Isn’t it funny how the people who think they know us the best actually know us the least? I know in my own situation it doesn’t matter one bit who I am or what I have accomplished in my life; when I go home I am still the little girl who could throw a really good curve ball and who cheated at Monopoly. Everything else that I have done since then, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans…the dye was permanently cast when I was ten years old, and there is no changing anyone’s mind on that score. It keeps me very humble that’s for sure, but a lot of times I can totally identify with Jesus disowning his family when they showed up wanting to drag him home. Who are those people who claim to know me? I’ve never seen them before in my life!
When Jesus went public it wasn’t long before everyone was talking about him. After all, he was healing people of their diseases and their disabilities, and the ones who were possessed by evil spirits were being set free. No one had ever met anyone like him, and everywhere he went, desperate people followed – clinging to him, begging for healing, begging to be released from the demons that had gotten hold of them. It was so intrusive that one group had actually broken through the roof of his house and lowered their friend in with a rope!
Jesus was an overnight sensation, and of course whenever someone suddenly enters into the spotlight there’s always that group of nitpickers who has to criticize everything. The locals were hanging on to Jesus’ every word and the authorities could not afford for some little peasant to come along and stir people up. So whenever they could they claimed that he was doing everything all wrong. He was not doing it by the book. He was breaking all the rules… He healed people on the Sabbath; he ate with tax collectors and sinners – and worst of all, he was reshaping the law so that it would serve people rather than the other way around. And that was just simply unacceptable.
In this portion of Mark’s gospel, Jesus had been on the road for quite some time and he had come home weary, hungry and in need of some serious down time. All he wanted was to have a little supper and maybe even a bath, yet there were the crowds and the critics camping right on his front lawn, so that he couldn’t even eat in peace. And then the final straw…his family shows up wanting to do an intervention. Really? They couldn’t give him even the tiniest amount of credit for all the good stuff that he had accomplished?
But that’s how families are sometimes. They just can’t imagine that this person they have known all their lives is actually very special, and in Jesus’ case – the son of God. They can’t imagine that this annoying brother who once played an embarrassing prank on them might be on the cusp of changing the world. It’s a whole lot easier to believe that your relative is crazy or even possessed by demons – which was exactly what the authorities wanted Jesus’ family to think. In all likelihood, getting his family on board was probably the biggest challenge that he faced in his ministry, and on this particular day it sounds like he was pretty well fed up with them.
But we can’t be too hard on Jesus’ family for not recognizing who he really was. After all, they had not yet witnessed his death and resurrection. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit was still way off in the future. We have the benefit of 2000 years’ worth of hindsight. All they had was a strange relative with a big target on his back.
But you know, it occurs to me that our hindsight has in many ways made us just as blind as the naysayers that Jesus had to deal with 2000 years ago. Over the centuries Christians have perceived these religious leaders as being horrible people who were determined to stand in direct opposition to everything that Jesus tried to do — and the Jewish people as a whole, have paid dearly for that perception. But what people often fail to consider, is that Jesus challenged established belief systems; he flew in the face of authority and stability, and truth be told, if he were to show up here today he would meet just as much resistance as he did back then. Those ancient religious leaders were not necessarily “bad guys” – in fact they worked, studied and prayed passionately as they sought God’s will for them. But the God Jesus proclaims and embodies is so radically different from the picture they had been carrying around in their wallets that they couldn’t recognize this God as their God, and so they ended up calling it a product of Satan. Jesus himself didn’t fit the messiah mold; he worked from the ground up instead of the top down. He didn’t cozy up to the leaders and try to curry their favor; instead, he went directly to those who needed him the most and who needed God’s love and redemption the most. Jesus sought out those who had absolutely nothing to lose, and it just simply didn’t add up for those who held all the power.
And that’s kind of how it still plays out. We have our ideas about how things are — about who is credible and who is not — about who is worthy and who is not. And when someone comes along who doesn’t fit that pattern, or they come dangerously close to really shaking things up, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that they’re crazy and that they must be destroyed. Most people will do just about anything to protect whatever belief system is in place and discredit the troublemakers who challenge it, not so much because they’re bad people, but because people can be terribly shortsighted sometimes. As Gandhi once said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” But during the course of all that, people get hurt, and a lot of people die.
At this stage of the game the authorities are still laughing at Jesus and trying to make him look ridiculous by claiming that he’s possessed. But Jesus isn’t up to playing games, so he very bluntly points out the obvious – that if a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom can’t stand; if a house if divided against itself – that house can’t stand; and if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he can’t stand either.
So now who looks ridiculous? And not only that, but he has thrown in a pretty big zinger about the pitfalls of their religion. He takes their own weapon and lobs it right back at them only now it makes sense. Satan vs. Satan will mean the end of Satan, and religion against religion will mean the end of religion. He tells them that “You cannot enter the house of the strong and plunder their goods without first binding the strong…” In other words, if God’s people are divided against each other because they are absorbed with petty bickering and conflicts over doctrine and tradition, then these strong men are binding themselves and leaving the house open to plunder. When table manners become more important than meeting human need, when human suffering is allowed to go on unnecessarily so that human laws are not broken – then that kingdom has divided itself with a conflict of interest. Finally, Jesus tells them that their accusations are unforgivable because they are calling good evil and evil good and confusing God’s Spirit with the spirit of darkness.
So what can we learn from this today? Because if we’re honest there is still plenty of room for improvement. These days not many folks want to be perceived as being religious. In fact there is now a special designation known as “Spiritual but Not Religious.” Many people associate religion with self-righteousness, judgment, condemnation, prejudice and intolerance. And all too often, they’re right.
Religion was originally intended to connect us with God through certain actions, duties, and obligations. It was meant to structure our thinking about God, our relationship with God, and give us a way to express our grateful response to all of God’s activity. But sometimes religion is nothing more than a substitute for a real live relationship with God, as well as a tool that we use to manage and control God. When that happens, religion has become our primary focus, rather than God, and it looks pretty hypocritical. But as Jesus demonstrated, religion was never intended to regulate our relationship with God; it was given to us by God to help us get more out of life. That’s why Jesus went out of his way to heal whenever it was needed, even if it was needed on the Sabbath. And that was why he welcomed all, even those normally excluded by certain religious restrictions or customs, and it was why he banished all those unclean spirits. In all these ways Jesus pointed to the merciful and uncontrollable grace of a God who is always doing a new thing.
I am pretty sure that most of us would prefer to imagine ourselves acting like Jesus, but I have found that it is sometimes necessary to do a little pulse check to see if maybe we aren’t acting more like the religious authorities instead. To see if there are times when we assert the rightness of our beliefs and practices rather than being open to the unpredictable movement of God at work in our lives… Believe me, it’s an easy trap to fall into without even realizing it, but you see when we choose to follow that strange little man named Jesus, we commit ourselves to extending the same kind of gracious hospitality and inclusive welcome that he exhibited, and that’s probably going to mean encountering some flack. I don’t know if people will go so far as to call us demon-possessed, but don’t be surprised if some people – even our own families – think we’re a little nuts because when we follow the call of God it does indeed look crazy to those who are watching. The love of God knows no boundaries and it respects no laws that would keep it from being shared with everyone. It’s scary stuff; it’s contrary to everything we’ve been taught, but if we aren’t pushing the boundaries of what’s socially and religiously acceptable in order to reach more people with the inclusive love of Jesus, then we are indeed binding the strong man.
I have just one more point to make and that’s this: there is a difference between seeing the world differently because we are answering God’s calling, and acting abnormally because we are trying to prove just how different we really are. It’s a gray area that was captured pretty well by a statement that I heard not too long ago: “I called you to be different. I didn’t call you to be weird.”