How to compare the stories of Jesus and Jack Ma?

This week, the lectionary invites us to consider Mark 6:1-13. It’s in two parts. The English Standard Version titles the first part “Jesus Rejected at Nazareth.” It titles the second part “Jesus Sends Out the Twelve Apostles.”

Lately, I’ve been reading about Jack Ma, founder of Ali Baba. Ali Baba is an online shopping platform, like Amazon in the USA.

Ma is the sixth richest man in China. He has no technical skills. Not even computer programming. He succeeded through others. He collected smart people. He inspired them. Directed them. Supported them.[1]

Ma started Singles’ Day in China. He designed it to overtake Valentine’s Day – the day on which the people in China spend the most money. He also started Ali Day – a day every year when Ali Baba hosts weddings for couples who met while working in Ali Baba. He’s a big supporter of humanitarianism and environmentalism.

He was so successful and so popular that the government of China limited his activities. He re-emerged recently. Now he’s mainly a business-guru.

Ma was born near Hangzhou. In 1964. He has an older brother and a younger sister. Even before he was a teenager, he began working very hard to learn English. He cycled 17 miles every day to serve as guide for foreigners who stayed in a hotel in Hangzhou.

He passed the national college entrance exam on his third attempt. He enrolled in a university. He graduated. With a B.A. in English. He applied for jobs in 31 companies. Even KFC.

All rejected him.  Because of his small size and poor looks. Finally, he was hired as an English lecturer.

He tried to study abroad. Harvard rejected him ten times.

You get the drift. Ma didn’t shine academically. He worked hard. He never gave up. He dreamed big. He became very rich. He’s mobbed by crowds. Worldwide.

Ma keeps his personal life private. We don’t know about his family. But we know he’s very well received in his home city, Hangzhou. Ali Baba’s headquarters is in Hangzhou.

Now I come to what Mark tells us about Jesus. In the gospel portion of the lectionary reading for this Sunday. The gospel. Good news.

Mark has 16 chapters. We’re in chapter 6. In Capernaum. Jesus has drawn a massive crowd. Why? Because he’s healed and exorcised both the rich and the poor. Both in the open and in synagogues, which served as discussion centres for Jews. Because he’s calmed a storm. He’s directed sharp words at the leaders of the day.

Jesus has no rags-to-riches story. He’s not passed any national exam. He’s not attended any university. He’s not applied for a variety of jobs. He’s a carpenter. He works in building sites.

He’s well-versed in the Jewish scriptures. He’s been baptized by John. He’s taken over from John, who’s become a victim of the state. He’s likely to suffer just like John. Suffer for exposing and challenging societal wrongs such as abuse of power.

Jesus was welcomed in Capernaum and other places around the Sea of Galilee. He was allowed to speak in synagogues. He performed a healing in a synagogue. Later, a synagogue ruler fell at his feet and pleaded with him to save his daughter from death.

Jesus was exhausted. Because he did all the work of healing, exorcism, teaching, by himself. He was also exhausted because he met resistance across the lake, after he restored a demon-possessed grave dweller. Because the price of that success was the loss, by drowning, of 2,000 pigs. Not surprisingly, the pigs’ owners didn’t like him.

Jesus decided to go back to his hometown. To Nazareth. Where his family lived. Nazareth, with a population of about 500 people. Where everyone knew everyone. Where almost everyone thought they knew who Jesus was.

It was the Sabbath. The day of rest. The day everyone gathered in the synagogue. Jesus joined them. He rose up. To teach. Mark doesn’t tell us what he taught. Maybe because it was dangerous to write it. Maybe because he thought if he included what Jesus taught, the government would’ve destroyed his gospel on grounds of public security.

But Mark tells us the response of those present in the synagogue:

… many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him.

Notice the words astonished, wisdom, mighty works, carpenter, son, brother, offence.

They saw the wisdom in what Jesus taught. They saw his mighty works. They asked “where” he got them.

They asked “where” while being obsessed by where he came from. He was a carpenter – a lowly occupation. Carpenters are working class, not ruling class. They said he was the son of Mary. Not Joseph, his father, the respectful way of identification in their culture.

Were they suggesting his wisdom and power came from the evil one, from Beelzebul, like the scribes had suggested earlier?[2]

Why would that thought even cross their minds? Was it because adopting the wisdom he taught would’ve resulted in clashing with the civil, Roman rulers of the day? Because it would be a challenge to the status quo?

They focused on Jesus’ humble roots, his lack of affiliation to any institution, his lack of a patron. Like Rabbi Hillel or Rabbi Shammai. Perhaps they focused also on the fact that Jesus hadn’t started a business, hadn’t created jobs and employed people, wasn’t on the road to riches.

They were astonished that Jesus, without credentials, was trying to influence them, change them. They preferred to remain in the culture and values they were swimming in. Even his own mother had recently expressed the wish that he would change his ways.[3]

I can think of only one reason for their wish. They feared their fate would be the same as John’s. They feared their village would be punished by the authorities.

How did Jesus respond? He was upset. But he remained wise. He reminded them of a proverb. He said:

“A prophet is not without honour, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”

Mark adds that Jesus “could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.” Probably because crowds didn’t go after him.

The air in Nazareth was the air of unbelief. Of acceptance of the present, not anticipation of the future. Yet, Jesus, whose cross appears in every land, was and still is, known as the Nazarene.[4]

In Nazareth, Jesus commissioned the Twelve, his hand-picked inner circle, to go out and extend his work. Mark tells us:

“They went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.”

How do we compare the stories of Jesus and Jack Ma?

I think that’s the wrong question. The right question is, what would Ma have said or done if he had been in the Nazareth synagogue? What would I – and you – have said or done?

In the last chapter of the gospel according to John,[5] we read that Jesus told Peter how he would die. As punishment. Painfully. Violently. We read that Peter then pointed to John and asked how he would die. We read Jesus reply: “What is that to you? You follow me!”

Peace be with you.

[1] There’s much online about Jack Ma. I’ve relied on: The Rags-to-Riches Life Story of Alibaba Founder Jack Ma, Alibaba’s bizarre annual traditional of holding a mass wedding ceremony for its employees continued this year, Revealed: The Australian mentor who helped make Alibaba’s Jack Ma. And, of course, Wikipedia.

[2] Mark 3:22

[3] Mark 3:32-34.

[4] Matthew 2:23; Mark 14:67; Acts 24:5.

[5] John 21:15-22.

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