Who is my mother?
1 Samuel 8.4-20
Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.
That’s what the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11.14. In other words, sometimes it’s hard to tell right from wrong. Paul was talking about ‘false apostles’ who boasted about the great things they did for the Lord. These false apostles seemed to be the real thing. Today, in the Gospel According to Mark, it’s the other way around: we have the Truth in human form who appears to be a false prophet. Or just crazy.
Is Jesus an angel of light, or under the influence of demonic powers? That was the question the religious leaders had been asking themselves. There was one sure way they could tell if someone was ok; they could see if he followed the ancient ways, protected the traditions, upheld family values.
But Jesus failed the test. They thought, He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy! (Apologies to those who don’t know Life of Brian!)
The Gospel of Mark is a story of conflict. And right in the very middle of that conflict is Jesus himself. And it seems to the authorities that he’s the problem.
Let’s refresh our memories of Mark and look at some of the conflict so far:
- Jesus threw an ‘unclean spirit’ out of a man on the Sabbath day in Capernaum. You weren’t supposed to do any work at all on the Sabbath, even healing work; (1.21-28)
- Jesus touched a leper, which made him unclean according to the laws of Moses; (1.40-45)
- He announced to a paralysed man that his sins were forgiven; the scribes accused him of blasphemy. They said, Only God can forgive sins; (2.1-12)
- He had a meal at Levi the tax collectors’ house, causing raised eyebrows among ‘the scribes of the Pharisees’; (2.13-17)
- People couldn’t understand why he and his disciples didn’t fast—Jesus as much as said, Who can fast while I’m still here? (2.18-20)
- The Pharisees criticised his disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath; Jesus said that laws are made to serve the needs of people; (2.23-28)
- Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on a Sabbath. By now, the Pharisees and the Herodians were watching him to gather evidence to use against him. The Pharisees and the Herodians didn’t normally see eye to eye; it was a case of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. (3.1-6)
Things were getting dangerous.
And why not? Jesus was a troublemaker. He’s changing things, he’s not following the ancient ways or protecting the traditions of the past. Well, that’s not quite true. Jesus is centred upon the kingdom of God—but he’s not doing things the way people expect. He’s not observing the Sabbath in the expected ways, he’s claiming to forgive sins, he’s keeping bad company. People are worried about him.
Among those concerned are his family:
When they heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’
He’s flipped, gone cuckoo, he’s a loony. Nutty as a fruitcake and mad as a cut snake, he’s beside himself.
They didn’t quite get it, did they? Jesus was healing and freeing and forgiving people all over Galilee. He wasn’t mad. He was sane in a mad world—so of course, he looked mad to people who benefitted from the system.
The religious leaders were throwing out all kinds of mad accusations. They were saying that he cast out demons because he had demonic power. That was easy to refute. His answer has become a saying still used today: ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’.
Jesus pictured Satan as a strong man, and anyone who wanted to steal from him had to be stronger still:
…no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
Let’s be clear here. The ‘strong man’ is Satan. Who then is the stronger man who ties him up and plunders his house? It is Jesus. Don’t forget what John the Baptist said (Mark 1.7):
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
Jesus is the more powerful one, the stronger one, who defeats Satan. It must have sounded crazy, deluded. Even blasphemous.
But Jesus goes further. He mounts a counter-accusation: the religious leaders are the blasphemers, blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. And this sin, the ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’, is ‘eternal’.
I can remember when I first read about the sin against the Holy Spirit. I would have been in my teens. I wondered, What is that sin? Have I committed it? How could I know?
There was—there is—a lot of confusion about what the sin against the Holy Spirit actually is. Some people say it is despair. That’s the thought behind suicide being a mortal sin in traditional Catholic thinking. If you despair of life so much that you take your own life, there’s no room left to be forgiven.
Let me say this is total bunkum. Not only have I had depression myself, I have worked with people who suffer from depression. I’ve seen what depression does to people. I have understood enough about their thinking to accept that they could think suicide was the only way out.
If I can understand this, I’ve realised that God understands even more. Friends, I think it’s stretching things to say that suicide is necessarily a sin at all, let alone an ‘unforgivable’ sin.
The sin against the Holy Spirit is not despair. It is hardening your heart against what God is doing in the world. The authorities were looking at the liberating works of Jesus and saying it was evil. There was no way the Spirit could enter their hearts. They were sealed tight shut, as tight as a tomb. Why is this sin ‘unforgivable’? Because it will not allow forgiveness to come. It will not accept that it needs to be forgiven. Are you worried that you may have committed this sin? Then don’t worry, because that shows you haven’t.
It’s so important that our hearts are open to the Spirit. The Spirit shows us the Way that Jesus walked. The Pharisees thought they could know the way by just repeating the past. They were wrong. Jesus was bringing a brand-new future into being. He told them that ‘the first’ would be last, because they didn’t get it.
‘The first’ were the religious leaders, the interpreters of the scriptures and the guardians of the faith. People looked to them for the truth. Those of us who are today’s interpreters and guardians need to be careful that we allow the light of the Spirit to shine into our hearts. That we not only read the scriptures, but allow the scriptures to read us. A minister’s heart may be sealed against the Holy Spirit.
‘The first’ were also Jesus’ family, the closest ones to him. Even after hearing what Jesus says to the leaders, even after seeing that he can hold his own and that he speaks the truth, they still want to put him away. Maybe they were just trying to protect him; but Jesus doesn’t need our protection. He wants us to seek the will of God, and do it.
There’s a tremendous promise attached to doing God’s will. Jesus said,
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
We often talk about being a church family here at Centenary. And I think we do pretty well at it. Jesus reminds us here that being a church family means belonging to a community that does God’s will. We reach out to one another because it is God’s will that mutual caring is a hallmark of the church family.
And we reach out to others because God’s family includes all those who do God’s will. In our Gospel story today, there are many who seek to do God’s will. They are ‘the crowd’, pressing around Jesus, sitting at his feet. They have no names, but they—poor, needy, uneducated—and called them his family. They were the last who would be first. Look around: God’s family is bigger than the church!
The religious leaders despised the crowd. Jesus’ family didn’t pay them any attention. Although he was misunderstood and opposed by those who should have known better, Jesus called them mothers, brothers, sisters under one Father in heaven.
When we go from here, let’s do the same.