Imagine your kids and grandkids “need” to move away, such that you no longer get to see them regularly, that you miss seeing them grow up. This is never easy, but at least there is payoff. Often such a move is because of a career choice, making the medicine go down. Grandparents can bear some of the pain because there is a future to this: “At least our sacrifice will be worth it! The grandkids will attend great school because of extra income. And one day family, since the family will be cashed up, will have money to be with us, they will have a big enough house to have us stay!” These are some of the pros and cons a grandparent will be able to weigh up, Christian or not.
But what happens when none of these benefits exist? What happens when everything (apparently) is negative? What happens when Christians travel overseas to dangerous countries (for example) with little hope of any financial reward? “What on earth were they thinking exposing our grandchildren to this? How selfish! How thoughtless!” Or when it comes to our own kids as they enter the prime of life: “I really wanted my kids to follow Jesus. But no way am I going to have them waste such a good education on this. They are too smart for Christian ministry. Let someone else do it—someone with lower earning potential anyway!”
What about following Jesus into the dangerous or unstable? Particularly in the West we say we value life highly. But what this often means is valuing our own lives so highly that it diminishes our view of sacrifice for Christ.
How do Jesus’ kingdom demands impact our expectations of friends and family? This is a huge question, one Mark has been subtly developing, now unpacked in Mark 6. Prior to Mark 6 many of these themes have already been mentioned. We know, for example, from Mark 1:14 that John the Baptist was arrested. That must’ve shaken everyone up. But what happened to him? In Mark 6 we find out, in what Donahue and Harrington in their Sacra Pagina commentary on Mark describe as “one of the great stories in world literature,” the story of John’s beheading:
The cast of characters includes the scorned woman (Herodias), the charming and seductive young dancer (Herodias’ daughter), the powerful and elite members of the Galilean society, the righteous prophet (John), the weak-willed king (Herod Antipas), and that ruthlessly efficient executioner. (p. 201)
Mark 6 is a long chapter. Why would Mark go into such detail here? Mark wants to prod and poke on something we all must stop to ponder, the cost of discipleship. The most brilliantly written parts of Mark, meant to draw us in, focus on the cost of being a disciple.
Mark has been writing about the cost of discipleship since the beginning of his gospel. Craig Blomberg, in his book on the Gospels, reminds us how the gospels as biography work:
Ancient Middle Eastern writers were not as bound by logical, linear thinking as modern Western ones are. The Gospels, like most documents of their day, would have been written to be read aloud… so writing had to include repetition for emphasis and rhetorical markers that would make connections between section clear. The modern commentator always runs the risk therefore, of imposing too much structure or symmetry when trying to outline these books. (p. 115)
Mark is not a scientific journal, covering bullet-points: one, two, three. It is a narrative, rich and free flowing, a narrative with wave after wave of parallel teaching designed to hit us enough times to eventually knock us over. And in Mark 6 we encounter the biggest wave in the set!
This theme, the cost of discipleship, begins right at the start of Mark’s gospel, chapter 1:
16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him. 19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. (Mark 1:16-20)
This would have been hard, leaving family business with only the hired hands, a huge financial hit to their father as well as a painful personal loss!
Later in the same chapter Jesus is kind to Simon’s mother-in-law who was sick, with the result that the family home of Simon and Andrew is overrun by the crowds and turned into a mobile hospital for sick and demon possessed:
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them. 32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
I wonder how Simon’s father-in-law was feeling (if he was alive and lived there, too)?
This theme reaches its climax at the start of Mark 6, when Jesus goes back to his home town. His disciples follow him (6:1), an echo of the first disciples, when Jesus called them away from their families to follow him; this was a call to go anywhere with him. But a very complicated dynamic faces them here:
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.
The people cannot believe in Jesus because of family dynamics! They almost freeze him in time: “Remember ‘little Jesus’ who grew up here? Remember Jesus who was just like his siblings!” Now the locals still see those siblings and cannot believe that Jesus could go beyond the norm they have created in minds.
Such are the deep complexities of family! We can get so tied up within our families–which is not bad in and of itself–and end up limiting our future because of another’s perception. “This is who you are, not that. You are not a missionary; you are not a Christian worker. You are one of us, so stay like one of us!”
How does one navigate pushback if he or she becomes a Christian out of a non-Christian upbringing? How does one cut through expectations? Verses 5 and 6 paint quite a sad picture. The very power of God was restricted because of unbelief. Jesus could not do any miracles (verse 5)! There is really no tying up of this mini narrative. It is simply left hanging.
Next…in a bonanza of vivid stories, the apostles are sent out on mission. The shift in storyline could not be more powerful: the narrative moves from the possible ‘stability’ of ‘home’ to utter instability, exactly the kind of issue that makes it difficult for those closest the called one to understand:
7 And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— 9 but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10 And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. (Mark 6:7-13)
The history of the day helps understand these instructions.