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What Renders the Hand of God Powerless?

Mark 6:1–6

In a previous article, it was mentioned that Mark 4:35–5:43 shows Jesus seemingly to have power over all things, as he successively controls the elements, demons, sickness, and even death. But when Jesus comes to his own home town in 6:1, we find him “unable to work any miracle there” (v.5) because “they would not accept him” (v.4). Jesus has power over all things except the will of the human being. There is a similar sadness in this account that we find in John 1:11: “He came to his own, and his own did not accept him.”

There is much debate about whether the author of John’s Gospel knew Mark’s Gospel. Yet we can see close parallels between John 1:11 and Mark 6:1–6. It is not just the rejection by “his own” that is common, but it is the Creator that is being rejected.

Mark does this with some clever word-play on the use of the word “hands.” The occurrence of this word in Mark 6:1–6 is not obvious in many translations. First, we are told that the people are amazed at the “powerful things” (or “acts of power”) “brought about by the work of his hands” (v.2).

The people seem to satisfy their questioning amazement by pointing out that Jesus is a tekton. We have traditionally translated tekton as “carpenter,” but recent studies of the use of word show that it can mean any skilled worker, that is, anyone who is skilled at working with their hands. In historical terms, he could be one who is skilled at working with wood, stone or metal.

With typical Markan irony, we thus have a scene where the people ask, “What are these powerful things that have been done by his hands?” and the answer that seems to satisfy them is: ‘Oh, he is just a person who is skilled with his hands!’ The Markan joke continues since, after noting that Jesus could not perform any miracles there (v.5) he paradoxically goes on to say “except that he healed a few people by laying his hands on them” (v.6).

The Old Testament frequently speaks of God’s creative work as being “the work of his hands” (cf. Ps 8:6; 28:5; Job 10:3,8; 34:19; Exod 15:17). The man that the people of Jesus’ home town will not accept happens to be the son of the Creator, the most skilled of all workers.

But Jesus’ critics also point to his family. They think they know who Jesus is because, in the Greco-Roman world (especially the society of Rome, where the Gospel was probably written), who someone is is defined by his parentage. So they point out Jesus’ family. It is as if they are saying: “He is just an ordinary person. We know his status,” and they ignore the evidence of the miracles he has performed. Of course, for the Roman Christians for whom this Gospel was written, their experience is that Roman society says exactly the same thing: they know who these Christians are, and they do not have to investigate their claims about the power of God at work in their midst.

Everyone else has been amazed to this point in Mark’s Gospel, but now it is Jesus’ turn to be amazed (v.6). He is amazed that his critics ignore all the evidence. They prejudge him; in their eyes, it is impossible for him to be anything other than what he appears to be. It would not matter what he does now, as their minds are closed to any other possibility.

Yet Mark’s concluding remark that ‘through his hands’ some were healed regardless tells us that God’s hands will never be completely tied by such rejection. His creative works will go on anyway, even if only in the few who are open to perceive correctly.

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