|Jesus takes a swipe at faith and family in this week's Gospel text, but why?|
June 6, 2021—The Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 5B)
Holy One, let my words be your words and when my words are not your words, let your people be cunning enough to know the same. Amen.
A couple of years ago Progressive Insurance Company launched an all-too-relatable advertising campaign. In it a comically fictitious self-help expert named Dr. Rick advises new homeowners in the fine art of how to not become like your parents. Have you seen these ads? This guru in one memorable spot asks some of his students, “Do we really need a sign to help us to ‘Live, Laugh, and Love’?” They respond in a brainwashed monotone, “YES!” Dr. Rick compassionately shoots back, “The answer is no!” Then, he helps a woman throw away the kitschy sign. While these commercials are funny, they are so because we all too often feel as though we are becoming like our parents, and sometimes in all the ways in which we wish we were not!
Now, I do not have a problem with hanging a “Live, Laugh, and Love” sign in my house, but I like many other southerners live not by those three L’s, but by five F’s. Faith, Family, Friends, Food, and Football. While I say this partly in jest, the first three F’s stand out as crucial ingredients in experiencing a satisfying life. However, in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus appears to do to Faith and Family what Dr. Rick did to the “Live, Laugh, and Love” sign.
After reading this passage, we might be wondering if Jesus was struggling to not become like his earthly family as well. Going even further than the commercial’s self-help expert, Jesus called out both his religious leaders and his own kin, undermining two of the most important pillars of societal life. But, why? Why was Jesus so aggravated by the scribes, his mother, and his siblings? And what can we learn about our relationship with God and each other through these confrontations?
To answer these questions, we first need a bit of context. You may not have realized it, but today we find ourselves in a completely different Gospel account. The last couple months of months we have heard from the Gospel according to John with its high view of Christ, rich theology, and abundance of metaphors. Mark relayed his good news in a different way than John. Everything here in Mark is immediate. Rough edges stick out, and they may snag us; however, these jagged places reveal new ways to follow Jesus. Also, within Mark everything moves so very quickly that by today’s text so much has already happened.
Here is a brief recap: Jesus received his baptism by John the Baptizer, overcame temptation in the wilderness, and after John’s arrest began to proclaim repentance as the Kingdom of God had come near. Then, Jesus called his first disciples and began to heal people at such a breakneck pace that it required him to hide from the crowds. When Jesus healed a paralytic man lowered through a roof by his friends, the scribes began to grumble—not because Jesus healed someone, but because he forgave the paralytic man’s sins—a blasphemy according to the religious leaders. Next, Jesus called Levi (a tax collector) to be a disciple, which drove the scribes crazy as did eating with sinners. To top it all off Jesus would not stop his healing mission even on the Sabbath allowing his disciples to pluck the heads of grain on the day of rest and healing a man’s withered hand on the solemn day. By the time Jesus called the rest of his disciples and headed back to his hometown, the stage was set for the confrontation we heard today—of course, it was not just one confrontation—it was two—Jesus challenged both his religion and his family.
Now because of the way in which Mark told his version of the Good News, everything is connected. These two seemingly independent conflicts against family and religion are interwoven, not unlike how multiple conflicts get complicated in today’s world. Mark used a particular storytelling shape to tie together events that might otherwise appear disconnected. Did you notice a pattern in today’s reading?
It began in Jesus’ hometown with Jesus’ family confronting him. (Let’s call that A) Then, the scribes berated Jesus (B). Jesus told a strange parable about a home invasion. (C) Before, clapping back first at the scribes (B revisited), then his family (A revisited). So, it went A. Family B. Scribes C. Parable. B. Scribes. A. Family. ABCBA. Y’all still with me? So, now that we have a bit a context, why did Jesus so strongly rebut the scribes and his family? Let’s start with his family.
Often, we describe the bond between family members saying blood is thicker than water. And yet, this Gospel points to Jesus seeing his mission on earth as something that was an even higher calling than the love shared with biological family. When the people of his hometown worried about him, Jesus’ family rushed in to intercede—to talk some sense into him. Make no mistake Jesus’ mission was intense. They did not have time or space even to eat—a family could worry. However, the way in which Jesus’ family went to help him could have been a little more tactful, as they seemed to agree “He ha[d] gone out of his mind.” Instead of supporting Jesus’ mission, his family seemingly wanted to halt it altogether. The scribes, waiting for a moment to pounce, jumped on this train.
Right at this crisis moment with Jesus’ family, the religious leaders claimed that Jesus was not an agent of God, but instead his power comes from an evil place. “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons,” they said. Here is a moment, not of wondering if Jesus is out of line, but of calling him satanic and opposed to the will of God. It would make sense, then why Jesus would so strongly push back against the scribes.
So, during an already frantic mission, Jesus was confronted by not just his family but his life-long religion as well—two groups that held so much sway in his life. Together they said, “You’re crazy” and “You’re evil.” At this point my question of why Jesus would respond so strongly to his family and his religion seems silly. Why wouldn’t he forcefully push back against these untruthful claims? To understand what we can learn about our relationship with God and each other though, we must look closer at how Jesus responded to these two groups.
First, Jesus employed a cutting question to wonder how and why Satan would work against himself. “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself it cannot stand.” The same is true of a household. It’s like asking, how can a quarterback intercept his own pass or a batter catch his own fly ball? It would not happen. While this sort of division is bad, there is something more sinister at work. The scribes dangerously claimed that God’s good work was evil—more on this in a moment.
For now, let me ask you, is there a particular analogy you like to utilize when thinking about Jesus or God? Maybe the good shepherd? The loving father embracing the Prodigal Son? The woman searching for her lost coin? How about a plundering robber tying up a strong man? We do not typically think of this last analogy, the one from today’s reading.
In it, Jesus compared himself to a thief during a home invasion. It’s not too different from Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but in this case, Jesus was stealing the souls of those swayed by the evil one to now serve in God’s reign. I am not for theft, but in this case plunder on Jesus! Plunder on!
This parable helped Jesus to express that part of his work of building the Reign of God was undoing the work of evil. Jesus was not entering into an unoccupied territory—he was going to take from Beelzebul what is rightfully God’s. And, this brings us back to the trouble with calling good evil and evil good.
When Jesus faced off against the scribes, he claimed they had committed an unforgiveable blasphemy. This is not the same thing as one of us stubbing our toe and taking the Lord’s name in vain. When we do this, it’s not great, but what the scribes did was something else entirely. They saw the work of God and called God’s goodness evil. They saw God’s work and attributed it to Satan. This is so important for us to get. It’s not that God does not love these scribes and God will always always always love us! However, it’s critically important that when presented with the truth—when looking at this world we call goodness goodness and evil evil.
This stands out as an enormous takeaway from this text. We as people of the Church must discern carefully with Christ. We must work together as we read Holy Scripture, learn from the Church’s tradition, experience worship, so that we can form a truthful lens.
So, what can we learn from Jesus disavowing his family? Jesus had just been told by his family that he was to stop his mission because he was crazy. Seeing Jesus look around at his students, his followers and calling them his family is both a poignant and a cutting moment. This is not Jesus rebuking family as an unnecessary institution, nor is it evidence for us to turn our backs on our families without good reason. Still, Jesus here pointed out an important truth: even though the biological bond of family is crucial, the bond of one’s spiritual family is the most critical.
Following Jesus is supremely difficult. Jesus told us things like sell all your possessions and give your money to the poor, love your enemies and turn the other cheek, and I came to save not the righteous but the lost. Christ Jesus’ way is counter-cultural and not just in a cool and fun way, but in a way that will challenge us to the core. Are we willing to give up things, even really good things so that we can have the best thing? Are we willing to point out when our faith or are family are out of step with what Christ challenges us to do and who Christ calls us to be? Are we able to live into Christ’s radical love such that we see all that unites us and binds us together?
We do not have to live as a house divided. We can come together in God’s House. We do not classes on how to not be like our parents, just as long as we are like Our Heavenly Parent. Jesus calls us to follow him giving up even really good things so that we may take hold of the best thing—God’s way of love. Amen.