Ezekiel 2.1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12.2-10; Mark 6.1-13
HOW people receive God’s messengers reveals the state of their own hearts. Those who reject Jesus in Nazareth reveal a wider lack of faith: they cannot believe that God is present and active in the humility of their daily lives. Like the church at Corinth, the members of the synagogue in Nazareth identify God with those who have earthly power and status. To them, it is unimaginable that he might be present in “the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon”.
Precisely because of their unbelief, Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them”. Jesus’s ministry is offered freely, but must be freely accepted; he comes in humility, awaiting our response. As St Gregory Nazianzen explains: “Something essential for healing is required on both sides — faith on the part of the patients, power on that of the healer. . . The metaphor of ‘impossibility’ here must mean free refusal by the will.”
The same humility is evident in Jesus’s sending out of the Twelve. They, too, are of lowly status: fishermen and tax collectors. Jesus instructs that they should “take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts”. They will, therefore, enter each new town in vulnerability and dependence, not in earthly glory.
While they come in humility, however, the message that the disciples preach is one that will challenge and disturb: they are to cast out unclean spirits and call their hearers to repentance. The love of God is unconditional, but it is not loving to leave people ensnared in thoughts and actions which are spiritually self-destructive.
As St Irenaeus reminds us, the preaching of repentance is an essential part of genuine love and pastoral care: “What competent doctor, when asked to cure a sick person, would simply follow the desires of the patient, and not act in accordance with the requirements of good medicine?”
In a like manner, he argues, spiritual “physicians” must help those in their care to “undergo a great change and reversal of their previous behaviour”. That is why the conviction of our sins, acceptance of God’s forgiveness, and a wholehearted commitment to amendment of life are all essential components of Christian discipleship. The faithful proclamation of the Gospel invites its hearers to undertake all three.
There are, therefore, reasons that a town might reject the ministry of Jesus’s disciples. Their status might be deemed too lowly; their need for hospitality might be considered too demanding; their message might be too much of a challenge. In this same spirit of humility, Jesus tells his disciples simply to leave the towns that will not receive them. They are not to denounce those who reject them, but are instructed to “shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them”.
The lectionary pairs this Gospel passage with the calling of Ezekiel. He is a prophet also being prepared for rejection. In verse 4, the Lord declares Ezekiel’s audience to be a people with “stiff faces” and “hardened hearts”. The New Revised Standard Version translates this as “impudent and stubborn”, but, as Nancy Bowen argues, the Hebrew is rather more evocative. “A ‘stiff face’ reveals a person’s complete indifference or insensitivity to others” (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Ezekiel).
In both the content of his preaching and the rejection it will provoke, Ezekiel reveals the sins of his hearers: their indifference to neighbour, and rebellion against God. Yet whatever the immediate response, each hearer “shall know that there has been a prophet among them”.
What unites those who reject both God’s message and his messengers is that, in doing so, they reveal the hardness of their hearts. They are unwilling to repent from their indifference to both God and neighbour; nor can they conceive of the possibility that God is closer to humans in their humility and weakness than in worldly pomp and grandeur.
The good news that Jesus and his followers proclaim is that God has answered the prayer of the Psalmist — the cry of those who “have had more than enough of the scorn of the arrogant, and of the contempt of the proud”. The answer given by the God who is “enthroned in the heavens” is to become flesh in the carpenter of Nazareth.