2 Corinthians 7b-10
“To wish for nothing more than need demands is rest supreme, with simple food and dress to feed and clothe our bodies and to seek no more than is prescribed by nature’s wants.” “The Spiritual Combat”, Prudentius (348AD-405AD)
There is the most incredible irony in this brief passage from Mark’s gospel that had not occurred to me before. Verses 1-6 speak of Jesus’ limitations in that “He could do no deed of power …” (vs 5) even though there were apparently some He was able to heal; but the passage ends with Jesus being “amazed at their unbelief” (vs 6).
Then we move into the second portion of the reading in which Jesus commissioned the Twelve to go out “two by two and gave them [presumably HIS] authority over unclean spirits” (vs 7). The disciples were given explicit instructions on what to take with them and how to act; so apparently following Jesus’ careful instructions, “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and cured them” (vs 13).
Can we not see the strange irony? The Messiah Himself was working with His hands tied behind His back and was only able to heal a “few”, but His disciples were endowed with “[Jesus’] authority over unclean spirits” (after all, whom else can even have that authority?) and were able to heal “many”. How can it be that the One who inherently possesses that kind of Power can change the lives of only a few while those so endowed with that same Power were enabled to change the lives of many?
The first part of the reading gives us a clue, but it’s still a little hard to understand how the people can so easily reject a “home town boy” they have apparently known for most of His life, maybe having grown up with Him. What is interesting in this context, however, is that the setting for this rejection may be found in a collection of ancient books known as “The Lost Books of the Bible”.
In one particular “Lost” book entitled, “Thomas’ Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus”, Jesus is written of as a rather mischievous child who had to be checked by Joseph more than once. Some of the stories would be far-fetched for the average Christian reader, of course, because we have been acclimated by Luke’s Gospel (2:41-51) to an ideal child who got into trouble with His parents only once, when He became separated from them in Jerusalem during Passover at the age of twelve years. When the Boy was finally found, He was in the Temple involved in discussions with the teachers who were “amazed at His understanding and His answers” (vss 46-47); perhaps much in the same way Jesus was “amazed” at unbelief in Nazareth.
So we Christians have a traditional understanding of an exceptional Boy who never got into mischief, who never gave His folks a hard time especially after the Jerusalem incident (“He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to [His parents]”, vs 51) – a Babe who didn’t even cry in the manger, according to the popular Christmas hymn! The One who was without sin (2 Corinthians 5:21).
We are still left to wonder how it could be that Jesus was being rejected by the hometown crowd while preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. Even if we will not embrace or even acknowledge the extra-biblical accounts of “Lost Books”, there is still something amiss in a crowd that is being told of Good News, a crowd that has apparently seen or at least has heard about Jesus’ “deeds of power” (vs 2). And yet this son of a carpenter who was a working man, son of Mary, brother of other local town folk, had somehow “offended” the hometown crowd (vs 3).
Mark doesn’t give us a lot of background before Jesus is rejected by His hometown, but Matthew’s Gospel offers several parables in chapter 13 leading up to Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth. This at least helps to explain how the crowd had such a hard time accepting Jesus in this new role as “rabbi” or teacher, having been the son of a carpenter, having been a working man Himself. We are given no real account of Jesus’ education in the Gospels, though the “Lost Books” mention Jesus having been so instructed – but even then Joseph had been told by the rabbis that Jesus already knew the stuff they were trying to teach Him, including the Scripture!
Whether of the Lost Books or the Bible we are more familiar with (as well as our own home-made traditions!), we’re left with the understanding that Jesus can be no less than what He was born to be. If He is indeed “Emmanuel” (God with us), then what can it be that He does not or would not know? How can we mere mortals “amaze” the Son of God?
Well, apparently just as the elders in Jerusalem were “amazed” at the wisdom of the Boy Wonder, even the Son of God is “amazed at … unbelief”, whether “theirs” at Nazareth or ours in hometown Arkansas USA. And perhaps it is that the Son of the Most High God, for all He has done and will do when He returns, is still somewhat restricted in what He fully desires to do today in the here-and-now – not because the evil one has Him ham-strung, but because The Church – His very Body - continues to struggle with taking Him at His Word.
Or perhaps it is that because we are already comfortable with whatever it is we’ve settled for in the way of knowledge or what we choose to believe, any “messenger” who challenges our fond traditions – say, a messenger who lacks any acceptable-to-us credentials, such as denominational or political affiliation or nationality or gender or age or color or any other imperfections (at least in our eyes and minds) – is not a messenger worth listening to. It could even be that we become a little too familiar with a messenger and his or her real imperfections to the point that we will no longer listen.
Regardless, that messenger had better be plugged in to what his or her crowd already believes if he or she wishes to be taken seriously – which is impossible but apparently necessary - because anything outside the realm of what we have already established for ourselves as “fact” or even truth will be soundly rejected without having heard the first word. Yet we remember it is perhaps The Lord Himself being rejected, not the messenger – as written in 1 Samuel 8, Luke 10, and 1 Thessalonians 4.
But we cheat ourselves. For our strength is not in whatever it is we’ve already settled for, however. In matters of theology and biblical doctrine, reaching any “conclusion” as if it is settled is a profound weakness, and a spiritually debilitating one at that.
No, our real strength comes only from our desperate need; as in our refusal to settle for “basic knowledge” (Hebrews 6) and our prayerful determination and never-ending quest for spiritual “perfection” for which we strive as though we may actually attain it in this life as the Divine Treasure it truly is. Our real strength is to be found only when we admit we are not so strong after all.
None of this is to suggest we should believe everything we’re told, not at all. We must still prayerfully discern between what is consistent with the whole Gospel (of course, this requires prayerful study in The Word) and what strikes at the heart of genuine faith, that exclusively God-given capacity to fully trust The Lord, the One we cannot see, not only with our immortal souls but also with our daily living in devoted and faithful obedience. When we choose to live only with what we have chosen to believe based on our own desires, there is the inherent danger of trying to stand only on the strength we try to achieve on our own – which can be better translated as misplaced spiritual arrogance.
But when we fully surrender to the reality of The Lord and His mercy and fully submit ourselves to Him and His sovereignty, then we are enabled to stand on and in HIS STRENGTH – not our own. Only then we will become formidable. Only then can we even hope to become immortal.
The Lord is not our “co-pilot” as if we may be in charge of our lives until we get into trouble or become incapacitated. The Lord our God is THE Pilot in whom we must fully trust – and it must be more to us than a cheap slogan posted on social media, printed on money or on a bumper sticker! Only in that will we find the Strength to endure and, ultimately, the Strength to overcome all we must face in the world today.