Historical Culture Context
Honor governs every dimension of life in the Mediterranean world. This is particularly evident in today’s reading, where Jesus is “in his own country” that is, Nazareth or the vicinity.
One’s basic claim to honor derives from birth and is determined by the circumstances of birth. Technically, this is called ascribed honor. In today’s episode, the people are fully aware of Jesus’ “ascribed honor.” “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” These family members help identify Jesus’ honor rating.
Of particular interest in this list is the statement that Jesus is “the son of Mary.” In the Middle East, a son is always identified by the father (e.g., Simon bar [= son of] Jonah; James and John, the sons of Zebedee). Identifying a son by the mother’s name usually signals some confusion about the father. Luke (4:22) corrects Mark’s report and removes any hint of scandal by identifying Jesus as “Joseph’s son.”
A second important point is the crowd’s identification of Jesus’ status: an artisan. In the Middle East, a son is expected to take up his father’s occupation or profession. There is no expectation of “doing better than one’s parents” or “getting ahead in life.” Honor requires that persons remain in their inherited status and make no effort to improve on it.
Teaching in the synagogue was permissible to qualified males. Jesus’ teaching is so impressive that people were astonished by his words. “Many who heard him were astonished” by his teaching and moved by his mighty deeds (Mk 6:2). They seemed ready to grant the honor Jesus was claiming by his striking teaching.
But the crowd, the ultimate judge and bestower of achieved honor, stops short and refuses to concur. To begin with, Jesus is recognized as an artisan, that is, a worker in wood (scarce and precious in ancient Palestine) and stone (more plentiful than wood).
Artisans at that time, especially those who lived in hamlets like Nazareth, had to leave home to find work. This means they left their women (wives, mothers, sisters) at home without requisite male protection to safeguard the family’s honor. For this reason, artisans were viewed as persons “without shame,” that is, without sufficient sensitivity to the requirements of honor.
Secondly, where could a person born to a manual artisan gain such astounding wisdom? Even more, how could an artisan presumably busy at his craft ever obtain such wisdom? “And they took offense at him.” (Mk 6:3; compare Sir 38:24-39:5).
The Gospels indicate that Jesus was a shrewd man of his culture. He could readily size up a situation and respond with a perfectly appropriate comment. In the vast majority of instances, the perfectly appropriate comment is an insult. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus demonstrates that he is a master of insult.
Anticipating that the crowd is not going to grant him honor, Jesus takes the offensive. He quotes a proverb to those who wanted to shame him: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house” (Mk 6:4). With one fell swoop Jesus insults his neighbors, his relatives, and his family. He shames them before they can shame him.
Because Jesus’ neighbors, relatives, and family could not extend to him emotion-filled loyalty, commitment, and solidarity (“faith” in traditional translations), he could not perform for them the mighty works he did for others. Self-inflicted problems are the worst.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University