On Putting Your Head Over the Parapet
The previous Chapter of Mark provides a context for today’s gospel reading. Jesus has demonstrated his powers and his disciples have now gone with him to see how he manages these powers in front of his home crowd.
The rejection that Jesus then suffers in his home village provides the setting for sending out the disciples. The underlying theme today is one of expecting rejection and in case anyone misses the point, in the next chapter Mark talks of the fate of John the Baptist when he challenges the Trump-like figure of Herod Antipas.
Nazareth was a small town that doesn’t quite make it into the Concordance of the entire Old Testament. It was an insignificant hamlet of mud houses on the side of a hill and a population of a few hundred at the most, only getting the slightest passing reference in the gospels – totally ignored by the writers of the Talmud and the Mishnah. As it happens the historian Josephus also fails to mention Nazareth. Here Mark portrays it as a community apparently unable to accept anyone like Jesus could possibly amount to anything at all.
Mark seems to be cautioning his readers that since Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist had their words trampled, even amongst their own community, the strong implication is that if this is what well might happen to anyone who speaks up in favour the same sorts of truth Jesus spoke.
If dedication was sufficient the saints of old should have had no problems. Some of the early saints often took notions of self denial of luxury and comfort to the extreme. For example some refused the comfort of cleanliness and absolutely refused to wash under any circumstance. (Perhaps my own children were just going through a saint stage early in their lives? ) But those early saints took it further. They not only denied themselves nice clothes but would actually sleep in very uncomfortable places with no bedding at all.
By this measure, the one called St Simeon of Stylites must have been holy indeed. His body “dripped vermin as he walked” wrote one admirer of his day. He was also one of the original pole sitters. He had a high small (4 square metres)platform built (originally 4 metres high and later 15 metres high ) on a pillar – the Greek for Pillar is “Style”) and according to the contemporary writers of the day, he managed to perch up there day and night for 37 years, unable to enjoy the luxury of sleeping too soundly lest he might fall off. Small boys would be sent up with small parcels of goat milk and flat bread. During the day his followers and those simply wishing to see such a Holy man would come to look up and wonder. Some amongst them would call out their problems while St Simeon – unwashed and unshaven would call back down his advice.
A New Zealand Methodist writer, the deaconess Rita Snowden once recounted the story of a young boy, fascinated by such saints, who announced one morning to his mother that he too was going to be a saint just like St Simeon of Stylites. He placed a kitchen high stool in the middle of the kitchen floor, climbed up and announced he was there for the next few years. His mother, perhaps used to small children simply ignored him for the first few minutes. However it was an inconveniently placed stool and after having to step around him a few times, when it came time to mop the floor Mum basically told him to get lost. “ Outside and play!” she said. “I have work to do”. “ It is very hard to be a Saint in your own kitchen!” said the indignant young saint as he climbed down off his perch.
Jesus encountering frustration at being an unrecognised prophet in his own country is no more than many would have expected from observations in their own experience and from learning of countless similar situations back through history. Those of us who claim to follow a religion might do well to reflect on why society encourages such behaviour.
Religion doesn’t just exist to serve interests like truth and enlightenment and nor in practice do societies welcome a religion only for its call to the finer principles like compassion, love and justice. Communities are interested in living in stable and protected situations and often turn to religion to help establish traditions which preserve a predictable order where everyone can know their place, where conformity brings social support and where there are clear hierarchies of control.
Although we tend to automatically assume prophets are those who foretell the future, in fact the prophets, particularly those of biblical times, for the most part those we now call prophets were simply those who described what they saw in the present, and the strongest of them thundered about what they saw had gone wrong. This often involved conveying uncomfortable truths about wrong actions, about intolerance, and about selfishness. I am sure they would have had plenty to say about some modern issues.
Challenging people with power has always been dangerous. Since such a version of prophecy was typically forced before the attention of a ruler with power of life and death over his subjects, some of the more outspoken prophets came to a predictable end. Prophets who were otherwise ordinary members of the community would be particularly suspect. You have probably heard of the tall-poppy syndrome.
It is human nature for a community such as ours to find individuals who behave like that as a potential threat and if they are already familiar to the point of seen as no better than the rest of us, we might even feel outraged that they are getting above themselves and consider they have no right to speak of judgement.
Perhaps it was always so.
My own particular favourite prophet was a little known prophet Micaiah the Son of Imlah. (not to be confused with Micah) . The story of Micaiah is recorded in 1 Kings 22:1-12 . In 1 Kings 22:3-4 the King of Israel (identified later in the text as Ahab in 1 Kings 22:20) goes to Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, and asks if he will go with him to a neighbouring kingdom Ramoth-gilead which was under rule by the king of Aram. Jehoshaphat seems a little uneasy and asks that Ahab, check out what the Lord would think – presumably by asking his consultant prophets.(1 Kings 22:5).
King Ahab then calls on his prophets and asks if he should go into battle against Ramoth-gilead. The prophets who according to the account numbered 400 seemed anxious to please the king and told the king of Israel to go into battle, stating that the Lord (Adonai) will deliver Ramoth-gilead into the hand of King Ahab (1 Kings 22:6). Jehoshaphat still seems uneasy and asks if there are any other prophets of whom to inquire the word of the Lord. Ahab mentions Micaiah the son of Imlah, but expresses dislike for him because his past prophecies have not been in favor of his actions (1 Kings 22:7-8).
Nevertheless a messenger is sent to bring Micaiah to the king to give his prophecy. Just in case he should get any silly ideas, the messenger tells Micaiah to give a favourable prophecy to Ahab (1 Kings 22:12-13).
Micaiah tells the messenger that he prefers speak whatever the Lord says to him (1 Kings 22:14). Micaiah appears before the king of Israel, and when asked if Ahab should go into battle at Ramoth-gilead Micaiah initially tries to avoid personal danger and responds with a similar prophecy to that of the other prophets. Ahab then further questions Micaiah, and insists that he speak nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord.
Micaiah this time gives a true prophesy, in which he illustrates a meeting of Yahweh with the heavenly hosts. At this meeting Yahweh asks who will entice Ahab to go into battle so that he may perish (1 Kings 22:19-20). A spirit comes forward, and offers to “be a lying spirit in the mouth of the prophets” (1 Kings 22:22). In other words Micaiah is obliquely claiming the prophecies of the other prophets were a result of the lying spirit. The King was outraged. Unfortunately for Micaiah, as a result of this unacceptable prophecy, Ahab ordered Micaiah imprisoned until he returned from battle (1 Kings 22:27).
Perhaps secretly concerned about the prophecy, Ahab disguised himself in battle rather than lead his troops openly as their king. Despite the disguise Ahab was killed in battle after being struck by a randomly shot arrow which lands between the plates of his amour. Micaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled, contrary to the word of 400 false prophets, all of whom had encouraged Ahab to attack with a prediction of victory.
Prophets even today should not expect reward for telling it like it is. It is clear for example that the growing gap between rich and poor is likely to have disastrous results. Yet anyone who agitates to rearrange a nation’s finances to give a better deal to the poor at home, and those living in poverty overseas, will be firmly discouraged. The preservation of the tax loopholes for the rich and the miniscule proportion of virtually all wealthy nations’ contributions to genuine overseas aid with no strings attached are clear evidence that such advice is routinely ignored.
However today’s gospel reading also makes it clear that the prophet or disciple is to share the truth regardless of potential rejection.
I suspect many of us prefer to keep our heads down most of the time.
We should be under no delusion that it would have been easier to be a disciple in Jesus day.
In those days of subsistence living, it would have been great sacrifice for a family to have the bread winner become a disciple or missionary. And nor would the message have been more acceptable. But that isn’t the real challenge they were being asked to face. Of all the things that Jesus was asking them to do I guess there was one part that would have brought them face to face with reality in a new way. Look what they were asked to do.
After seeing what had happened to Jesus, they were being asked to take the message without their leader’s presence to be missionaries on their own with no guarantee that they would be accepted.
If it were you, what message would you be taking – or putting more directly which message are you currently taking – to your community? And to tell you the truth, this is not simply an academic question. The gospel has many dimensions and because we all have our own particular focus it is fair to ask which part of the gospel we are individually intent on living out as our mission.
Typical Church members of mainstream churches may feel comfortably insulated from a realization that they too might have a mission which might have a call on everyday life and which might have little to do with what typically happens in the comparative safety of a weekly Church service. Nor is it the sort of thing the preacher can work out on our behalf. If ministry means ministering to needs, the choice of which needs will call on our particular gifts at our particular stage of life will have as many different answers as there are Church members.
Many sermons may well have a structured arrival point. This is not one of them. Since Christ does not confer power or position so much as he offers opportunity, the conclusion to this particular sermon is not so much an arrival point as it is a challenge to choose our own next stage for our journey. Choose well, for no-one can journey for us.