Small Town Messiah

Nazareth in Jesus’ day wasn’t much.  It was not mentioned outside the New Testament until well into the third century.  It was not named in the Old Testament, in Josephus, or in the rabbinical literature (the Mishnah or the Talmud).  Christianity had no early roots there, with no Christian following of note until the time of Constantine.  Archaeological excavations of Nazareth have revealed an obscure hamlet of crude earthen dwellings chopped into sixty acres of rocky hillside.

In modern times Nazareth is not as obscure.  Today you can pull up the Wikipedia article and read about the largest city in the north district of Israel.  The current residents are predominately Muslim, and so it is nick-named the “Arab capital of Israel.”  It is a bustling place with 81,000 people, yet quaint with many shrines present to welcome Christian tourists who have come to see the sites claimed as significant in the life of Christ.

Regardless in Christ’s day it was neither bustling nor quaint.  Some have argued that it didn’t even exist.  Those that do say it existed as a Jewish community of Galilee at the time of Christ’s birth, and there is strong evidence to believe it did, suggest a humble Jewish village of 500 or so people.  The town I grew up in had 500 people as well.  Everybody knew everybody.  You left your car running when you walked into the general store for a stick of butter, or stopped by the post office for a book of stamps.  Our Memorial Day parade consisted of three tractors some horses and a borrowed fire truck from the next town over.  The town hall was open one day a week for five hours.  There were no professionals.  Teachers commuted to our school from other districts.  The wealthiest residents were farmers.  The second wealthiest was the priest.

In the town where I grew up you knew you had “made it” in the world out there not when you went away to a prestigious college, or were offered a big scholarship, or went out of county for a good job opportunity, but when you successfully enlisted in the military.  Did you hear Johnny is going to the Navy?  He’s going to sail the seas and see the continents!  It will probably change him though, poor Johnny. 

The world out there is a suspicious place for provincial people.  It is full of charlatans, and dangerous back alleys, and evil empires.  It is not safe like home.  Out there people do not take care of one another, or bake each other pies, or attend Tuesday bingo.  Out there all manner of selfishness and worldliness collide in a sharp elbowed jungle of survival of the fittest. The mentality expresses itself something like this: those who grow here should stay here and die here–the ones who stay are the ones who take what is rightly there’s in life.  Those who are born carpenters should stay carpenters.  Once a Nazarene always a Nazarene.  The ones not satisfied by the village borders and ways have restless spirits, and are not contented, and hard to please, and if they leave it is best they stay gone. 

Maybe that’s why Jesus’ return was not met with the red carpet treatment.  Where had Jesus been anyway?  Who does he think he is?  He’s a carpenter by trade.  He has brothers and a sister.  His mom was born in Nazareth.  Is not this the son of Mary?  Doesn’t he know his place?

It’s suggested that the identification of Jesus through his mother’s line was meant as an insult.  Men were known by their fathers name (i.e. Jesus Bar Joseph) they were not known by their mothers name (i.e. Is not this the son of Mary?).  There is literary attestation that calling a man the son of a woman in Jesus’ day was to slander him as of illegitimate status.  I think that’s a poor way of insulting somebody, by invoking someone’s mother, but that’s the way it was done.  The village was bringing Jesus’ reputation into question, and Mary’s as well.  It’s bad seeds like this one who decide to travel to the world out there when all they really need is a stick of butter, a couple of postage stamps, and a two minute parade who are ruining our world.

In fairness those outside the village are often not any better in their judgmental ways.  They are suspicious of the provincialism found in quaint places with well engrained tradition.  You might have noticed that the gospels says nothing good about Nazareth.  In the gospel of Mark the residents of Nazareth, including Jesus’ own family (who are called out by name), respond poorly to God’s chosen messiah, and Nazareth becomes the only place that Jesus is unable to perform a miracle.  In the gospel of Luke the residents go a step further and try to push Jesus off a cliff–i.e. they try to murder one of their own.  In the gospel of Matthew, Nazareth, like some skeleton to be hidden behind the suit rack in a dark walk-in closet, takes a back seat to Bethlehem the venerable hometown of the great King David.  In the gospel of John, Nathaniel asks the biting rhetorical question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  In all four gospels (and we could include the Gospel of Thomas as well) the statement is made in relation to Nazareth that “a prophet is not without honor except in his own hometown.”  The proverb continues, “And among their own kin, and in their own house.”  Those are words that hurt.

Imagine what it is like to go to the place of your upbringing–the flood of memories engulfs you, the familiar faces and places.  This is the place where you applied your trade, where your family is still present in large numbers, where you can visit your old room and see the Star Wars posters still thumb tacked to your bedroom walls.  And imagine what it is like to be rejected by that familiar place, to be insulted, to be seen as a scandal.

And a scandal Jesus was.  The words of the text say that the residents of Nazareth “took offense” at him.  The word for offense is the Greek word scandalon from which we get our English word scandal.  It literally meant something that caused another to stumble.  Jesus had left the small town, gone out into the world out there and had come back with dangerous ideas.  He might upset the anxious and tender hearted.  He might topple tradition.  He is certain to the lead the kids astray.  It would be better if he had stayed away; this son of Mary must be stopped!  You can see why Jesus instructed his disciples in Mark chapter 2 that they shouldn’t sew a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, or put new wine in old wine skins.  Not unless they wanted to tear the garment even more, or burst those skins and make them useless.  The town folk of Nazareth couldn’t just dismiss Jesus.  They couldn’t just ignore him.  He was dangerous.  He would tear the fabric of their lives.  He would burst the vessels that held their wine of celebration, their drink of joy.

Jesus is taken back by the reaction.  So far in the gospel of Mark he is unstoppable, charismatic, mysterious, even haunting.  Yet in Nazareth, his hometown, he fails to win the crowd.  In the preceding stories Jesus displayed lordship over nature. demons, and death.  But among his own people his miracle working power is thwarted by the mundane powers of limited horizons and provincialism.  In other towns of Galilee the crowds were amazed at Jesus’ authority, but in Nazareth, the hometown of God’s messiah, it is Jesus who is amazed at the crowds unbelief–even the unbelief of his own family.

Doesn’t Jesus’ family know that family is supposed to accept family no matter what?  When everyone else leaves, or writes you off, or cusses you out, it’s family that is supposed to stand by your side to the end.  Jesus was not afforded this safety net.  We know from the the testimony of the synoptics and John that the brothers of Jesus refuse to believe in him during Jesus’ lifetime.  So Mark singles out even Jesus’ own kin, and his own house in Jesus’ difficult homecoming.  Jesus went back to his own, and his own took offense at him.

The rejection at Nazareth happens immediately before Jesus sends out his disciples to evangelize the towns of Galilee.  It serves as a warning.  This is the point of no return.  Once you identify with me and my proclamation of the kingdom there’s no going home.  They will think you’re crazy.  They will take offense.  You will be a threat.  How much of a threat?  The story that follows the sending out the disciples is  John the Baptist losing his head.  I think the message is loud and clear.  Here’s your cross, carry it well, have no false pretenses.  There is pain in rejection.

You might feel bad for Nazareth.  After all wasn’t it Jesus who said when sending out his disciples that if a town rejected the disciple’s message that it would be more tolerable for Sodom and Gamorrah on the day of judgment than for that town?  What about a town that rejected the Messiah himself?  Yet oddly enough, Nazareth’s legacy is not all bad.  Even today it is still popular to refer to the anointed one of God as “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Perhaps the residents of Nazareth were right, once a Nazarene always a Nazarene.  Further, when Paul is brought before Governor Felix a lawyer named Tertulles accuses him of being a ring leader of the “sect of the Nazarenes.”  Apparently that was the name some were using a for a sect of Jews who were proclaiming a coming kingdom, and salvation to all, including their gentile brothers.  We are part of that same sect today–also known as Christians.  Today there are churches that still carry the name Nazarene on their signs and letterhead (they own a retreat  center up a winding Teconic Parkway, close to the Holy Cow Ice Cream shop–we know it well).

We don’t know that Jesus ever looked upon the residents of Nazareth again after the events of Mark 6, but we do know that three times in the gospel of Mark the Christ will be referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth”: during the segue on his entrance into Jerusalem, in the context of his trial, and by proclamation of an angel at the empty tomb–all pivotal moments in Mark’s telling of the messiah’s story.  All events that happened in the world out there.  Regardless of his location and circumstance there is something of that provincial place that stays with Jesus forever.  There is something in Mary of Nazareth that follows him to the cross.  There is something in James of Nazareth, Jesus’ brother, that turns him into a leader in the early Christian community.  In a way, since we follow Jesus of Nazareth, there is something of that place that remains in us as well.  It does not matter if you have transcended your upbringing, or if your generation has burst the old skins and become cosmopolitan free thinkers, there is something in the foundation of all of us that is small town provincial–that is content with sticks of butter, postage stamps, and two minute parades.

I know some of us have experience deep hurt from a severance with our pasts.  Why couldn’t they believe?  Why couldn’t they see the kingdom present amongst them?  But our pasts are not lost and forgotten, and they are not worthless.  Our pasts provide our surnames.  At the most pivotal moments in our stories these names return to us as identifiers and protectors.  I am Jesse Pettengill, son of Larry and Theresa, and I came to know Jesus of Nazareth in the Churches of Christ in a small town of 500 provincial people.  Now I’m in the world out there, but I’m not worried.  I follow Jesus of Nazareth who knows a few things about small town rejection–and he’ll point the way.

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