What constitutes success? For most of us, successful people are those with prestigious professions or many material possessions or fame. The most successful have all three. But from experience many of us realize that status, money and celebrity are fleeting and are no guarantees of happiness and peace.
Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus are among the most prominent figures in the Bible. Each was a prophet sent from God. What links them together is their apparent lack of success according to the standards of their own time and place. Each was a rejected prophet who faced opposition from those who, at least in retrospect, should have accepted and honored them.
Ezekiel prophesied to his people in the early 6th century B.C. Having been in one of the first group of exiles to Babylon, Ezekiel was called by God to warn the rest of his people back in Judah that the worst was yet to come unless they changed their ways. In the story of his commissioning as a prophet (today’s passage from Ezekiel 2), he is warned by God that he would be addressing people who were “hard of face and obstinate of heart.” Nevertheless, his task was to preach to his people “whether they heed or resist.” For Ezekiel, success was measured by fidelity to his prophetic calling, not by personal popularity or worldly success.
Paul’s ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles was dogged by fellow Jewish-Christian missionaries who objected to Paul’s law-free Gospel for Gentiles and attacked his person. While admitting that Paul wrote good letters, they said that he was unimpressive in person and not an eloquent speaker. Instead of denying their charges or listing his accomplishments, Paul according to 2 Corinthians 12, boasted in his weaknesses. Whatever was the precise nature of his “thorn in the flesh,” Paul was pained by it and prayed to be rid of it. The response he received in prayer was, “My grace is sufficent for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul came to realize that he was most “successful” as an apostle when he let God take over his life and work through his weaknesses. Paul came to see that “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Today’s reading from Mark 6 comes at the height of Jesus’ apparent success. Thus far Mark’s narrative has illustrated Jesus’ success as a powerful healer and wise teacher and depicted him as one with power over nature, demons, chronic diseases and even death. Yet when he came home to teach in the synagogue at Nazareth, the people there, while initially impressed, soon came to reject him. They imagined they knew all about him and his family, whereas they knew very little about his person and mission as the prophet of God’s kingdom. Thus Jesus stands in the long line of rejected prophets, whose real success consisted in fidelity to their divine calling, not in social status, wealth or celebrity.