I have a high school friend who became a Christian when he was sixteen, mainly through the witness of a group of young people who went to our church at the time. He had not been raised in a Christian family and as far as I know he’s still the only churchgoing Christian among his siblings.
My friend has always been attracted to the idea of living a simple life, uncluttered by lots of possessions, and even today, as a married man with young adult children, he still tries to practice that. His sister in law once gave him a scolding about it; she said “Your brother and I can’t figure you out. You’ve got a good job and you make enough money to live well, but you live in a tiny little house, you don’t own a car, and your best suit came second hand from the Oxfam shop. We can’t understand this; is it something to do with your religion?”
In our gospel reading for today Mark tells us that my friend wasn’t alone: people had a hard time figuring Jesus out too!
Mark has a little literary device he uses to draw attention to a theme; he tells a story within a story. He starts story number one, then pauses half way through and tells story number two. At the end, he finishes story number one. The idea is to highlight the theme the two stories have in common.
That’s what happens in this reading. In story number one Jesus has returned home and he’s immediately swamped by a crowd of people. We can read between the lines that they’ve come looking for healing, and at least some of them appear to have unclean spirits in them. Jesus’ family hear about all the things he’s doing, and they immediately decide it’s time to give him a good talking-to. So, Mark says, ‘they went out to restrain him, for people were saying “He has gone out of his mind”’ (Mark 3:21). Incidentally, where our NRSV translation has ‘for people were saying…’, the original language just has ‘for theywere saying’, and most translations take that to be referring to Jesus’ family members. In other words, they looked at all the things Jesus was saying and doing, and they came to the conclusion that he was crazy.
That’s where Mark leaves story number one. Then he inserts story number two: some of the scribes who’ve come down from Jerusalem accuse Jesus of being worsethan crazy: the reason he can drive out the evil spirits is because he’s in league with their leader! Jesus and Beelzebul (another name for Satan) have joined forces! But Jesus replies forcefully to this accusation: it doesn’t make sense! Why would Satan join an alliance to defeat Satan! Jesus is waging war against Satan’s soldiers; why would Satan help him do that? No – if you’ve broken into the strong man’s house and plundered it, that must mean that you’ve already tied up the strong man! So if Jesus is plundering Satan’s house, what does that mean?
Jesus goes on to give them a stern warning: it’s a serious thing to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. To see the Holy Spirit at work through Jesus and to be so spiritually blind that you see it as the work of pure evil rather than pure love – well, a person as blind as that has probably lost the ability to admit that they’re wrong and ask for forgiveness. That’s likely what Jesus means when he says a person who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven. It’s not that God doesn’t want to forgive; it’s that they have wilfully closed themselves off to that possibility.
So ends story number two, and then Jesus comes back to story number one. Jesus’ mother and brothers arrive, and the house is so full of people needing help that they have to send a messenger in to talk to him. “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you” (32). And then Jesus gives a startling reply. He looks around at the crowd and says “Who are my mother and brothers?...Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (33-35).
So a dividing line has formed. On the one hand we see the scribes and Pharisees and the religious establishment from Jerusalem; that’s no surprise. But now - to our amazement - we see that Jesus’ immediate family appear to have joined them, although their motives are different. The scribes say Jesus needs to stop what he’s doing because he’s working with the devil. His family say he needs to stop what he’s doing because he’s going crazy; he needs to come home with them and get well again, and be the nice, inoffensive religious man he used to be.
But on the other side of the line there’s a different group. These are the people who have heard Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand and have believed him. They’ve become his followers. Many of them have been healed by him. And we know from other places in the gospels that they aren’t just respectable Jews. There are tax collectors, prostitutes, maybe even people who work for the Romans. There are women and men. But what unites them is a deep desire to do the will of God, and a belief that Jesus is showing them how to do that, because God is with him. This belief has become the deepest conviction of their hearts. And because it’s their deepest conviction, they form a new set of family relationships with others who share that conviction. And these relationships quickly become deeper than anything they’ve experienced before, even in their blood families.
And the same thing happens today. People fall in love with Jesus; they hear his story and read his words and they’re captivated by his vision of God and God’s kingdom. And as long as it’s just a belief, that’s fine. But then they start practisingit! They start giving generously to the poor and needy, and even agitating for a better deal for them. They start loving their enemies and praying for those who hate them, instead of joining the warmongers who traffic in fear and hate. They start treating all people equally, whatever their race or level of prosperity or political opinions or sexual orientation. They take the side of the weak and the defenceless and the marginalized. In other words, they seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. And they can’t shut up about Jesus; they’ve heard the voice of God speaking to them through him, and they’re convinced that they’ve met God through him, and they long for others to have the same experience.
So their friends and family members start getting embarrassed around them. “Religious opinions are fine, but why do you have to be so intense about them?” “You were a lot more fun before you got so holy!” “Do you realize how crazy you sound sometimes?”
There’s hurt on both sides of this story. Family and friends feel like they’re being left behind. You used to be with them all the time, sharing their opinions and values. Now something new has come into your life and it’s stealing you away from them. They feel hurt and betrayed; what is this evil thing that’s come into your life and separated you from them?
But the new disciple feels hurt too. “Can’t you see how much this means to me? It’s not that I don’t love you, but I finally feel like I’ve found what I was created for, and I really can’t understand how you can’t see it too! Why can’t you understand how much sense Jesus makes? If we all followed him we’d have justice and peace around the world tomorrow! You call this ‘crazy’, but to me it makes more sense than anything else I’ve heard in my life”.
Why this difference? Well, let’s focus on the accusation Jesus’ family members make against him: “He has gone out of his mind” (v.21).
Sometimes this accusation is true. There are many people who suffer from genuine mental illnesses. They’re delusional about the world and about themselves. They see evils and dangers where there are no evils and dangers. They believe things about themselves that are not true. There are all kinds of clinical and psychological reasons for this, and I’m certainly not qualified to go into them here today.
But what I want to point out is that when most people say to someone “You’re out of your mind!” that’s not what they’re talking about. They haven’t sat down and done a clinical diagnosis of the other person’s mental state. It’s a lot more likely that they’ve gotten frustrated because they just can’t persuade the other person to see things the way they do. “You voted for Justin Trudeau (or Stephen Harper)! Are you out of your mind?”
What’s happening when the accusation is made in this way is that two people have completely different ways of looking at reality. We can see this with Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed that the Messiah was going to come to set God’s people free, but God wouldn’t send him until all Israel obeyed the Law of Moses and all the traditional interpretations of that Law. God is a God of Law, and when we all keep his Law scrupulously, he will reward us by sending the Messiah. And because the Pharisees believed this, they did everything in their power to encourage people to obey every little detail of the Law of Moses and their interpretations of it. They were doing it for the good of Israel, you see!
But Jesus had a completely different way of looking at reality. He believed that God is a God of grace who pours out his blessings on all people. God was not going to wait until all Israel obeyed the Law perfectly; God had already sent the Messiah, and Jesus was he! And because God is fundamentally a God of love and mercy, the heart of the Law is love and mercy. So Jesus taught people that if they loved God with all their heart and loved their neighbour as themselves – their brother or sister, or the needy person on the road, or the enemy who was trying to kill them – they were at the centre of God’s will for them.
This certainly came across as crazy to a lot of people. It still comes across as crazy to us today. “What do you mean, I’m supposed to love my enemies? Do you know what that S.O.B. did to me? Do you know how badly he hurt me? How can you possibly expect me to forgive and love him? And by the way, have you seen what the Islamic terrorists are doing to people? And you think we should just go and put flowers in their rifles? What sort of a crazy hippy are you, anyway?”
And what about Jesus’ attitude toward possessions. “Don’t store up for yourself treasures on earth”. How can I possibly live by that? Everyone around me has five or six computers and two cars and a house that cost them an arm and a leg, and if they can afford a holiday RV or a time share they go for it. Now you’re asking me to give up that dream and live a simple life? How can that possibly make sense? And you want me to give to the poor instead? Don’t you know how much those charities waste money?”
It’s not hard for us to find examples of what looks like irrational behaviour in the teaching of Jesus. And so we tone it down and make it more rational. “We’re not supposed to take him literally. He’s not really against us living comfortably. He doesn’t really want us to turn the other cheek – that was just a figure of speech. He’s not really in favour of loving the Romans – or the Russians – or whoever the latest evil people are. You know Jesus: he likes to say provocative things, but when you tone it down a bit he’s just a standard religious teacher who wants us all to be nice to each other, but in case not everyone agrees, we should hang on to our big bank balance and our firearms too”.
The problem is, that approach has never changed the world. It’s never brought us closer to the Kingdom of God. The world has never been changed by sane, moderate-sounding Christians whose message can be boiled down to ‘Let me suggest that we might all like to be a little bit nicer to one another, and then go to heaven when we die”. No: the world was changed by a Martin Luther King, who put his life on the line because he had a dream. The world was changed by a William Wilberforce, who said slavery should be abolished even if it brought the British empire to economic ruin, because it was a moral offence against the God who created all people in his image. The world was changed by a Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus because she believed in justice for black people. The world was changed by Jesus, who said and did the things he believed God was calling him to, even when people said he was out of his mind. And guess what: no one remembers the names of those scribes and Pharisees today, but around the world millions of people claim to be followers of Jesus!
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus refers to this incident; he says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” (Matthew 10:24-25).
In other words, if you want to be a follower of Jesus, you have to get over your addiction to the approval of others. People who don’t believe in Jesus’ vision are not going to be able to understand why you believe in it and work for it. But this is where the old fashioned virtues of courage and persistence come in. William Wilberforce and his friends fought for two decades to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Twelve times during those years they introduced a bill on the floor of the House of Commons, and eleven times it was defeated. British heroes spoke against it. Admiral Nelson, the famous naval hero, wrote this: ‘I was bred in the good old school, and taught to appreciate the value of our West Indian possessions, and neither in the field nor the Senate shall their just rights be infringed, while I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies’.
What was that ‘damnable doctrine’? It was the idea that slavery was immoral and an offence against the God who created all human beings in his image. If that doctrine seems obvious to us today, it was because Christians like Wilberforce were not afraid to have people say “He’s gone out of his mind”. They weren’t prepared to be moderate; they were willing to be radical. They followed where Jesus was leading them, and they changed the world because of it.
Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v.35). That sounds like the family I want to be in. How about you?