1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16;20; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1; Mark 3:20–35
Today’s gospel really packs a punch, don’t you think? What do you think is the right word to describe it? The first word I came up with was audacious; then I thought again: no, impudent is better. Impudent means, “not showing due respect for another person.” That’s it. Today’s gospel is impudent. Jesus is accused of being possessed by the devil; Jesus disowns his own family; and then, perhaps most alarming– they say that Jesus is crazy.What’s going on here? Why such a disrespectful, rude discourse?
As today’s passage opens, Jesus is being pursued by the crowds we heard of earlier in chapter 3, where it is said, “for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him.” He is being followed by those who want what he has—his healing power. There are so many in the crowd, and they are so insistent, that Jesus and his disciples are kept from their meal.And then his family arrives on the scene with a specific purpose: They are coming in response to the rumors they have heard that he is out of his mind.
My immediate reaction to all of this is to be appalled. Why so much name-calling? And how could Jesus’ family think that he was crazy? That’s the one that really gets me. But if we put ourselves in the family’s shoes, it’s a little easier to sympathize.
If you heard that your family member was wandering all around the city, consorting with some of the most unsavory people in society and claiming to heal people just with his touch, wouldn’t you assume that you needed to intervene? I certainly wouldn’t assume that my brother or my son was the Messiah; I would assume that he was deluded. As I consider this more closely, I begin to realize that this pursuit of Jesus was a loving act by his family, not one of malice. Of course, that makes Jesus’ disowning of his family at the end of the passage even more harsh.
But the Scribes have an even more extreme reaction to the actions of Jesus: they believe that he’s not just crazy; they believe he’s possessed. They claim, to borrow the words of Flip Wilson, “The Devil made him do it.” Jesus says that this is the more egregious accusation; in fact, Jesus says this act is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and is unforgiveable.
Now, I’m not sure how we reconcile that statement with the verse right before it (“people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter,”) much less other wisdom from the Bible—like, “nothing can separate us from the love of God” from the 8th chapter of Romans. I think this statement is at best, hyperbole—so the question is why does Jesus say this? What does the writer want us to understand about Jesus and our relationship to God?
You know that I have often said that, to fully understand the meaning of the gospel for our lives, we must consider not only the story itself but also the circumstances of the first audience – the people for whom the gospel was written. Today’s gospel is no different.
We believe that the gospel of Mark was written in the late 60s of the Common Era, to a church harassed by both religious authorities and government.[i] It is easy to imagine that the author wanted to comfort a people who felt unjustly and outrageously accused – to make them feel that God was on their side. These are words for this specific audience. That makes it all a little easier to digest.
But the scribes make bold accusations. Jesus is so totally what the religious authorities don’t expect that they have absolutely no idea what to make of him. He doesn’t fit their categories, and what doesn’t fit our categories we typically label abnormal, or deviant, or crazy, or possessed. We assume that what we know, what we have experienced, and what we hold to be true is normal, natural, and God-ordained, and those things become the standard by which we measure – and judge – the thoughts and actions of others.[ii]
The bigger problem I have with this exchange is the focus on the devil. OK – this is a time for true confession: I have never really been able to wrap my mind around the idea of Satan—that is, of an actual entity that is focused on evil, that wishes the worst for us. When my discomfort with Satan comes into the story, I find it much more difficult to focus on the meaning of this passage. What I find important to remember is that, whether or not I believe in Satan’s existence, it seems pretty clear that Jesus and the writer and audience of this gospel did.Further, whether we believe in an entity named Satan is not as important as acknowledging that we often find ourselves captive to the powers of evil signified by “Satan,” powers that continually seek our allegiance.
Even if I don’t believe in a being that wishes evil, I cannot deny that evil exists. There is the evil power of racism, which leads some to believe that one group of people is superior to others simply because of skin color.
There is the evil power of patriarchy, which leads some to believe that men have a right to dominate women. There is the evil power of materialism, which leads us to believe that money can lead to life. There is the evil power of militarism, which leads us to believe that weapons and war can lead to peace and security.[iii]
And certainly the two celebrity suicides this week, and the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the national suicide rate has increased by 25 percent since 1999[iv], point to the evil that is among us. This evil is not in those who undertake or contemplate suicide; it is in those forces in our society and culture that leave individuals so alienated, pained, desperate and hopeless that they think of taking their lives. When a person cannot find a source of light in the world, the light in the soul can become extinguished.
Of course, you can think of other evils. They are all real. Whatever metaphors we use to help us grasp these invisible realities, I think we can all agree that these evils sometimes control our actions, and we must work against them.
In this passage, the scribes are describing Jesus as a personification of evil, and that’s what Jesus and the gospel writer are really reacting against. Jesus has been healing and preaching to illustrate God’s love for the creation. The writer seems to use the interactions in this passage to be sure we understand how single-minded Jesus is. He is completely focused on God’s love. Period. Nothing will take him away from that path. Not accusations from the church authorities. Not even the pleading of his family.
And that brings me back to my earlier question: Is Jesus crazy? Is he so single minded, that he has left all other reason behind?
Well, at the risk of being absolutely heretical, I think maybe this is true. OK – not crazy; but at least out of his mind. Jesus is so focused on heavenly things that he often leaves behind his mortal self. And I believe that the people around him must have been mystified by what he did, what he said – all of who he was.
And they weren’t the last ones to doubt Jesus. On a recent trip to Washington D.C. I saw Thomas Jefferson’s Bible on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s American History Museum. Perhaps you’ve read about it – it is not what you might expect. A Smithsonian Magazine article said, “Jefferson was devoted to the teachings of Jesus Christ. But he didn’t always agree with how they were interpreted by biblical sources, including the writers of the four Gospels, whom he considered to be untrustworthy correspondents. So Jefferson created his own gospel by taking a sharp instrument, perhaps a penknife, to existing copies of the New Testament and pasting up his own account of Christ’s philosophy.”
The article goes on to note that, “Much of the material Jefferson elected to not include related miraculous events, such as the feeding of the multitudes with only two fish and five loaves of barley bread; he eschewed anything that he perceived as ‘contrary to reason.’ His idiosyncratic gospel concludes with Christ’s entombment but omits his resurrection.”[v]
Jefferson couldn’t embrace the amazing things that Jesus did—they were just too much for him to believe. And while there is a part of me that wants to take his approach—to say that I will embrace only the things that make rational sense, and dismiss the rest—I think that’s wrong. We are called to believe it all; to believe in the power of God and acknowledge that what is impossible for humans is possible for God. And that, by the world’s standards, is admittedly crazy.
Anna Carter Florence, professor of preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, affirms that, in fact, the message of the gospel does sound a little crazy. She refers specifically to one of the post-resurrection scenes in Luke, where the men take the women’s testimony as “an idle tale.” But the word in Greek – leros (which forms the root of our word “delirious”) would be better translated as “out of their minds.” She says, “think about it – week in and week out we confess that the God who created everything not only knows about us but loves us, loves us enough to send his Son to demonstrate that love by word and deed even if it meant being killed. You’d have to be a little crazy to believe that message, maybe even possessed.”[vi]
We are called to fully embrace Jesus’ laser focus on love. To champion the God of love in the face of the evil of believe that each of us will be given eternal life. To trust that Christ can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
All that we are called to believe is crazy by this world’s standards. Even if your rational, post-enlightenment head tells you that you can’t believe Jesus was the miracle worker that we encounter in the gospel, I pray that you will listen to your heart telling you that God’s love is bigger than our doubts. That the way of love is even more powerful than our minds can grasp. That God’s love is bigger than the snares and temptations of this world. I pray that you will hand out that love to other whenever you possibly can, and that you will accept that love from others when you need it.
And I hope you will embrace the truth that God’s love makes us all more. That love has the power to transform the world. But that love needs us to be its agents. We are called to bring that love into the world—called by the grace of God that is our hope and our salvation.
I pray that you will then be crazy enough to act on the truth of love for the world. That you will be an agent of this radical love, and that you will also accept that love for yourself.
Our call is to embrace love—to give it, get it, to glorify it—to go crazy for love.
I am put in mind of a 19th century hymn. Let this be our prayer:
O love that wilt not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee
I give thee back the life I owe
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.[vii] Amen.
[i] Wray, Judith Hoch. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 121.
[ii] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=596, accessed June 5, 2012
[iii] Stroupe, Nibs. Ibid, p. 119.
[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/08/health/suicide-spade-bordain-cdc.html, accessed 06/09/2018.
[v] Edwards, Owen. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/How-Thomas-Jefferson-Created-His-Own-Bible.html?device=ipad, accessed 06/08/2012.
[vi] Lose, David. Op Cit.
[vii] Matheson, George. “O Love, that wilt not let me go,” https://hymnary.org/text/o_love_that_wilt_not_let_me_go, accessed 08/09/2018.