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The Wisdom of Jesus
Summer Quarter: Many Faces of Wisdom
Unit 2: Wisdom in the Gospels
Sunday school lesson for the week of July 19, 2020
By Rev. Ashley Randall
Lesson Scripture: Mark 6:1-6
Key Verse: Mark 6:2-3
To affirm that God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
A Woman from Tuskegee
On December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the Cleveland Avenue bus in front of the Empire Theater, she became an icon in the early Civil Rights Movement. In his 1958 book “Stride Toward Freedom,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that Parks’ arrest was the catalyst rather than the cause of the Montgomery Bus Boycott: “The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices…. Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’”
While the events of her life worked together to prepare her for this extraordinary role, there is little out of the ordinary that you might notice. She was born Rosa Louise McCauley on Feb. 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama – home of Tuskegee Institute, where George Washington Carver gained fame for his work with peanuts. Her father, James McCauley, was a carpenter, and her mother, Leona, was a teacher. She was small as a child and suffered from chronic tonsillitis.
When her parents separated, her mother took her and her brother to live on a farm her parents owned in Pine Level, just outside Montgomery. They all were members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In the years after World War I, the Ku Klux Klan rode throughout black communities, terrorizing families, burning churches and homes. When she was 6 or 7, she wrote that she often stayed up late to help her grandfather, Sylvester Edwards, keep watch. They would sit up all night long because they couldn't take the chance of being caught off guard. The two wanted to be prepared, so her grandfather “always had his shotgun within hand’s reach.”
Young Rosa attended rural schools until the age of 11. School bus transportation was unavailable in any form for black schoolchildren in the South, and black education was always underfunded. She recalled going to elementary school in Pine Level, where school buses took white students to their new school and black students had to walk to theirs: “I’d see the bus pass every day… But to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world.”
She was repeatedly bullied by white children in her neighborhood, and admitted she often fought back physically. She later said: “As far back as I remember, I could never think in terms of accepting physical abuse without some form of retaliation if possible.”
She took academic and vocational courses at the Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery – an institution founded and staffed by white northerners for black children. The school was burned twice by arsonists, and its faculty was ostracized by the white community.
She enrolled in a laboratory school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes for secondary education, but dropped out in order to care for her grandmother, and later her mother, after they became ill.
In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, a barber from Montgomery. He was a member of the NAACP, which at that time was raising money to support the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of black men falsely accused of raping two white women. She took a variety of jobs, ranging from domestic worker to hospital aide. Her husband urged her to complete her high school studies. In 1933, less than 7 percent of African Americans had earned a high-school diploma.
In December 1943, Parks joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP herself, and was elected secretary at a time when this was considered a woman's job. She later said, “I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no.” She worked for the local NAACP leader, Edgar Nixon, even though he maintained that, “Women don't need to be nowhere but in the kitchen.” When Parks asked, “Well, what about me?,” he replied, “I need a secretary and you are a good one.”
In 1944, in her capacity as secretary, she investigated the gang-rape of Recy Taylor, a black woman from Abbeville, Ala. Parks and other civil rights activists organized “The Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor,” launching what the Chicago Defender
called “the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.”
Around that same time, she held a brief job at Maxwell Air Force Base. Even though Maxwell is located in Montgomery, racial segregation was not permitted on the base because it was federal property. She rode on its integrated trolley. Parks noted years later, “You might just say Maxwell opened my eyes up.”
In 1945, despite the Jim Crow laws and discrimination by registrars, Rosa Parks succeeded in registering to vote on her third try.
In the late 40s and into the early 50s, Parks worked as a housekeeper and seamstress for Clifford and Virginia Durr, a politically liberal white couple. They encouraged Parks – and helped underwrite the expense for her to attend the Highlander Folk School, an education center for activism in workers’ rights and racial equality in Monteagle, Tenn., in the summer of 1955.
In August 1955, Emmett Till, a black teenager, was brutally murdered after reportedly flirting with a young white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi. On Nov. 27, 1955, Rosa Parks attended a mass meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery that addressed this case as well as the recent murders of the activists George W. Lee and Lamar Smith. The featured speaker was T. R. M. Howard, a black civil rights leader from Mississippi who headed the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. Howard brought news of the recent acquittal of the two men who had murdered Till. Parks was deeply saddened and angry at the news, particularly because Till’s case had garnered so much national attention – and still, the two men walked free.
After working all day, Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus around 6 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 1, 1955, in downtown Montgomery. She paid her fare and sat in an empty seat in the first row of back seats reserved for blacks in the “colored” section. As the bus traveled along its regular route, all of the white-only seats in the bus filled up. The bus reached the third stop in front of the Empire Theater, and several white passengers boarded. The bus driver noted that two or three white passengers were standing, as the front of the bus had filled to capacity. He moved the “colored” section sign behind Parks and demanded that four black people give up their seats in the middle section so that the white passengers could sit. Parks later recalled, “When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”
According to Parks recollection, the driver said, “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” Three of them complied. Parks said, “The driver wanted us to stand up, the four of us. We didn’t move at the beginning, but he says, ‘Let me have these seats.’ And the other three people moved, but I didn’t.” The black man sitting next to her gave up his seat.
Parks moved, but toward the window; she did not get up to move to the re-designated “colored” section. Parks later said, “I thought of Emmett Till – a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store, whose killers were tried and acquitted – and I just couldn't go back.”
The driver said, “Why don’t you stand up?” Parks responded, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” The bus driver called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for “Eyes on the Prize,” a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Parks said, “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I'm not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.’”
During a 1956 radio interview with Sydney Rogers in West Oakland several months after her arrest, Parks said she had decided, “I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen.”
In her autobiography, “My Story,” she said: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
When the police officer arrived, he arrested her. As he was taking her away, she recalled that she asked, “Why do you push us around?” She remembered him saying, “I don’t know, but the law’s the law, and you’re under arrest.” She later said, “I only knew that, as I was being arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind….”
Parks was charged with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law of the Montgomery City code. “I sat in a little room with bars before I was moved to a cell with two other women,” she remembered. “I felt that I had been deserted, but I did not cry.” Edgar Nixon, president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and leader of the Pullman Porters Union, and her friend, Clifford Durr, bailed Parks out of jail that evening.
On Sunday, Dec. 4, 1955, plans for the Montgomery bus boycott were announced at black churches in the area, and a front-page article in the Montgomery Advertiser
helped spread the word. At a church rally that night, those attending agreed unanimously to continue the boycott until they were treated with the level of courtesy they expected, until black drivers were hired, and until seating in the middle of the bus was handled on a first-come basis.
The next day, Parks was tried on charges of disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. The trial lasted 30 minutes. After being found guilty and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs (combined total equivalent to $134 in 2019), Parks appealed her conviction and formally challenged the legality of racial segregation.
In a 1992 interview with National Public Radio’s Lynn Neary, Parks recalled:
I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time ... there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn't hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.
A Hometown Boy
Nazareth was not renowned among the cities of Israel. There is no mention of the town in the Hebrew Scriptures. We know that it is the place Joseph took his family once they returned from their exile in Egypt. We know it is the town from which Jesus’ parents made their annual trip to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. And we know it is the town where “Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people” (Luke 2:52).
When it was time for Jesus to begin his public ministry, Jesus left Nazareth, found his cousin, John, and was baptized in the Jordan River. From there Jesus travelled north through the region of the Galilee healing, teaching, and enlisting committed followers. Within a few months Jesus was attracting larger crowds – often described as “a great multitude.”
Even without our modern means of communication, the news of Jesus’ sudden rise in popularity spread throughout the region. So when Jesus decided to return to his hometown of Nazareth; it must have created quite a buzz. Certainly many of the residents knew his family. They had hired his father – and probably hired Jesus – to do work for them. They had attended numerous sabbath services in the synagogue together. They had travelled together to and from Jerusalem. I imagine there were even those who recalled that year when Mary and Joseph discovered their son was not among the company of travelers and had to return alone to Jerusalem to find their wayward son.
There must have been a mix of excitement, pride, anticipation, and apprehension as they gathered in the synagogue this Sabbath. Of course they expected Jesus to attend services, because it was his custom. It was no surprise when the village rabbi invited Jesus to step forward to read scripture and teach a lesson. It is interesting that Mark does not tell us specifically what Jesus read or taught. Luke does provide many more details about what Jesus said (see Luke 4:16-30).
Mark chooses to focus on the reaction of the people. They were impressed, surprised, amazed, astonished, astonished. That led them to question, “
Where did this man get all this? What’
s this wisdom he’
s been given?” (6:2b) Very quickly (as Mark tells it), their amazement turns to distain, and even ridicule.
Carpenters are not known for their insight into matters of theology. Some members of the congregation may have had suspicions about the character of Mary – pregnant before she was married and now a widow. Her other children – neither her sons nor her daughters – seemed exceptional. It feels like the congregation has moved from adulation to condemnation in an instant. Indeed, Mark says “they took offense at him” – or the more literal translation, “Jesus caused them to stumble” (6:3c). The Message
translation captures it well: “They tripped over what little they knew about him and fell, sprawling. And they never got any further.”
Jesus replies with an aphorism that was probably well known to them: “
Prophets are honored everywhere except in their own hometowns, among their relatives, and in their own households” (6:4). This proverb acknowledges the reality of the mistreatment God’s prophets received from the people of Israel over the centuries.
Nevertheless, Mark tells us that “Jesus was amazed at their unbelief” (6:6). Some other translations of Jesus’ reaction include, “wondered,” “marveled,” “dumfounded,” “astonished,” and “appalled.”
While it is not clear exactly how Jesus felt from the description Mark gives us, what is clear is that their rejection of Jesus and of the wisdom Jesus proclaims in their presence prevents Jesus from doing “any miracles there, except that he placed his hands on a few sick people and healed them” (6:5).
It is worth considering the question, “Is Jesus stymied because the people refuse to acknowledge him as an authority, or is Jesus thwarted because the people reject the wisdom Jesus proclaims?” I would suggest that throughout his ministry Jesus is much less concerned with his reputation than he is with faithfully calling people to acknowledge God’s plan and purpose.
The people of Nazareth fail to recognize God as the source of the wisdom that Jesus shares. The people of Nazareth fail to appreciate that in their ordinary town, in an ordinary family, practicing an ordinary obedience to the regular patterns of faithful living, God’s wisdom can come to full expression in a person who will open their heart and mind to this amazing gift.
From Nothing to Something
When God called Abram, there were just a few people in his company wandering from place to place. When God called Moses, he was a fugitive and refugee tending his father-in-law’s sheep. When God called David, he was the youngest of Jesse’s sons – almost overlooked because he was out in the fields. When God called Gideon, he was the youngest in his household and part of the weakest clan in one of the weakest tribes of Israel. Over and over, God uses seemingly insignificant people to accomplish God’s purposes.
Paul testifies: “But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life – what is considered to be nothing – to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).
For some reason we continue to be fascinated with wealth, fame, and people who demonstrate exceptional talent. We aspire to greatness – as the world defines it, and we wonder why we so often find ourselves frustrated. We fail to grow in wisdom because we refuse to practice the virtues God commends. We miss the power of God because we reject the truth of God’s word.
Furthermore, because we are looking in the wrong places and obsessing over the wrong values, we fail to notice the people who are faithfully working to make the world reflect the nature and character of God. Many of them are people of ordinary intelligence, possessing little of what the world counts as influence, operating with limited resources, but accomplishing great things for God – in spite of the lack of recognition by the rest of the world.
Be encouraged. God is still at work in those who will live in obedience to God’s direction. Those who live through the challenges and disappointments of daily life while acknowledged the power and presence of God are being prepared to continue and extend the work of God’s kingdom.
Ashley Randall is the Pastor of the Garden City UMC in Garden City, GA. He grew up in Phenix City, Ala. and attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery, which means he traveled through Tuskegee dozens of times. He regrets only visiting Tuskegee University once, when his children were studying history. He thinks more people should know that, upon her death in 2005, Rosa Parks was the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda, becoming the 31st person to receive this honor.
- Which of the events of Rosa Parks’ life do you think most contributed to her decision not to give up her seat on the bus?
- Why do you think the people of Nazareth failed to receive Jesus’ teaching?
- Who are some people doing extraordinary – but unrecognized – work in your community?