He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:1-6 – NRSV)
All three Synoptic Gospels report the rejection of Jesus by the people in his hometown – Matthew 13:53-58, Luke 4:16-30. John also alludes to it the Prologue (1:11). Though each of the Gospel writers situates it at different points and in different ways, it is reasonable to accept as a fact of Jesus’ life that there was some kind of significant conflict with his own people. One commentary notes of this report that it is “a narrative that is deeply rooted in the historical ministry of Jesus while being freely adapted to the theologies of the individual gospels”. (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 186.)
brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us: Donahue and Harrington write of this text: “The most debated historical issue surrounding this section (and 3:20–21, 31–35) is whether the brothers and sisters of Jesus were biological brothers and sisters and the other children of Mary and Joseph. Throughout church history three major solutions have evolved: (1) These were the natural children of Joseph and Mary; this opinion was held in the ancient church by Hegesippus (2nd c.), Tertullian (160–220 C.E.), and Helvidius (4th c.), and is held today by many non-Catholic scholars and recently by the Catholic scholars Rudolf Pesch (Marksuevangelium 1:322–24) and John P. Meier (A Marginal Jew 1:327–32); (2) the “Epiphanian” solution is that they were the children of Joseph by an earlier marriage; and (3) the view of Jerome is that they were “cousins” of Jesus, perhaps the sons of Mary’s sister. One or other of these latter views has been held by most Roman Catholics and by many non-Catholics too (see Richard Bauckham, “The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus: An Epiphanian Response,” CBQ 56  686–700).
“None of these views would necessarily compromise the doctrine of the virginal conception of Jesus, since even if the brothers and sisters were natural children of Joseph and Mary they could have been born after Jesus (see Matt 1:25). Since the sources pertinent to the discussion of this question range widely through the NT, a commentary on Mark cannot address the issue adequately, nor is resolution of this issue important to understanding Mark. In Mark the natural family of Jesus, whether they are blood brothers and sisters, stepbrothers and stepsisters, or cousins, is suspicious of Jesus as being mad, regards him as a source of shame to the family, rejects him at Nazareth, and is supplanted by the new family gathered in response to Jesus’ teaching and presence (3:31–35; 10:29–31).” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, op cit, 188.)
And they took offense at him: The Greek verb is skandalizō from the noun skandalon, meaning a “stumbling block”. In Matthew Jesus accuses Peter of being a skandalon to him – Matthew 16:23. We can understand the embarrassment of the family in Palestine at that time – to have one member step out into the public gaze as Jesus has done is deeply shameful for them. He and his behaviour are a “stumbling block” for them.
“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house”: All four Gospels carry this aphorism in similar contexts. It is most likely something that has been said by Jesus or by someone associated with him in that context: “Its presence in all four gospels in different settings as well as its nature as an incident that would scarcely have been created by the early church confer a ring of authenticity on the rejection—especially since James, one of these relatives of Jesus, emerged as a leader in the early church (see Gal 1:19; 2:9, 12; Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; 1 Cor 15:7). Whatever the nature of the historical incident, the narrative has been enhanced by allusion to the OT motif of the rejected prophet.” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, op cit, 187.)
In today’s Gospel – Mark 6:1-6 – we have a rather troubling story. Jesus returns to his home town. The folks there – his folks, those who watched him grow through childhood into manhood – have obviously heard of the great things he has been doing further north around the Sea of Galilee. It seems they have also witnessed some of it themselves: “What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” Do they recognize and accept him, like the lonely demoniac who lived among the tombs on the far side of the Lake, or the synagogue official or the woman with the hemorrhage? Certainly not! And all four Gospels speak of this rejection by his own people. This rejection must have been a report that circulated amongst the early Christian communities. We can believe it is true.
The NRSV – like most other modern translations – says “they took offense at him”. We can perhaps understand something of the resistance of the family and neighbours in Palestine at that time. To have one member step out into the public gaze and become a controversial figure as Jesus has done is deeply embarrassing for them. He and his behaviour are a “stumbling block” for them. In other words, he is getting in the way of their continuing to be what culture and society dictate they should be.
Two serious and deeply interrelated issues emerge here. The first is the issue of identity. Am I what culture and society dictate or am I what God has intended in creating me? If it is the former, threats to the cultural and/or social reality I have grown used to will be a personal threat to my very identity. Maybe my resistance to “others” is in some way fueled by this dependence on culture and society – our taken for granted world – to give me my identity and therefore my security? The “other” is then a skandalon?
The second is the issue of knowing someone. It is tempting to think that, if Jesus was here now, I would have no trouble believing and following him. Knowing Jesus is not a matter of physical sight or even physical experience. Knowing any human being is not just a matter of physical presence. Sometimes it helps to know someone if they are absent. For example, it is not uncommon that a parent we have loved in life becomes even more intimate to us when they have died. Remember the old saying: Familiarity breeds contempt.
Sadly, we the Church, have on numerous occasions down the ages, spoken and acted in ways that have made a “stumbling block” of Jesus for many. It is one thing for individuals to choose to believe that Jesus is a “stumbling block”, it is quite another for us to give them good reasons to choose to believe that.