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A Most Uncomfortable Invitation

Australian Country Landscape

Week of Sunday June 10 - Pentecost 2
Gospel: Mark 3:20-35

Then he went home; 20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ 33And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ 

This reading is one of those which seems plain to begin with, but which increasingly discomforts me and frightens me.

People stand up and say stupid and outrageous things all the time. Usually we ignore them, or poke fun at them.

Occasionally, if they are in a position of public trust, they will be hounded out of office, or a job.

The people who upset us, are the ones who step outside the status quo, but who are correct. The ones we really hate are the ones who have reason or evidence on their side, and who show us that we are wrong. (Especially if we are wrong before God.)

Those who challenge “the way we know things should be” are dangerous. They threaten to upset everything. It is not just the rich and powerful who are at risk from such a person. Those of us who are lackeys are sometimes very comfortable lackeys, thank you, and have nothing to gain from some malcontent who is crying for justice and freedom. In fact, we stand to lose a lot.

By chapter three verse 20 in Mark, Jesus has arrived at the point of thoroughly upsetting “the way we know things should be.” Galilee was a hotbed of religious nut cases. By rights he should have been one more street preacher thundering out religious stupidities. People would have given him the finger, or laughed. If he made some headway, the soldiers would crack a few heads, and everything would calm down.

Mark draws us picture where this normal course of events is not happening.  To begin with, Jesus is smart. He has answers for the hecklers, and for the serious questioners. (2:13-3:12) These answers are combined with enigmatic statements, and sharp questions in return, that his contemporaries and opponents find they cannot dismiss. This man is not a crazy preacher; he has serious insight, not to mention debating skills.

Scribes coming down from Jerusalem are the equivalent of federal Cabinet Ministers arriving in Cloncurry to get things under control. Something serious is happening.

Jesus’ words are backed by deeds of power. He does not simply talk about healing. He heals. The thought that his healings are in some way less than real is a modern preoccupation. In Mark, no one, not even his worst enemy, is in any doubt that people are being healed.

His healing is indiscriminate. It pays little attention to the shibboleths of the law or culture. Women are healed. Healing happens on the Sabbath. It’s highly visible; people are cutting holes in roofs to get to him! And it is provocative.

They are all watching in 3:1-6 to see if he will incriminate himself. He does not disappoint them. He heals the man on the Sabbath— at the same time lobbing a rhetorical bomb into the middle of the Establishment. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” You bet they “were silent.” There is only one answer to his question, and it morally dumbfounds them. It publicly shames them, too; people see their hypocrisy.

There is also only one answer to such a person who is now beginning to organise people around him. (3:13-20) “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (3:6) The Pharisees and the Herodians were enemies.

Where do you begin this process of destruction? We know they killed him in the end, but even the Mafia uses that as a last resort.

To begin, you play the man. When you have no good reply to refute someone, you attack the person.  He’s mad, you say.  Or, he’s .......  and here you insert whatever mud will stick most effectively and quickly. It used to be that he was a Communist; it would be more efficient today to say he is a paedophile, or in some places, a Muslim.

Jesus being Jesus, this ridiculous argument is quickly overturned. “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”

And as is common with Jesus, the attackers’ weapon is used against them.  “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” In other words, I am not in the thrall of Beelzebul; I am stronger than he. I have bound the strong man.

Like many before him, Jesus has said the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. (1:15) Unlike the many before him, he has backed this up with real power. He is exciting the poor and filling them with hope. He is frightening the rich and they are filled with hatred.

This has all been developing up to this moment when the mud slinging starts. They have decided to destroy him (3:6) and if the mud does not stick, then we know they will kill him. It becomes clear in today’s reading that Jesus will not be defeated by the propaganda.

The frightening thing about this story is that it sandwiched in the context of Jesus’ family, who think he has gone out of his mind. This is not a story about Jesus. It is a story about Jesus and his family. It is also a story which asks if I am part of his family. I am no longer privileged with observer status here. He is beginning his call upon my life.

The sandwich is a rhetorical technique. You take a story, an issue, and place it in the context of another story. The bread helps interpret the meat, and the meat gives flavour to the bread. A classic example of the sandwich technique is the story of the girl at the edge of womanhood who is dying. As Jesus comes to the rescue he is delayed by another woman who has bled for years... and because of this, the girl dies. The two stories interpret each other. (I’ve written about some sandwiches here and here.

The attack on Jesus is not mere history for us to observe, or a story from which we may draw a lesson. It is sandwiched into the everyday life of us all. We all have family, and come from family. That family will have opinions about us when we seek to follow Jesus. Some will be pleased, others not.

Jesus’ family thinks he has gone out of his mind. (Not for Mark the piety of the nativity families of Matthew and Luke!)

Their concern is not for Jesus’ well being! Jesus’ family is the bread which holds the Scribes. That indicates the family is on the side of the Scribes in this argument! “How dare you do this to us? Are you out of your mind? You shame us! Look what they will do to you... and to us!” He has brought trouble into town, and drawn them to the attention of the powers that be.

The Good News upends the world for everyone, including those it should most directly benefit!

By the end of the story, the significance of Jesus, and the significance of loyalty to Jesus, is made clear. His family arrive at the place where he is, and like everyone else they cannot get in because of the crowd. So a message is passed in. Jesus says, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ 

There is a complete redrawing of loyalties in this culture where family is everything. The phrase “And looking at those who sat around him,” is code for us, his followers who sit around him. He is saying we are really only his family and followers if we do the will of God. Blood connection, church membership, community status, citizenship... none of these  count in the Kingdom. Only this: do we do the will of God?

Our loyalties essentially come down to what we define as The Good. Is God, and the will of God, The Good? Or is our pride, our comfort, or our success, The Good?

In the extreme example of a so called “honour killing,” The Good is not God or the will of God. It is the pride or the status of the family. We know that there are thousands of small honour killings by family every day.

We live in such comfort in Australia, that it is possible for church to be a kind of game. At cafe church a week or two ago, the music was good, the coffee was real, people were tweeting, and the lights were down so that you could read Facebook and no one would really notice.

But in Mark, on the barren hillsides with no air-conditioner or data projector, Jesus is playing for keeps. It is no game. It is life threatening. I don’t think we understand. I include myself in that. Perhaps we don’t care. Why else do we spend whole council meetings arguing the colour of paint or the quality of the other congregation’s floor washing technique? We treat such issues as life threatening loyalties! Why else do clergy like me tolerate this instead of calling bullshit a bit more often? It’s because we put comfort, “peace,” and niceness in the place of The Good, instead of God.

Life is so comfortable that we can confuse compassion and courtesy and love, with being nice. I am not called to be nice, but to serve God. That scares me, because it will get me into trouble, and if I preach it, I am inviting you into trouble, too.

This all brings me to the words in Mark 3:28-30.

 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

For Pastors, these words are often difficult. People fear they have committed the unforgiveable sin. To say the undoubted truth, which is that if you are worried about it, you haven’t, is sometimes little help.

The issue here is about loyalty to God.  The scribes and Pharisees and Herodians, and perhaps even Jesus’ family, were not failing in some point of discipleship—  not even constantly failing. Instead, they were so utterly focussed on their own comfort and pride, and their commitment to “the way we know things should be,” that they mistook the kingdom of God for untrammelled evil. In the end, the claim that “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons,” is not mudslinging. It is not even parliamentary debate at its most vicious. It is what those people believed.

If we are so bound up in our selves that we think God and the things of God are evil, then we are beyond saving. We are the enemy of heaven. We have withdrawn from the family of God.

So far from damning me is Jesus that he constantly calls me closer, inviting me to sit in his inner circle. This is the mystery of grace. And in part, it terrifies me, because it calls me out of the game of playing church into a whole new reality that is life threatening.

By the end of Chapter Three, the glorious and powerful story of Jesus has suddenly become very personal.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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