Like the title of theologian Miroslav Volf’s life-giving book, we all face times of “exclusion and embrace.” More than most characters in the Bible, Jesus and David faced both—repeatedly. This week, a story of David’s embrace and Jesus’ exclusion are juxtaposed.
In 2 Samuel 5, David is crowned king over Israel after a seven(ish)-year civil war between the house of David with Judah’s support and the house of Saul with the other tribes’ support. With Abner’s defection to David’s camp and then the murder of Ish-bosheth, the tribes finally accepted David. After years of struggle and the Israelites being murderously divided over who was to lead them, the kingdom finally was united under one man who was chosen by God and approved by the people.
God had made David’s power increase (2 Samuel 5:10), and David knew that God had established him as king over Israel and exalted his kingdom for the sake of the people (12). But he didn’t seek to humiliate, subjugate or get revenge against the tribes and people who had fought against him. He knew that he had been anointed to do good to, and on behalf of, the people. After years of hiding out, running away from Saul and then defeating threats of violence from Saul’s family, David was finally embraced by all Israel.
The tale of Jesus in Mark 6 is the photonegative image of David, who went from exclusion to embrace. Jesus returned to Nazareth and preached in the synagogue, but his people took great offense (Mark 6:3) and asked six questions here in Mark (seven in Matthew):
- Where did he get these things?
- What wisdom has been given to him?
- What are these miracles he’s performing?
- Isn’t he the builder?
- Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon?
- Aren’t his sisters known to us?
Jesus was shocked at their lack of faith (6), which somehow prevented him from doing many miracles there (5). Jesus knew these people for most of his earthly life and was surprised that they had no faith in him.
May we be faithful to Jesus who tells us to embrace the stranger and reject exclusion of the other.
It’s important to focus closely on the words used in the text. Notice that the folks of Nazareth did not have a belief problem. They saw his wisdom, great teaching and miracles, as evidenced by their questions. Why would they ask about the great miracles that he was performing and then not believe that he can do them? That doesn’t make sense. It’s not that they don’t believe that he can do miracles. He performed miracles in front of them, even if only a few sick people were healed.
The Greek word ἀπιστίαν in Mark 6:6 can mean “unbelief,” but that translation doesn’t make sense in the passage. It’s not a problem of disbelief—it’s a problem of unfaithfulness, the other meaning of ἀπιστίαν.
The people of Nazareth knew Jesus. They knew his mom, brothers and sisters, as their questions point out. It’s not that they don’t believe the things they have seen and heard. No one questioned his miracles. No one questioned that he was indeed a wise teacher. The problem is that they are unfaithful to their friend and neighbor. They sided against him. They didn’t celebrate Jesus’ miracles, but rather took offense at him (3). They questioned why it should be him, this boy they had seen grow up, who should be saying and doing these things.
To make it personal, imagine that people you grew up with, who loved and supported you, all of a sudden took offense at your service to God and the ways you were taking care of your neighbors in nearby towns. You’d feel betrayed, right? That’s what surprised Jesus in Nazareth. The people were unfaithful/ἄπιστος to their former neighbor, and he felt betrayed by their opposition to this wisdom and the miraculous power in him. If we make the episode in Nazareth about belief only, we miss the deep, personal hurt that Jesus must have experienced.
The good news is that, like David’s story, Jesus moved from exclusion to embrace as well. Mary, his mother, always got it (Luke 1:46-55). As we proclaim each Christmas season, yes, Mary did know. His brothers took longer to embrace Jesus’ movement, teachings and messiahship. Shortly after the resurrection and ascension, his brothers had become part of the Jesus movement (Acts 1:14). Not too long after, Jesus’ brother James was head of the Jerusalem church. His position carried such authority that James had the last word in an argument between Peter and Paul at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13). James’ words, as well as those of his brother Jude, are preserved in their own books in the New Testament. Jesus’ family and at least some from Nazareth made the shift to embracing Jesus, whom they always believed but formerly resented.
So then, how do we make the move from exclusion to embrace? I think the first step is to respect and pay attention to what God is doing in our neighbors’ lives. The story of David, the story of Jesus and the story of his disciples all help us realize the importance of embracing our neighbors. May we be faithful to Jesus who tells us to embrace the stranger (Matthew 25:34-36) and reject exclusion of the other.