I suppose it should be of some comfort that even Jesus struggled when near the people who had known him the longest.
Outside of his hometown of Nazareth, he was Jesus the miracle worker, Jesus the prophet, Jesus who could be messiah and king. Just before returning to Nazareth, he had raised a little girl from the dead. But in Nazareth―well, it’s hard to impress the home folks, particularly when you’ve grown up in a little place where people think they know everything about you.
Jesus’ teachings and actions were the same in Nazareth as they had been elsewhere; the Nazarenes even acknowledged his wisdom and his deeds of power. They simply could not accept that such remarkable signs were coming from this particular man, whom they had seen grow from a boy.
When you get right down to it, their prejudice against Jesus likely stemmed from bad theology. The people of Nazareth had certain expectations about how God should work, and they could not match their expectations with some facts I think they had long assumed about Jesus and his family.
It’s hard to piece together what the problem was simply by reading Mark, primarily because Mark contains no account of Jesus’ conception and birth. For those events, we have to rely on the early chapters of Matthew and Luke and make a few reasonable assumptions about how those events would have been perceived in Nazareth.
As any good Christian knows, Jesus’ conception was not normal. While his mother, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, but before they were married, an angel told Mary she would conceive the Savior of the world through the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit, with no man involved. She accepted the task and became pregnant.
It took another angelic visitation for Joseph to accept what had happened. That leads me to think that a lot of people in Nazareth would have struggled with whether Mary’s pregnancy was appropriate.
Compounding the problem is that right after conceiving Jesus, Mary left the village to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She did not return for three months, Luke tells us. Even if she wasn’t “showing” at three months, it wouldn’t have taken long for her pregnancy to become obvious, and some simple math as she neared her due date would have become the basis for a significant scandal.
Maybe the rumor was that Jesus’ father was a man other than Joseph. Certainly, this rumor went on for some time. The Greek philosopher Celsus, who was a second-century opponent of Christianity, promoted the idea that Jesus’ father actually was a Roman soldier stationed in the area. Early church fathers had to spend a significant amount of time showing that Celsus had no evidence for his claim.
Maybe the rumor was that Joseph was the kind of man who could not control himself until the wedding night, impregnating Mary early. Most likely, both rumors floated about, and if Nazarene gossips were like most other gossips I’ve known, they took great delight in repeating both.
It’s notable that in Mark 6:3, the Nazarenes are quoted as calling Jesus the “son of Mary” rather than the son of Joseph, an odd variation in a culture that emphasized a man’s paternal lineage. (There are variants in some manuscripts of Mark where the verse reads “son of the carpenter and of Mary,” but even then, Joseph’s name is avoided.)
Whatever the precise details of the rumor or rumors, it’s not a stretch to think that when Jesus went home to Nazareth, he still was considered “illegitimate,” a product of sin rather than a product of the most holy conception in the history of the world. And that problem of perception, that undeserved stain on Jesus’ reputation, was enough to keep the Nazarenes from accepting the astounding wisdom and evidence before them.
It’s also possible that as residents of an insignificant village in what most people considered a backwater province of the Roman Empire, the Nazarenes simply couldn’t accept the idea of someone homegrown being that important. I see some of that at work when they point to Jesus’ family and essentially say, “Wait a minute, he’s with them, and they’re like us, nobodies.”
I saw this attitude in my previous job, when I worked for a company that spent a lot of money on reforestation efforts in Central and South America. It was hard to get people in those areas to accept the idea that native trees were the best trees to plant. Many of these very poor people in tiny villages on the edges of the rain forests believed they needed North American trees―everything north of them was better, they reasoned, so the trees must be better, too.
The Nazarenes’ lack of acceptance―more precisely, their lack of faith―astounded Jesus, even with his divine understanding of how sin and salvation work. The effect of their unbelief was so powerful as to prevent him from doing great works, although he still was able to heal some of the sick.
All this causes me to wonder: How do our own prejudices interfere with Christ’s work in the world today?
Is it possible we miss the Holy Spirit at work because we expected him to come some other way? For example, will an inspired word from a homeless person mean as much to you as the everyday words of a prominent member of society?
Do we even go where we might hear holy words and see great signs in lowly places?
We need to be mindful that Jesus entered the world in a way so humble that his circumstances likely were misunderstood as shameful. He also grew up among a people with no sense of pride or place.
Don’t be surprised if Jesus is still most visible among such people and places today.