14th Sunday of Ordinary Time July 8, 2006
“SON OF MAN, I AM SENDING YOU TO THE ISRAELITES” (Ezek 2:3)
Ezekiel is one of my favorite Old Testament prophets, mostly because he came to his prophetic ministry after being a priest. Not that Ezekiel left the priesthood voluntarily as I did; he was forced to leave his priestly life in Jerusalem after the Babylonians took over the city in 597 BC. They captured its King, killed many in his court and his leading priest, left a puppet king in the city of Jerusalem and took Ezekiel and most of the remaining elite and professional artisans into captivity. Ten years later they Babylonians returned to Jerusalem and destroyed the city and temple, killing all who remained.
Ezekiel was the first Old Testament prophet to get his call outside of Israel. The first three chapters of the book tell the story of his call to be a prophet – a spokesperson for God. The call came to him in a vision by the river Chebar in Babylon near where the Jewish captives lived. The vision began as a storm cloud rising out of the north. The cloud had lightening bolts visible in its center. As the cloud moved closer and closer Ezekiel describes four very strange creatures posted upon four large sets of wheels inside of wheels contraptions moving where the wind and spirit lead them. Above the creatures was firmament and above the firmament the throne of God. All of these images Ezekiel describes in full and strange detail, each detail carrying its own meaning. As soon as Ezekiel realizes he is seeing the throne of God, he hits the ground face down. Then the voice of God said, “Son of man, stand up!” The spirit of God entered Ezekiel and stood him on his feet and said to him, “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites.” The term “son of man” appears in the book of Ezekiel 80 times. It is the name God gives to Ezekiel when speaking to him. It just means “a human one.” Later on in the book of Daniel the term will morph into an apocalyptic character who comes into the world on a cloud at the end of time to judge humanity. In the book of Ezekiel the term is applied to the prophet to contrast Ezekiel’s human frailty to God’s divine majesty. Later in the Gospels the term Son of Man is used as one of the titles attributed to Jesus.
“HARD OF FACE AND OBSTINATE OF HEART ARE THEY TO WHOM I AM SENDING YOU” (Ezek 2:4a)
As God is commissioning Ezekiel to speak his words to the Israelites, he also tells him that they will not want to hear what he has to say to them. This is typical, if not a normative experience for would be prophets, especially prophets of God. In a kind of “Catch 22” prophets are sent by God to set a people straight about God’s will but most of the time the people do not believe they are in error and refuse to listen to what the prophets have to say. Yet God keeps sending the prophets anyway.
“AND WHETHER THEY HEED OR RESIST…THEY SHALL KNOW THAT A PROPHET HAS BEEN AMONG THEM” (Ezek 2:5)
Here I think God may be overstating himself. People who are unreceptive to a prophet’s message do not often concede the prophet, a prophet’s standing. More often than not such recognition, if it comes at all, happens after the prophet is long dead, after the fact, so that the prophet no longer poses any threat to the status quo.
OVER THE TOP WITH EZEKIEL
The call of Ezekiel in chapters 1-3 has a lot of the same characteristics found in the calls of many Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea and Joel); only Ezekiel seems to go over the top with his visions and imagery. Ezekiel uses vivid and descriptive visions, employing elements commonly found in the genre of writing called apocalyptic literature. Through the medium of heavenly creatures, visions and bizarre symbolism Ezekiel uses elements of a literary genre that is also found in Isa 24-27, Dan 7-12, Job 3 and in the New Testament in the Synoptic Gospels and the entire book of Revelation. This kind of writing was birthed during times of great suffering and persecution. It is meant to encourage the faithful to remain true to God and God’s Word. Its bottom line message is that no matter what happens, in the end God wins and all those who remain faithful to God will be rewarded by God.
“HE CAME TO HIS NATIVE PLACE, ACCOMPANIED BY HIS DISCIPLES” (Mark 6:1)
Immediately after raising Jairus’ daughter, Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth with his disciples. He had good reason to believe he would be treated better than the last time he visited home. The last time he was in Nazareth his family tried to take him out of public view because they thought he was ‘out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). The scribes from Jerusalem, who were sent to Nazareth to check Jesus out, accused him of being possessed by the Devil; hence his ability to exorcise evil spirits (Mark 3:22).
Since his last visit home Jesus had been busy. He calmed a stormy sea (Mark 4:35-41), sent a legion of evil spirits into a 2000 head herd of pigs who then drowned themselves in the Sea of Galilee (Mark 5:1-20), cured a woman of hemorrhage and raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:21-43) Jesus’ regional popularity was widespread and the people of Nazareth would have been aware of all these things Jesus was doing.
It may be that Jesus and his family made amends because Jesus and his disciples must have stayed with his family when they were in Nazareth.
WHEN THE SABBATH CAME HE BEGAN TO TEACH IN THE SYNAGOGUE (Mark 6:2)
When the Sabbath arrived Jesus attended the synagogue and began to teach them. Surely the synagogue official would have no problem asking Jesus to speak given all that Jesus was doing in the region, besides everyone in town must have attended the service to hear what Jesus had to say. The text says “Many who heard him were astonished.” However their astonishment quickly turned ugly when they started to ask themselves where Jesus got all his wisdom. How could he perform such mighty deeds?
“IS HE NOT THE CARPENTER?” (Mark 6:3a)
Their sense of being put down by Jesus moved them to start attacking him in the only way they could, belittling him for where he came from. They started asking rhetorical questions. Isn’t this just Jesus, the no account day laborer we all know? I used to think that Jesus being a carpenter meant that he was from a working class blue collar family. Recent historical-critical scholarship tells us that there was no blue collar working class in Galilee. The Roman occupation was particularly hard on the land based peasant Jewish population which Jesus was from. Many had lost their lands through indebtedness and high taxation. Given Jesus’ peasant background, his being called a carpenter means he was closer to what we know as a day laborer than a skilled carpenter.
“(IS HE NOT) THE SON OF MARY?” (Mark 6:3b)
This was the meanest put down of all. The crowd identifies Jesus through his mother with no mention of his father. This would have been a great insult and raises the whole question of Jesus’ illegitimate birth.
“(IS HE NOT) THE BROTHER OF JAMES AND JOES AND JUDAS AND SIMON? AND ARE NOT HIS SISTERS HERE WITH US?” (Mark 6:3c)
The mention of Jesus’ brothers and sisters is problematic for the Catholic Church. Mark wrote his gospel long before the Catholic Church developed its Marian theological dogmas. That Jesus had brothers and sisters was not a problem for Mark. It should not be a problem for us either.
Nor was there being mentioned in this context in the narrative the same kind of put down as Jesus being a “no account” day laborer or the public siring of Jesus’ questionable birth circumstances. The crowd mentioned Jesus’ brothers and sisters only to show their familiarity with Jesus and his family, to question how Jesus could be making himself out to be better than them. Since they knew, lived and worked with Jesus and his brothers and sisters, Jesus has no basis to hold himself above them.
Editor’s Note: There are three traditional explanations for Jesus’ brothers and sisters as present in this passage: 1) Mary had other children after Jesus. After all, all that is important is that Mary was a virgin before getting pregnant with Jesus, not after. This is the typical Protestant view.
2) Joseph had other children by a previous marriage. This is the situation presented in the famous apocryphal work, the Protoevangelium of James (literally ‘the Gospel before the Gospel’). In this work, Joseph is an old man who is given charge over the teenaged Mary. Previously she had lived in the Temple but with the onset of puberty and its attending menstrual cycle, she could no longer stay at the Temple. I always snicker at how quickly people dismiss this option. It is an apocryphal book (one deacon told me). Here is the rub: it is from this apocryphal book that we learn the names of Mary’s mother (Anna) and father (Joachim). Most Catholics take that tradition as gospel… This tradition is the one typically held by orthodox Christianity, e.g., the Greek Orthodox Church.
3) The final position is one advocated by Jerome. According to Jerome, the term for ‘brother’ in Aramaic (Jesus’ language) is vague and can be made to mean ‘cousin’. This is true even of English which admits of general use for the term ‘brother’. However, the Greek language does have a word for ‘cousin’. It is interesting to note that Paul calls James (leader of the Church in Jerusalem; see Galatians 1-2) ‘the brother of the Lord’ (compare the list of Jesus’ brothers in Mark 6:3ff). Paul had met this man and had spoken with him. Surely he knew his exact relationship to Jesus. If he was a ‘cousin’ and not a ‘brother’, Paul had the linguistic tools (i.e., the Greek language) to express this exact relationship to the Galatians who had never met James! Sadly, this position is the one most in favor in Roman Catholic circles. ALM
“AND THEY TOOK OFFENSE AT HIM” (Mark 6:3d)
Throughout the gospel of Mark one of the major conflicts in the story is Jesus’ complete independence from every social, religious and political bond that would have claims on him by virtue of his birth and place in society. Whether it was his family, his clan, hometown, race, religion or nationality, Jesus did not let any of these ties lay claim to his spirit and ministry. More than anything else, this uncompromising independence put Jesus at odds with the rich and the powerful, those who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. It is what ultimately brought him to the cross.
“A PROPHET IS NOT WITHOUT HONOR EXCEPT IN HIS NATIVE PLACE AND AMOND HIS OWN KIN AND IN HIS OWN HOUSE.” (Mark 6:4)
The punch line in this week’s gospel is the above proverbial statement by Jesus. It gets our special attention this week because it ties in so well with our first reading from the book of Ezekiel and its point that the prophet’s message will be ignored yet must be given anyway.
This might be a good time to share a few insights I’ve come to about what makes a prophet, both the biblical and the modern day ones. The first thing a person needs to know about prophets is that their insights are not about what will take place in the future so much as they are reading the present times as God would have us see them. If they speak of any future events, they are speaking of consequences should people continue to ignore God’s warnings.
Prophets often (although not always; see Amos) come from within the communities that they are speaking to. Prophets are not usually outside agitators. The truth they know, the social sins they address are not distant from their personal experience. At their “root”, the issues and concerns prophets address are issues of injustice. The truest prophets create their prophetic message from sharing in the suffering and grief caused by the injustice they are addressing. It is in the grief that comes with the suffering that the prophetic imagination is stimulated. It is not a ‘head thing.’ It’s not abstract. It is a personal, hands on, experiential thing.
In this regard a person may be drawn into a prophetic ministry on a temporary basis to address a particular issue. A prophet’s work does not have to be full-time or life-long. It can be temporary and specific to one concern. We may never have heard of Ezekiel had it not been for his losing his day job as a priest and being taken into exile into Babylon.
Prophets often come from schools of like-minded people. It is very likely that Jesus spent some time with John the Baptist and his disciples before he took off on his own. The four gospels were finally written by disciples of the evangelist who came from a community of like minded disciples. We Catholic Workers are followers of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and other Catholic Worker communities that have come before us. Many of us in the faith-based nonviolent resistance movement in the USA are followers of the Berrigan brothers, Dan and Phil, two men I am blessed to call my rabbis.
Finally prophets are not perfect people. They are often flawed and all too human. This makes them easy targets and susceptible to the same kind of discrediting comments that Jesus received in this week’s Gospel text. In other words, like another proverbial saying infers, ‘It is always easier to kill the messenger than to receive the message.”