By the Rev’d Andrew C. Mead, rector emeritus of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, NYC
Proper 9B 2018 St John’s Newport RI
Texts: Ezekiel 2:1-5; St. Mark 6:1-13
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Our first lesson from the great prophet Ezekiel, who is sent to his own people, sets the stage for what happens to our Lord in today’s Gospel. The Lord warns Ezekiel what the chosen people of God can be like and how they will receive him as the bearer of the Word of God. The Lord describes them as rebellious, impudent, stiff-hearted, and involved in a constant transgression against Him, from the first day until now – and now is after the Babylonian Captivity and the Exile of the people of Judah and Jerusalem. Even after that, they are hardened against the Lord and his prophet. Nevertheless, Ezekiel is to deliver the message, whether they hear or forbear, whether they heed or reject.
It’s worth noting that elsewhere the Lord tells the prophet not to be afraid or dismayed by their “looks,” by which he means not to fear their snarling hostility, their grimaces and frowns, their gnashing of teeth and hissing. Even more, the Lord says that doubtless had he sent Ezekiel to the heathen, to a nation of strange speech and customs, they would have repented [as the King and people of Nineveh did at the preaching of Jonah]! But no, the prophet must go to his own people.
Now let’s leave Ezekiel and fast forward half a millennium to Jesus, who in today’s Gospel of Mark (Peter) goes to speak in his own home synagogue. They’ve heard about him, and now they hear for themselves. At first, they wonder at the wisdom and authority of Jesus’s teaching. But then, they remember: WE KNOW THIS GUY. WE KNEW HIM WHEN. “Is not this the carpenter, the Son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Judah, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” Let’s stop here for a family detour.
When the early Churches spoke of Blessed Mary ever Virgin and Mother of God and enshrined that teaching, based on the different Nativity stories of Saints Matthew and Luke the Evangelists, they were perfectly familiar with such texts as today’s. And here the Eastern Orthodox can be of great assistance to us. First, notice that Saint Joseph, Mary’s husband and guardian of Christ, is not mentioned by the synagogue crowd – which is not normal in a patriarchal culture, unless the patriarch is gone or something is strange like Christ’s conception and birth. The well-based Orthodox tradition is that Joseph, who was married and widowed before marrying the much younger Mary, died before the time of Jesus’s ministry. [The old English Cherry Tree Carol, “Joseph was an old man, and an old man was he, when he married Mary in the land of Galilee” reflects this tradition.] There are Orthodox icons of Saint James “the Just,” Brother of our Lord and First Bishop of Jerusalem and Martyr, going with the Holy Family in their Flight into Egypt. He has a special day in the Book of Common Prayer. And it stands to reason that James and Jude (the likely, I think, authors of the NT Epistles bearing their names), had difficulty with their much younger step brother Jesus’s authority and ministry – until after his Resurrection, when Saint Paul (another converted former adversary of Jesus) tells us the risen Lord appeared to James the Lord’s brother, not to be confused with James the fisherman and son of Zebedee.
So the hometown difficulties were right within Christ’s own earthly family. Saint Joseph, who would have helped greatly with his children’s unbelief, was gone. Only Mary – his young second wife and not their mother – was there to tell the truth; and a hard truth to tell it was. The Gospel of John carries evidence of the local slander, when Christ’s adversaries snarl, “We were not born of fornication”! [Jn 8:41] There it is, the root of the hostility in Nazareth.
Thus the initial wonder turns to familiarity breeding contempt. They choose to take offense. And Jesus reminds them of things they may recall from the synagogue, when prophets like Ezekiel were studied and read, “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”
So Jesus “could do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.” In other words, powerful as Jesus Christ is – the Word by whom all things are made, the Word made flesh and come among us, in whose Person dwelt the fullness of the Godhead bodily – powerful as the Son of God is, his miracles normally flourish within a context of trust and are conveyed by means of faith. Just so, to make this close and immediately personal here and now, the Blessed Sacrament is the Very Living Body and Blood of Christ Crucified and Risen, which we press with our teeth and drink with our lips. But it cannot be spiritually digested by someone who is set against Christ’s teaching through impenitence or unbelief or malice or hatred. In fact it could be dangerous, for that person would be eating and drinking judgment, as the Apostle Paul warns. What happened at Nazareth to Jesus happens in places all around Christendom – God forbid it happen here.
After this, Jesus sends out his twelve apostles two by two to other towns and villages. He prepares them for different sorts of receptions. And it is interesting that he says the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah will fare better at the Judgment than some of those communities that reject his Gospel. Presumably Sodom and Gomorrah were sizzling hot flesh pots of all kinds of vices. But at least they weren’t hardened by a deadening sense of self-righteousness. A synagogue or a church acting like the one in Nazareth is not a hot and boiling place; it’s a cold and hard place, like the center of Dante’s Inferno, where the poet goes through the fire before he gets to the ice.
And what about me? What about you? Do you have an inner Pharisee, as I do? “God, I thank thee that I am not like these others…” No, that inner Pharisee is just Dead Right, which is right dead. Be my soul with the repentant sinners! This makes me think of the great poet and priest John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral 400 years ago, who prayed against his inner Pharisee and sense of self-congratulation: “Batter my heart, Three-Personned God.” Yes, Lord and Father, please: Let your adopting love draw me, let the beauty of your Son conquer me, and let the warmth of your Holy Spirit melt, convict and convert me. Let’s leave Nazareth behind, and follow Jesus.
In the Name of that same Holy and Undivided Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
 I’m in good company in this opinion, not only with ancient but modern scholars, including the late Bishop John A.T. Robinson. The late great Fr. Raymond Brown also thought the Epistles of James and Jude bore evidence suggesting Christ’s brothers’ possible authorship. See Brown’s monumental Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 725-727; pp. 748-751.
 And brother of John, the Beloved Disciple and Evangelist. The brothers’ mother was Salome, “Mrs. Zebedee,” our Lady Saint Mary’s sister, and they were therefore cousins of Christ on the maternal side! – Which helps explain why Jesus commended his mother to John’s (and not to Joseph’s children’s) care after his death. See William Temple, Readings in Saint John’s Gospel, p. 367, and Bishop Westcott’s classic The Gospel of St. John, pp. 275-276. The texts containing the dots of this identification are Mt 27:56; Mk 15:40; and Jn 19:25-27.
Saint Luke (4:16-30) tells us Jesus narrowly got out of Nazareth in one piece, but that’s another sermon for another day.