This is a fascinating phrase because it addresses a common question that many have. What was Jesus doing from the last time we read about him in the Gospel of Luke, when Mary and Jesus find him in the Temple, to the beginning of his public ministry? The years from twelve to thirty are often called the hidden years of Jesus because there is no written record describing Jesus or what he was doing during this time. There have been many speculations, but I believe that Mark encapsulates concisely what Jesus was doing in this verse: nothing unusual or out of the ordinary.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a small town of about two to four hundred residents. Most of the people lived a simple, agrarian lifestyle. Joseph was a tektōn, carpenter, as translated above, meaning he was most likely a common woodworker, and day laborer. He would have belonged to the artisan class. For us today, not so bad, but during this time period, it would have meant that Joseph and his family would have been considered on the lower rungs of the social ladder, lower than even the peasants “because they did not have the benefit of a stable plot of land” (Martin 2014, 78). The only people that would have been considered any lower in society would have been those considered outcasts and unclean.
What was Jesus doing during his life during these hidden years? Most likely, he started as an apprentice of Joseph. Together they lived a hard life on the margins, relied on God and each another. Jesus grew up as a faithful and devout Jewish man, and all else was pretty much uneventful. In today’s Gospel from Mark we see that Jesus has returned home after his ministry and outreach had already begun. Word of Jesus had gotten back to his hometown crowd that he had been casting out demons, healing the blind, the lame and the sick, and as witnessed in his home synagogue, taught with authority, his own. Jesus did not preface his teaching by sharing which Rabbi or scribe he was citing.
Other than learning his faith from Mary, Joseph, and his extended family and local synagogue, most likely, nothing even theologically eventful happened while he grew up, because as is evidenced in today’s reading the crowd questioned, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands! Is he not the carpenter” (Mk 6:2-3)? How could this simpleton woodworker, who we have known all his life do or speak as he does?
The derogatory way in which tektōn was viewed may also be indirectly present in the four Gospel accounts as well. Mark is the only one who cites that Jesus is a tektōn directly. Matthew uses the phrase “carpenter’s son” (Mt 13:55), Luke and John do not even mention tektōn at all, writing, “Joseph’s son” (Lk 4:22) and “the son of Joseph” (Jn 6:42). The further away in time, the record cleans up Jesus a bit more.
What is the relevance of Mark’s simple phrase, “Is he not the carpenter?” (Mk 6:3), mean for us today? It means that the Son of God became human, lived a mundane and harsh life on the margins like many in our world today. It means that God began in small measured ways, even with his Son, regarding his plan of salvation that unfolds over time, in his time. We can be assured that God is continuing his work in us and through us as well today and that we can participate in that very plan.
Even if we believe in God, we may not feel that God is working in or through us. We may feel ineffectual, out of touch, overwhelmed, with little or no sense of direction. We may or those close to us, may have just been dealt with something unexpected and dire, or have been struggling chronically for a long time with health conditions. We may also feel life is going pretty well, that we are on top of the world, yet something is still missing, still alluding our grasp.
We need to slow down, if we want to catch up to God’s plan and follow his blueprint. No matter where we find ourselves in our present condition in life, Jesus has not left us to deal with our situation alone. Jesus understands what we are going through from his own experiences of humanity and because of his divinity, Jesus is in our midst, present and accompanying us today. We need to trust, be patient with him, and invite the carpenter into our situation. May we surrender our control to Jesus the tektōn, and work along side of him to build a firmer foundation for our life and for others. Knowing full well that as we align our faith more and more visibly to the teachings of Jesus, let us be prepared to receive some of the same rejection that Jesus did.
Photo: Summer projects, working with the Carpenter, physically and spiritually!
Martin, S.J., James. Jesus: A Pilgrimage. New York: Harper Collins, 2014.
Link for the Mass reading for Sunday, July 8, 2018: