Hometown crowd

When Jesus had finished telling these stories and illustrations, he left that part of the country. He returned to Nazareth, his hometown. When he taught there in the synagogue, everyone was amazed and said, “Where does he get this wisdom and the power to do miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just the carpenter’s son, and we know Mary, his mother, and his brothers—James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. All his sisters live right here among us. Where did he learn all these things?” And they were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honoured everywhere except in his own hometown and among his own family.” And so he did only a few miracles there because of their unbelief. Matt. 13:53-58 – NLT

The last couple of weeks in church I’ve been asking some questions from the pulpit about what Jesus said and did in his ministry. We’re going to be moving onto Matt. 14 this week in the sermon, but I wanted to take a moment to examine what happened when Jesus returned to his home town to preach, specifically why the people rejected him and why he didn’t do many miracles around them. 

It’s a pretty straightforward story. Where it gets very interesting though is that the Bible has two accounts of this story in Matthew and Mark. Matthew’s account of this incident says that Jesus did not do many miracles because of the people’s unbelief. However, Mark’s account (Mark 6:1-6) says that Jesus could not do miracles there because of the people’s unbelief. Whenever there seems to be a discrepancy in Scripture it’s worth digging in to see what’s going on. 

First, let’s look at the response of the people in both accounts. Jesus came in and did exactly what he’d been doing in every other town he visited – teaching in the synagogue and showing miraculous signs. In most cases that we read in the gospel accounts, only the religious leaders seemed to have an issue with Jesus’ work because what he taught was so radically opposed to what they were expecting from the Messiah. In this case though, it’s not the teaching that seems to offend the people, it’s the source. For the people of Nazareth, Jesus was familiar and ordinary, and that familiarity made them skeptical and even defensive. He was Joseph and Mary’s kid. It’s altogether likely that people were aware that Mary had been pregnant before she and Joseph had been married, meaning that his origin might have been considered scandalous or at least illegitimate. They’d seen him grow up as the son of a carpenter, and so they questioned the source of his learning. They knew his brothers and sisters as ordinary people, so how was it that he was able to do miraculous things? The people of Nazareth were offended at the notion that someone so ordinary would have the gall to do and say such extraordinary things. They rejected the messenger and so they also decided to reject the message. 

So far everything in the two accounts of this story are pretty much in line with one another. The crux of the problem comes from the discrepancy between did not and could not. It’s the difference between choosing not to reveal his power and a limitation on Jesus’ miraculous power. It’s important to examine these kinds of differences because these are the areas where we can get confused, bogged down or walk away with the wrong idea. The risk that I see in not closely examining these stories is that we can either see Jesus as petty because he withheld his power from the people, or we risk making faith a limiting factor in Jesus’ power.

As with everything in the Bible, it’s crucial to read this story within the context of the rest of Scripture. This story in both gospels comes after a long section of Jesus’ teaching in parables. I spoke last week on why Jesus chose to teach in parables – they are an invitation to discover more from him. The same is true of his miracles – they were done with a purpose. Every miracle story in the gospels and even throughout the rest of Scripture is meant to do two things – demonstrate God’s power and confirm the message of the person doing the miracle. You can look at the stories of many Old Testament prophets and see that God used miracles to show their legitimacy. So here’s the question we need to ask when we see something like this in scripture, especially in repeated stories: Why did each gospel author include this story with these specific details? I believe the purpose of this story in each gospel is meant to illustrate this point: How people respond to Jesus affects how they will experience God.

The people of Nazareth were aware of Jesus’ teaching and miracles. Even with that confirmation of his credibility, the people in his home town were offended by him and so they rejected him; signs, wonders and all. I think the purpose of this story in Matthew and Mark is essentially the same. They each bring to light what happens when people reject God’s revelation; they only differ in their emphasis. 

Matthew focuses on Jesus’ response to the disbelief of the people – because they were offended and because they rejected him, he did not do many miracles there. This highlights that Jesus still wanted to bring people into the fold and that he still wanted to minister with compassion and power there. He did do that with at least a few people who came to him. However, if people are aware of his message and his work and still reject him, he’s not going to force the issue further.

In Mark, the emphasis is on the hearts of the people. The folks in Nazareth were so offended that they had dismissed the evidence in front of their faces. Like a person who is shown footage of them running a red light yet still refuses to take responsibility, there was no evidence or logic that could move these people. There was no miracle Jesus could have done that would have moved them past that rejection and offence in their hearts, and so nothing was going to be done among them. They were not open to anything, and so nothing happened among them. 

I don’t think that Jesus had any real limitation on his power other than this – “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” – John 5:19. Jesus submitted himself to the leading of the Father. He didn’t pursue power or influence for himself. If he had, we might have stories of Jesus calling down fire or wiping out the Roman legions. His power during his ministry was given by the Holy Spirit in step with the will of the Father (Phil. 2:6-8). The Father’s purpose for Jesus’ ministry was to reveal the reality of his Kingdom and to extend the invitation to be a part of that Kingdom. The Bible says that the only way to be in partnership with God, the only way to have forgiveness from sin, purpose for now and hope for the future he promises is to submit to Jesus. When the people of Nazareth were offended by him, they chose to reject that invitation. John 3:16 tells us that God is gracious and merciful and wants everyone to be reconciled to him, but Romans 1:24-25 tells us that God lets people choose how they will respond to the revelation of his salvation. I don’t think this story in either Gospel is about limitations on Jesus’ power, I think it’s about how people experience God depending on their response to his invitation.

You are loved.

(Originally published Aug. 9, 2022)

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