the names of a particular individual are important because of whom they are related to?  Yes, it is all a big scandal.  Like many in Nazareth, there are many who just may be too scandalized to respond.

Jesus may be known here is the “son of Mary” by his fellow Nazarenes or in the Qur’an as “ibn Maryam”; but his ministry as we have come to read and know according to the Gospel of Mark is defined as the “Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God” (1:1). This Gospel is certainly a scandal. 

It is a message too that values the importance of family names.  For just as Jesus went into the waters of the Jordan, was baptized by John and came out to the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased;” we too are called, named, and known by our family name.  In the waters of our own baptisms, whether when we were brought to the fonts as infants, or as adults, we were named by God – “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ, forever.”

As family members of the body of Christ, we are brought into and sent forth into this world – into the particular vocations to which each of us has been called – to engage the world, to speak to the world, to participate in the world, following the call of the wandering preacher, teacher and healer – who is oh, so much more than that!   

Like the disciples, we too are called into a scandalized world that does not know what to do when the social, political, and religious cucumber carts are overturned.  The only way that most of us humans know how to respond when things seem to get out of control is to react, to protect, to lash out, to try to return life to the normalcy that if did not make us happy at least it was stable and predictable.  Perhaps that’s why it was so hard for the people to believe here in the text – because they too had difficulty understanding the importance of reaching out to those regardless of social, economic, political, or even religious barriers.

As Disciples of Christ we are called to respond in our varied ministries to the scandals in the world not by reacting but by responding.  Jesus went out to minister to people of all walks of life, from different places – villages, towns and cities; people from all different kinds of families and backgrounds.  And they are all sons and daughters of God, worthy of our consideration and respect.  This, at least this, is one way we can demonstrate the scandal of the Good News as found in Mark’s 6th chapter  – that God so loved the whole world that he gave of himself.  In the words of one fellah from Mark 9 – “I believe, help my unbelief!” (9:24).