If you grew up going to some sort of church Bible class, you probably remember getting old enough to ask those questions that drive the teacher crazy: Could God make something so big he couldn’t pick it up? If God can do anything, could he destroy himself? Nothing blows up a class faster than a good paradox, and we certainly enjoyed our paradoxes (paradi?).
This week, though, we come to one of the more puzzling, and ultimately one of the saddest, questions like this in the New Testament: If God is the All-Powerful, can a group of humans tie God’s hands? And the answer, surprisingly, is Yes.
We’re in Mark 6. Jesus has been traveling the land, teaching, healing, and doing various acts of power. He decides its time to return home to Nazareth, and on the Sabbath he goes to the local synagogue to teach.
We all know the story — the locals are astounded, they ask where he learned all this … why, isn’t this just the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother to that whole brood? Who does he think he is, anyway? We get the great proverb about a prophet being honored everywhere but in their hometown and in their own family.
But here’s the verse-and-a-half that just stopped me when I read them today:
He could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Wow. Just … wow. The same person who had been causing a sensation across the land, who right before this had not only cast an army of demons out of the Gerasene man, but had raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead — that same Jesus could not act in his hometown, apparently because of their unbelief.
I don’t know about you, but this is both disturbing and troubling. Disturbing, because it creeps toward that most hateful of judgments heard in churches: “You didn’t get what you prayed for because your faith wasn’t strong enough.” I despise that comment, as it puts the burden for God to act on us and our faith rather than on God and God’s goodness and judgment. I don’t think that’s the lesson to be gained here.
No, I think there’s a different lesson, and a troubling one. The reason Jesus seemingly had his hands tied in this setting was not faith that was too small; it was unwillingness to believe that God might come in a package we’re not expecting. It was the inability of the people to see God in the familiar, the known, the common, or the unexpected. They looked at Jesus, and none of them expected God to show up.
You know why that’s troubling? Because we all do it. We go to church expecting the same old same old, instead of being open to the possibility that God might be present to us in a new way. We listen to our friends, or the proclaimer, or our partner, or the teacher, and God is present, but we miss it because we’re too focused on their clothes, or their mannerisms, or the fact that they make less money than we do.
Here was a person through whom God (or something) was doing amazing, powerful stuff — and all anyone there could talk about was Jesus’s relatives. It is one of the saddest moments in life, and it happens over and over: God was there, and no one noticed.
So, can you tie the hands of God? I think the answer is this: God doesn’t force God-self on anyone. If we don’t believe God is, or God can, or God cares, then the effect may be that we get exactly what we expected: nada. And, God may not show up in exactly the form we’re expecting, so openness to God includes openness to God in the familiar or the unexpected.
Let’s not be like those friends of Jesus and his family. Let’s not tie the hands of God.
This is one of a series called “Reflections on the Lections,” which posts each Wednesday and discusses one of the passages for that Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. When I have enough of them, I’ll post an index. This one is for Year B, Pentecost + 6, Ordinary 14B.