June 10, 2018
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Donna G. Joy
Today’s Gospel talks about the way people in positions of power, as well as Jesus’ own family are labeling him as one who has lost his mind; one who is in cahoots with Satan.
One of the things we humans do which effectively negates one another – isolates one from another - is we assign each other labels. European settlers assigned all sorts of unhelpful labels to our original settlers, which very quickly negated their very identity – their perceived sense of worth - and led to dehumanizing them in every possible way. Stick a label on people, and then it really doesn’t matter what you do and who you hurt. Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic, Soren Kierkegaard, said, “Once you label me you negate me.”
And that’s what seems to be going on as word about Jesus spreads to Jerusalem. Prior to this morning’s passage Jesus has been exercising his authority in ways that are threatening to people currently in positions of power: he has transcended the temptation of satan; he is proclaiming the coming of the kingdom; he has called his first disciples; he has healed a man with an unclean spirit and continues to move on and heal many more; he cleanses a leper, heals a paralytic; he has called into his company and surrounded himself with known sinners. So, as his following is gaining momentum, he is being labeled in ways that threaten his authority.
There is a momentum quickly building that is terrifying – threatening - to many. His family (who love him and fear for his safety) are convinced that he has ‘gone out of his mind’. The Scribes (who love him not so much but fear his growing popularity) are choosing to identify him as one who is in cahoots with satan. This passage is in fact a powerful witness to the remarkable things Jesus was doing. If he wasn’t doing such miraculous and powerful things there would be no need to assign him such labels. The early church certainly didn’t make up the story about people saying he was mad, or in league with the devil. Equally, people only say that kind of thing when the stakes are raised, and they are for whatever reasons feeling threatened. Clearly, this mystifying Jesus, was a serious threat to those who were currently in positions of power.
Mark, of course, wants us to understand precisely what is going on. John the Baptist said that Jesus was ‘someone stronger than me’. When Jesus now speaks about tying up the strong man and plundering his house, we are meant to understand that Jesus is now acting as the Stronger One, who has won an initial victory over the enemy (that is, the temptation after the baptism) and is now able to make inroads into his territory. In other words, in resisting the temptation of satan after his baptism, Jesus now has gained power over him. Indeed, Jesus is walking on very dangerous ground.
The scribes, of course, don’t like what Jesus is doing because it doesn’t fit into their categories; their agenda. The authority of Jesus is gaining momentum, and must therefore be silenced/sidelined. He must be labelled in such a way that people will no longer take him seriously. He must, they say, be in league with the arch-demon (the chief devil), Beelzebul; maybe even possessed by Beelzebul. That would explain it; and it would also justify them doing anything they wanted to control Jesus, to contain him, perhaps to silence him – once and for all. Notice here how Mark is already allowing his readers to catch a glimpse of the cross.
But Jesus doesn’t retaliate. When they go low, he goes high. American Novelist, Gregory Maguire is quoted to have said, “As long as people are going to call you lunatic anyway, why not get the benefit of it? It liberates you from convention.” And it seems that Jesus is liberated from convention; he doesn’t lash back with an instant label for the scribes, he merely points out the flaw in their thinking.
If the accuser (the word in Hebrew is ‘the satan’) were to cast out the satan, he (or it) is fighting against himself. I so love the way Jesus’ mind works. If civil war breaks out in a kingdom, it’s the end of the kingdom; if members of a family start fighting among themselves, it likely will become the end of the family unit. If the devil is fighting the devil, the devil’s kingdom is obviously coming to an end. So, even if the scribes’ analysis of the situation is correct, the kingdom of satan is in the process of being destroyed. In other words, Jesus’ basic claim, that in his work God’s kingdom is arriving, is true, with or without the label to which he is assigned.
The Stronger One has arrived, and is in the process of being labeled in an attempt to immobilize his potential. Jesus’ healings, and particularly his exorcism, are signs that God’s kingdom is indeed arriving, the kingdom in which people who have been held captive will at last be set free. Jesus does, though, add a warning, which has often been misunderstood. What is this ‘unforgivable sin’ in verse 29?
His critics had backed themselves into a corner. Once you label what is in fact the work of the Holy Spirit as the work of the devil, there’s no turning back. It’s like holding a conspiracy theory: all the evidence you see will simply confirm your belief; you will be blind to the truth. It isn’t that God gets especially angry with one sin in particular. It’s rather that if you decide firmly that the doctor who is offering to perform a life-saving operation on you is in fact a sadistic murderer, you will never give your consent to the operation.
There is no middle way, for the world today as for Israel then. Jesus isn’t just a ‘mildly interesting historical figure’, as some in today’s world would define him. He is either the one who brought God’s kingdom, or a dangerous madman. We who live by Jesus’ message believe that he is the one who has brought God’s kingdom into being, and we are called to carry on his important work. For us to faithfully carry out this work, we are called to guard against those forces that silence and sideline his authority – sideline, discredit his love, both within the life of the church and beyond. In the church and in all walks of life the labels we assign to people are a primary source of dehumanizing and silencing those who may hold views different than our own.
In the church, for instance, I think we often like to label people and theological positions. If we think, for a moment of the theological spectrum, we often use labels that may do more harm than good. One end of the spectrum may be defined as liberal, while the other may be defined as conservative. Conservatives may label liberals as too accepting of current theologies/liturgies, etc. Liberals may label conservatives as too unwilling to accept/adopt current theologies/liturgies, etc. I suspect that God’s truth lies somewhere in the middle, although once these labels are firmly in place, one’s opponent is successfully sidelined and silenced.
Once these labels are firmly in place, it is possible to diminish any authority that the other may have. Once these labels are firmly in place, it is – once again - possible to dehumanize the other. And, once these labels are firmly in place, it is possible to name the other as bad, or wrong, or in some cases, maybe even evil. And we must always be aware of the possibility that this could slip into that particular sin identified in this morning’s gospel: that is, the sin against the Holy Spirit.
But I am convinced that Jesus is calling us into a different way of living together. Later on in this morning’s gospel when Jesus is identifying the true members of his family, he says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” And, what is it to do the will of God? Well, I think Jesus made that clear elsewhere in the New Testament when he identified the greatest commandment as to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” As long as we continue to find labels for those with whom we differ, we are in violation of this commandment.
I suggest that this morning’s gospel challenges us to live into our identity as Jesus’ family, loving and living according to his will – loving him and our neighbours (at home and abroad) as we are called to do. If we stick with Jesus and Jesus’ way – we will see past the labels that separate us from one another. This morning’s gospel urges us to be mindful of the labels we assign to people, to remove them; to first love the people who bear those labels then get on with the business of discovering unity in the midst of our diversity.