Miracles and Unbelief. As Mark’s readers would expect, Jesus responds to what people are thinking about him. The proverbial saying “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown” (v. 4) has been expanded with two clauses: “among their kin” and “in their own house.” The original proverb spoke about the “homeland” (patris). The qualifying clauses narrow the region down to the prophet’s household and relatives. If this retort is understood as an insult, then Jesus has responded to his critics in kind. Since the miracles in the previous chapter emphasize the importance of faith in those who approach Jesus for healing, the conclusion that Jesus is unable to work many miracles in Nazareth is hardly surprising.
Mark moderates that conclusion somewhat by commenting that Jesus did heal some people (v. 5). It is not Mark’s intention to stress Jesus’ inability when he states that he could perform no miracles at Nazareth. His purpose is rather to indicate that Jesus was not free to exercise his power in these circumstances. The performance of miracles in the absence of faith could have resulted only in the aggravation of human guilt and the hardening of men’s hearts against God. The power of God which Jesus possessed could be materialized in a genuinely salutary fashion only when there was the receptivity of faith. Unbelief excluded the people of Nazareth from the dynamic disclosure of God’s grace that others had experienced.
Apparently Jesus had not anticipated the reaction of the people. The statement that he “was amazed” (thaumazō) is the sole instance when Mark uses this verb of Jesus. The same verb designates the response of those in the Decapolis to the possessed man’s story about Jesus’ healing (5:20) and to Pilate’s reaction to Jesus’ refusal to answer (15:5) and his early demise (15:44). The term does not imply either faith or insight into Jesus’ identity. In an ironic twist, Jesus is amazed at the lack of faith in his home village.
In the Marcan outline the rejection at Nazareth is intimately related to the subsequent mission of the Twelve (6:7–13). The tension between faith and unbelief permeates both accounts. Moreover in 6:11 there is a distinct indication that the disciples will also experience rejection. By situating these two incidents at this point in his Gospel the evangelist shows that unbelief is the context in which the Christian mission advances and that rejection is an experience common to the Lord and the Church. This point had immediate relevance for his own hard-pressed community. It is probable that he recognized in the juxtaposition of rejection and mission a pattern confirmed in the rejection of Jesus by the nation, climaxed by crucifixion and resurrection, which created the apostolic mission.
Some Thoughts on Faith and Miracles
There is a common thread in Christian thinking that inextricably link the “degree” of faith with how/if prayers are answered or miracles delivered. In the Markan gospel the problem is not a matter of whether they have enough faith but that they have no faith.
Elsewhere in Mark, a person’s faith is not necessarily tied to the success of a miracle. Sometimes faith is not mentioned at all. Sometimes the faith of the restored one’s friends or family is noted, or, as in Mark 9:24. Sometimes it’s a matter of “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Stoffregen compiled this interesting list of 15 healing miracles (including exorcisms) in Mark and 5 nature miracles – and their relationship to faith.
- 1:21-28 healing in the synagogue — faith not mentioned
- 1:29-31 healing Peter’s mother-in-law — faith not mentioned
- 1:32-34 healing all the sick — faith not mentioned
- 1:40-45 healing a leper — faith not mentioned
- 2:1-12 healing a paralytic — Jesus sees(!) the faith of the four friends
- 3:1-6 healing a withered hand — faith not mentioned
- 4:35-41 calming the storm — disciples’ lack of faith mentioned
- 5:1-20 healing the Gerasene demoniac — faith not mentioned
- 5:21-24a, 35-43 healing Jairus’ daughter — Jairus is told to believe
- 5:24b-34 healing the bleeding woman — “Your faith has made you well”
- 6:5-6 healing a few in Nazareth — Jesus is amazed at their unbelief
- 6:30-44 feeding the 5000 — a hint of the disciples’ lack of faith
- 6:45-52 walking on water — disciples’ hard hearts mentioned
- 6:53-56 healing the sick in Gennesaret — faith not mentioned
- 7:24-30 healing the Syro-Phoenician’s daughter — faith not mentioned, but perhaps illustrated by her reply to Jesus
- 7:31-37 healing a deaf-mute — faith not mentioned
- 8:1-10 feeding the 4000 — a hint at the disciples’ lack of faith
- 8:22-26 healing a blind man — faith not mentioned
- 9:14-29 healing the epileptic — Jesus says: “All things can be done for the one who believes.” The father expresses partial belief: “I believe, help my unbelief”
- 10:46-52 healing blind Bartimaeus — “Your faith has made you well”
- 11:12-14, 20-24 cursing the fig tree — Jesus tells the disciples after the miracle: “If you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Faith is not mentioned in most of the miracles in Mark.
Faith implies actions. Without faith in Jesus, the people did nothing. It may be that the people’s lack of faith revealed itself in the fact that they didn’t seek Jesus’ help. They didn’t bring their sick for healing. They didn’t bring their children for his blessing. They didn’t come to listen to his teaching. What differences should it make if parishioners believe Jesus is present at Mass or in ministry? Or in one’s own life? A secular criticism of many Christians is that they are “functional atheists” — they live and function as though there were no God. Could that lack of faith keep one from reaping as many benefits as God would give?
This interpretation can be supported by the word atimos, translated “without honor.” The basic meaning of the root time is to “put a price or value on”. We “honor” those things and people on whom we place a high value. The fact that Jesus felt “dishonored” by the people means that they did not value him. He was just a carpenter. He was just the son of Mary. He was just one of the siblings. He was nobody important. Why should they bother to bring their sick to him?
Perkins  builds on this idea:
Since Galilee was prosperous during this period, Jesus and his family were not impoverished tenant farmers or day laborers. But his status as a local craftsman would have been considerably lower than that of a member of the educated class, who could devote himself to learning the Law. Villagers commonly resent those who attempt to elevate their position above that to which they are entitled by birth. The attempt by Jesus’ family to stop his wandering and public preaching in 3:21 implies that from the perspective of the village, Jesus was thought to be dishonoring his family.
Faith opens us up to receive what God wants to give us. Sometimes it may be the miraculous. Sometimes it may be crosses. As the next part of the gospel indicates, sometimes the faithful and empowered disciples will meet with success and sometimes with rejection. Jesus’ powerful presence doesn’t guarantee “success”.
Mark 6:1 his native place: the Greek word patris here refers to Nazareth (cf Mark 1:9; Luke 4:16,23–24) though it can also mean native land.
Mark 6:2 astonished. Mark frequently uses this term to express the crowd’s reaction to Jesus (exeplēssonto). In 1:22 and 11:18, the amazement is over Jesus’ teaching in general. In 7:37, it is in reaction to his healing work. In 10:26, it is the reaction to his teaching about the difficulty of the wealthy entering the Kingdom. The term need not indicate belief, but simply astonishment.
Mark 6:3 Is he not the carpenter. This is actually a question in Greek that expects a positive reply. He worked as a “craftsman” (tekton), a term often rendered “carpenter,” because woodworking is the most likely referent (supported by widespread tradition in the early church associating Joseph with carpentry, though in 1 Kgs 13:19 (LXX) the term refers to a stone craftsman). The passage then lists members of Jesus’ family.
Significant strands of the Marcan textual tradition agree essentially with the Matthean formulation: “Is this not the son of the carpenter? Is not his mother called Miriam?” (Mt. 13:55). Moreover, against the allegation of Celsus that Jesus was only a carpenter Origen answered forthrightly that in none of the Gospels accepted by the Church was Jesus himself designated a carpenter. While the textual question is so complex that equally competent interpreters have adopted differing points of view, it seems preferable to adopt the text of the uncials in which Jesus is designated “the carpenter, the son of Mary.” The variant reading was apparently conformed to the text of Matthew in the interest of the virgin birth and perhaps to avoid the attribution of a menial trade to Jesus when to do so in the Graeco-Roman world would be to invite scorn.
the son of Mary. This reference is unusual because normally the son’s father would be named, in this case, Joseph. It may allude to Jesus’ unusual birth and show an awareness that Mary was Jesus’ mother in a way that Joseph was not his father. It also might simply indicate that Joseph was then deceased. Or it may well meant to give offence and refers to a questionable birth.
The brother of ….: Mark 6:17 uses the term brother for the half-brothers, Herod and Philip, who were Herod’s sons by different mothers. Therefore, it is not possible to tell whether the brothers and sisters of Jesus are biological children of Mary or her stepchildren. Mark is not interested in specifying the precise relationship between Jesus and his other siblings. The townspeople are scandalized by the human origins of Jesus, whom they know as a carpenter.
they took offense. This term (eskandalizonto) is important in the NT; it refers to someone “tripping over” or “stumbling over” an idea so as to fall in rejecting it (see 4:17). Figuratively, it means being offended at something. It connotes a lack of belief.
Mark 6:4 A prophet is not without honor except in his native place. This proverb appears in all the synoptic versions of this scene (Matt 13:57; Luke 4:24). Comparing himself to previous Hebrew prophets whom the people rejected, Jesus intimates his own eventual rejection by the nation especially in view of the dishonor his own relatives had shown him (Mark 3:21) and now his townspeople as well.
Mark 6:5 not able to perform any mighty deed. Jesus did not perform many miracles in Nazareth because the people were not in a frame of mind to appreciate their significance, and might attribute them to the wrong source, as 3:22 suggests.
- K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007).
- Alan Cole, Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 170-1
- John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina v.2 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer / Liturgical Press, 2001) 183-89
- Wilfred Harrington, Mark, The New Testament Message, v.4 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer Press, 1979)
- William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) 199-205
- Philip Van Linden, C.M., “Mark” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, ed. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 915-16
- Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press,1994) 591-3
- Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001) 191-95
- David Turner and Darrell L. Bock, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11: Matthew and Mark (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 447-8
- Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at www.crossmarks.com/brian/
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)
- The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins and Astrid B. Beck (New York: Doubleday, 1996).
Scripture – The New American Bible available on-line at http://www.usccb.org/bible