“Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” (Mark 3:20-22)
Thus begins the passage of Scripture allocated to us this morning, and it doesn’t start well, in the sense that it is not a happy scene. As the story develops, things don’t get any better either. The conflict between Jesus and the teachers of the law escalates, as does the tension between Jesus and His family.
I don’t know when you envisage this scene whether a particular word or emotion comes to the surface for you. For me, as I read though this passage again this week in preparation for this sermon, one word came to mind for me immediately – ‘lonely’.
That’s the word that came to mind, though whether Jesus really lived a lonely life is hard to say. Jesus shared the mind of God in a way that we don’t share in the mind of God, and so it’s impossible, I think, to really enter into the mind of Jesus. Even so, what came through clearly to me in this scene was that, if it had been me in Jesus’ situation, I would have been feeling the isolation very intensely!
I see my life as broken down into a number of areas – the church, the campsite, the fight club, the websites, and my family – each of which are highly significant to me. I find, in general, that something is always going wrong in at least one of these key areas but that, thankfully, they never all fall apart at the same time.
When, many years ago, my first marriage fell apart and I wasn’t coping on my own, it was the church community here who helped me get through that with their love. When, at other times, I’ve been in tension with the church community, or have been struggling with other external pressures, I’ve generally had my family to fall back on, and the Fight Club has always been there to help relieve stress. What becomes really difficult for me is when I have to fight the battle on multiple fronts. It seems to me though, that this is exactly what Jesus was doing all the time!
As the story opens in Mark chapter three, we see Jesus in head-on confrontation with the demons and, at the same time, He is battling with the religious authorities. Does He get support from His family to help sustain Him in this conflict? Not a chance! On the contrary, his family, we are told, are a part of the problem. Instead of cheering Jesus on, they accept the evaluation His opponents have made of Him and conclude that He is mad! Indeed, by the end of the story, Jesus’ family are at the house where He is teaching, with a view to shutting Him up and taking Him home.
Jesus’ response to this though is even more shocking: “
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”” (Mark 3:32-35)
This brings to mind for me a second word – namely, dysfunctional.
Yes, I’m referring to the family of Jesus – the Holy Family, which is generally held up for us as some sort of ideal that we are all supposed to try and emulate.
“Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He”
So say the words of the Christmas Carol (“Once in Royal David’s City”) but even if it were true of Jesus as a youth (and there are a number of good reasons to think that it was not) it is hardly a good description of Jesus as we see Him here, where Jesus is neither mild nor obedient, and where He seems to disown His own mother!
“Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”” (Mark 3:35).
That was a very positive word of affirmation for the people who were encircled around Jesus, – identified as Jesus’ real family. At the same time though, it was a devastating attack on those who are NOT His family – namely, His flesh and blood relatives who are waiting for Him outside (and who must have continued to wait)!
It is bizarre, isn’t it, that Jesus is so often invoked as being the author and protector of the nuclear family, to the point where ‘Christian values’ and ‘family values’ are considered to be synonymous, and yet the scenes in the Gospels where we see Jesus interacting with His earthly family are hardly like episodes of The Waltons!
The earliest interaction that we see in the Gospels between Jesus and His earthly parents involves them losing Him, only to find they boy three days later in the temple, saying “did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). At the other end of the Gospel story we have Mary watching her son die on the cross! (John 19). In between those two extremes, a series of encounters between Jesus and His mother and siblings are depicted, and yet they are all tense and difficult!
“What have you to do with me, woman?” we hear Jesus say to his mother in John, chapter two, and here in Mark, chapter three, and in parallel passages elsewhere – “who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters?”
As I say, that’s an affirming thing to say to those who you are recognising as your new family, and yet there is no escaping the flip-side. It’s a devastating thing to say to your own flesh and blood mother and brothers and sisters:
‘You are not my mother!’ ‘You are not my brother!’ You are not my sister!’
I don’t know if there’s another single word that can sum up the struggle between Jesus and the teachers of the law – ‘conflict’, ‘violence, or even ‘damnation’?
I suspect that all of us are familiar with this section of the text as these are well-known verses (Mark 3:22-30), and well-known because this is the only instance in the New Testament where we ever hear Jesus tell someone that they are NOT forgiven – indeed, that they cannot be forgiven, ever!
This reference to the unforgiveable sin has been the focus of a lot of discussion over the years. More significantly, it’s been the cause of a lot of unnecessary suffering, I believe, as numerous people, over the years, have decided, for one reason or another, that they have committed ‘the unforgiveable sin’.
Soren Kierkegaard’s father was one, I remember. If I recall the story correctly, the man cursed God one night during a terrible storm and was convinced afterwards that he had committed the unforgiveable sin. He subsequently became a very hard man to live with (and his son followed in his footsteps in that regard)!
I don’t know how many people have lived lives that have been plagued with fear at the thought of having perhaps committed the unforgiveable sin. I do remember being perplexed by this passage as a child, to the extent that I remember asking my Sunday School teacher whether this meant that swearing, using the Holy Spirit’s name, rather than swearing using the name of Jesus or simply saying ‘My God’ was unforgiveable. I was told that it was.
I remember, indeed, telling my father that my Sunday School teacher had taught me this, and I remember my father saying that he was going to have a word to that Sunday School teacher. That’s where my memory of those events ends.
Just in case though there are persons present who have lived in fear of having committed the unforgiveable sin, let’s pause and take an honest look at the text.
The context of the statement is Jesus’ ongoing work of healing and exorcism. People everywhere are having their lives transformed by Jesus, and this is affecting different groups of people in different ways.
For those who are sick or possessed, Jesus is exciting news. Jesus’ family, on the other hand, are worried about Him. Perhaps they just want Him to get a haircut and get a real job, or perhaps they are concerned about the social upheaval that He is causing and how it’s going to affect them. At the heart of the upheaval, at any rate, are the religious leaders, who are not only seeing their own authority undermined, but who are also seeing a level of agitation in their community that they fear might bring them into confrontation with their foreign occupiers – the Romans.
These religious and community leaders were in an awkward situation. They had every reason to be suspicious of Jesus and of the damaging effect He could have on their community. On the other hand, it was becoming impossible to deny both His words and His works! Not only was He teaching things that they must have known were totally in line with any real understanding of God that they had, but the miracles He was doing were becoming increasingly hard to ignore!
There comes a point where, no matter how much you don’t want to face the truth, the evidence becomes overwhelming and you have to eventually accept the facts.
I’m not long back from a conference in Iran where a number of my fellow speakers were American whistle-blowers – men and women who had started out working for their government in good faith, believing that they were helping to bring freedom and democracy to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan through wars of liberation.
It was fascinating to hear the testimonies of these men and women as they talked about their growing awareness of what was really going on and their desire to block it out so as not to disrupt the course they were on. For each of them though there came a point where they just couldn’t live with the lies any longer!
C.S. Lewis, you may know, described his own coming to Christ in similar terms:
“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised by Joy, chapter 14).
There comes a point for all of us, when we are faced with a clear truth, where we have to give in to the overwhelming evidence that confronts us, no matter how much pain that causes us. The only alternative is to enter some kind of schizophrenic state where we have to reshape reality to fit the absurd beliefs that we insist on continuing to cling to, and that’s exactly what we see Jesus’ opponents doing.
These teachers of the law – they are there. They have seen first-hand the work that Jesus does – how He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind and frees those who are possessed – and yet rather than admit the truth and align themselves with Jesus, they assert the ridiculous – that Jesus Himself is the devil, ‘casting out demons by the prince of demons’. Jesus’ diagnosis is that these people are beyond help.
Loneliness, dysfunctionality, conflict, aggression, violence – these are not the only words that come to mind as I think about this scene. When I think about the way in which that house was so crowded, such that they weren’t able to eat, I think too about the level of noise.
Whether we envisage the ‘demon-possessed’ as person whose heads spun around (like those in the movies) or simply as persons with regular mental illness, I imagine that they were loud and difficult to control. Words like ‘chaos’, ‘confusion’ and ‘mayhem’ come to mind. I do not doubt that Jesus was bringing order to the chaos. Even, the scene as I envisage it begins in chaos and confusion, and as the sun sets and his family gives up and returns home, there is still chaos and confusion.
Where’s the good news? That’s the question.
If you know me as a preacher, you know that I consider it my main role as a preacher to bring you the Good News, and at first sight there doesn’t seem to be a lot of good news on view in this passage. There’s plenty of chaos and confusion and conflict and disorder and pain on view, but I struggled for quite a while to see the Good News here, and then it occurred to me – the Good News is simply the fact that this story is in the Bible!
What I mean is that this story isn’t lifted from the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s not just another story of chaos and confusion. It’s a part of the story of Jesus, and the story of Jesus is the story of the liberation of the cosmos!
We know how this story ends. It ends with the Kingdom coming! Yes, there is lots of chaos and pain and loneliness and dysfunctionality first, but the Kingdom comes anyway! I think that is good news – really good news!
We struggle, we fail each other, we get overwhelmed, we don’t know how to handle the conflict and we don’t know how to handle the isolation, but God’s Kingdom comes, forgiveness happens, and love wins. Amen!