One of the surprising responses that Jesus receives to his message and activity occurs in Nazareth, his hometown. In Mark’s account Jesus conducts his ministry in Nazareth in the same way he does elsewhere. On the Sabbath he enters their synagogue, he teaches them and, as a result, “many are amazed as they heard him”. The people of Capernaum responded similarly (1:21-22).
Why are they so astonished that Jesus could express such ideas? The issue seems to be a question of source. Their question is this: “Where does this person get these things from?” Included in this query are both the wisdom that he demonstrates and the powerful miracles that he performs. They are in awe of these abilities Jesus’ possesses, but they have grave doubts about their origin. For them only two answers are possible – God or satan. And here is where their problem emerges.
The people of Nazareth do a quick review of what they know about Jesus. He grew up in their midst and so they know his brothers and his sisters, who apparently are still there and probably form part of the synagogue crowd. He is defined in their minds as the “carpenter” or “builder”, but certainly not divinely appointed teacher or miracle-worker. These latter categories just do not fit their perception of Jesus. This leads them to reject the first option – that he is God’s messenger to them. Rather, they select the second option, namely that his power is satanic. Reaching this conclusion and being loyal Jews, they can only respond in one way to Jesus, they must cast him aside and reject him and his teaching.
Mark defines their response as “taking offence”. This term occurs predominately in the Gospels and is biblical in its usage, not occurring in non-biblical materials. In Isaiah 8:11 God characterizes Himself as “a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” Peter and Paul take this text and apply it to the Messiah Jesus (Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:8). Perhaps this lies behind Jesus’ choice of this terminology as he provides explanation for people’s failure to respond to him in belief.
At Mark 4:17 Jesus defines one type of person who responds to his message. They are followers of Jesus who are immediately ‘offended’ when pressure or persecution arises ‘because of the word’ and as a result abandon him. Then at the end of chapter 9 Jesus gives advice to his followers about body parts – hand, foot, eye — that ‘offend’ (vs. 43,45,47) and thus prevent a person from entering life or the kingdom of God. This follows a dire warning to those who “offend one of the least of those who believe in me” (9:42). Finally, in 14:27, as the Last Supper concludes, Jesus prophecies that all of his disciples “will be offended” and abandon temporarily him as he faces the cross. In Matthew 11:6, as Jesus explains to John the Baptist why his ministry is proceeding in such an unusual fashion, he urges “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” Paul picks up this concept as he talks about the ‘scandal of the cross’ (1 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 5:11).
The word used in each of these contexts signifies falling into a trap and therefore stumbling. The result is that progress is halted or severely impeded. The meaning is metaphorical. Persecution can effectively squelch God’s work in a person’s life. Our own physical being must be controlled, lest it act in ways that deter spiritual activity. Our actions in turn can be destructive of spiritual progress in others. In the case of Jesus’ own disciples, his arrest and trial will generate such fear and anxiety that it will cause them all to falter spiritually. When Jesus teaches in Nazareth, his neighbours figuratively trip and fall, i.e. cannot accept him as a God-sent and God-empowered person. Sadly their response severely limits Jesus’ ability to help them
It is a helpful discipline to reflect on the circumstances that cause us to ‘be offended’ or to ‘cause offense’ when it comes to the person of Jesus and our relationship with him.
Application: as you reflect upon the response of the Nazarene
- identify a situation recently when the teaching of Jesus caused you to be ‘offended’, i.e. hesitant to accept it and follow Jesus. What produced this reticence to obey?
- define your strategies to prevent your habitual responses from leading you into actions that ‘cause you to offend’, either yourself or others, and thereby impede your spiritual journey;
- determine that the ‘scandal of the cross’ will be a positive force in your life and not a negative one.