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6th Sunday after Trinity

28 June 2024

7 July, Proper 9: Ezekiel 2.1-5; Psalm 12; 2 Corinthians 12.2-10; Mark 6.1-13

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TOO much reality can cause offence. In the Church of San Agostino, in Rome, there hangs a painting by Caravaggio. In 1642, Giovanni Baglione recorded that it had caused an outcry because it showed a peasant with dirty feet — yes, dirty feet! — worshipping the child Jesus. The peasant was on a pilgrimage; and the outcry was unfair both to the (real) artist and the (emblematic) peasant. But, sometimes, just putting sacred and profane side by side is enough to shock.

This Gospel contains the sole New Testament reference to Jesus’s being a carpenter. It, too, caused offence — for revealing a Jesus who was a bit too ordinary for some people’s religious sensibilities. Pagans were always going to mock at the idea of a religion founded on a “mere” labourer. But some Christians also struggled with it. Origen, a third-century Bible commentator, denied that the idea of Christ’s being a carpenter was present in the Gospels at all. Matthew took care to lessen the potential for offence when he told this story: “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” (13.55). Those who knew Jesus of old expressed their incredulity with a contemptuous pronoun: “Him? Isn’t he Mary’s son . . . ?”.

Those people had heard nothing of Jesus as the incarnate Son. Nor did they recognise him as a human being appointed by God for a particular purpose. They seem to have regarded the categories of working man (skilled or not) and book-learned teacher as incompatible. Their question about where his wisdom had come from is especially telling, because it suggests that, until now, his upbringing had not included opportunities for special education.

That question about the origin of Jesus’s wisdom is never answered. We are left to conclude that God has gifted him with it; that it had arisen naturally from the holiness and righteousness of his nature. Long before, a psalmist had put it like this: “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation” (119.99).

Before today’s passage, Mark has already mentioned that the Twelve are “apostles” (3.14). This Greek word means “those who are sent out”, like its rough Latin equivalent, “missionaries”. Here, he relates the sending-out of the Twelve, an event also described in Matthew and Luke, although with differences in detail. For one thing, Mark mentions the fact of the disciples’ return (6.30), but Matthew (whose version is largely based on Mark’s) cuts that detail. That intriguing fact will have to be set aside until lectionary Year A comes round again. More significantly, Mark’s Jesus tells his followers to take a staff and sandals, but Luke’s Jesus forbids them to take a staff (9.3), and Matthew’s (10.9) forbids both staff and sandals.

What is so special about a staff and sandals, we may well ask? We need to think in terms of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, by seeing Jesus as a prophet, like Moses before him, delivering God’s words and judgements to his people. Then, the staff and sandals do become significant; for they are exodus equipment (Exodus 12.11). This could suggest that the mission of the Twelve reflected the inauguration of a new identity, like that of the Israelites in the wilderness. We could even incorporate the marking of the Israelites’ doors to keep them safe when the Lord passed over them, given that it helps to explain Jesus’s command to the Twelve not to go about from house to house.

A sign-action recalling the Exodus is one explanation for why Jesus sent out the Twelve. A practical sharing of the task of proclaiming the Kingdom would be another. According to Gerd Theissen, Jesus may have been initiating a decentralised movement of itinerant teachers who were to embody a new way of living. Theissen described this as “wandering radicalism”.

Emphasising the supremacy of the principle of love, and making rules subordinate to the needs and wishes of the individual, makes Jesus sound like a proto-hippy. The counter-cultural direction of the “wandering radical” thesis would mean that the Jewish and Roman authorities were on the right track when they suspected him of anti-Establishment tendencies.

But the purpose and effects of the sending-out show that what the “apostles” achieved was practical rather than ideological. They called many to repentance. They cast out evil spirits. They brought healing to the sick. So, ordinary physical reality, through divine grace, can become bliss.

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