Jesus, you were misunderstood
and slandered by others;
save us from calling evil what is good,
and help us to do the will of God,
that we may be found among your family,
now and for ever. Amen.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.—Romans 15.7
Today, we have a tale of the scribes and Jesus’ family. Mark combines the two in one of his famous Markan ‘sandwiches’ in today’s Gospel Reading. The family and the scribes most likely felt they had little in common, but Mark combines them because they are both playing the role of gatekeepers.
Both want to stop the free flow of people to Jesus. Let’s start where Mark starts, with his family.
Jesus has gone back ‘home’. This probably means back to Capernaum, his adopted home town, rather than Nazareth. When they hear the news, his family come. Not to say g’day you understand, but to ‘restrain him’ because the rumour was that he was out of his mind. Some of them may have been concerned for Jesus, other family members may have had the family’s reputation in mind.
Whatever their reasons, they wanted to put Jesus away.
The scribes can’t take Jesus away, as the family can; so they seek to discredit Jesus. They use their teaching authority by announcing that the source of Jesus’ undoubted power is the devil himself. They literally demonise him.
It’s a flimsy argument. They may have made it up on the spot! Jesus has no difficulty at all in tearing it apart:
How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand… And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.
Good point. Through Jesus, Satan’s power is collapsing one way or another.
Let’s move away from the scribes and the family for a while. This story reminded me of a contemporary figure, an American woman named Sara Miles.
Sara is the sister that most of you never knew you had. Sara describes herself as
a blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian; a left-wing journalist with a habit of skepticism.
How can such a person be your sister?
Let me tell you something more about Sara Miles. She recounts that she was out walking one day and then she
walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I had no earthly reason to be there. I’d never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian—or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut. But on other long walks, I’d passed the beautiful wooden building, with its shingled steeples and plain windows, and this time I went in, on an impulse, with no more than a reporter’s habitual curiosity.
A worship service was taking place. Sara found parts of it a bit ‘ridiculous’. Yet it was also ‘peaceful’ and ‘interesting’.
Then came the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, call it what you will. Sara writes:
And then we gathered around that table.… and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ’, and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ’, and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.
Today, our sister Sara is still intellectual, still lesbian, still left-wing; but ‘outrageously’, ‘terrifyingly’, she knew the Lord in the breaking of the bread. Jesus ‘happened’ to Sara; her life is now centred around Jesus. She used to be on the outside of faith. She describes herself as a person who had previously only known the name Jesus as a swear word. Now Sara Miles seeks to do the will of God. She is inside the circle of faith.
Sara seeks to do the will of God by operating a food pantry out of St Gregory’s Church in this needy part of San Francisco. During the week, the Communion Table becomes the serving point for daily food for the poor of the city. What a great use for the Table of the Lord!
I mention Sara Miles because I wonder what the scribes would make of this woman, the scribes of Jesus’ time and those among today’s scribes who just cannot bring themselves to believe that such a person could have a saving encounter with Jesus. (And if they do have an encounter with Jesus, can they please not come to our church and talk about it?)
And I mention Sara Miles because I wonder how the family of Jesus would welcome her as part of the community gathered around him. I suspect they may conclude that he’d gone wrong somewhere long the line.
For these reasons, it seems to me that Sara is one kind of example of what Jesus said: ‘The last shall be first’. Jesus also said ‘The first shall be last’, and we have heard of two examples of ‘the firsts’ in our Gospel story today: the scribes, and Jesus’ family.
In demonising Jesus, the scribes came close to committing what Jesus calls an unforgivable sin. The unforgivable sin is to clearly see God’s kingdom coming into being, into the lives of people, and yet to believe that it is a work of evil. It is to deliberately turn our backs on God and refuse to share in the joy of God’s grace.
Juan Luis Segundo was a liberation theologian from Uruguay. This is how he puts it:
The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with ‘theological’ joy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes.
—Juan Luis Segundo, ‘Capitalism versus Socialism: Crux Theologica’, in Frontiers of Theology in Latin America
People like Sara Miles won’t let us forget that Jesus welcomes everyone who comes. The spiritual task before us is to look for what Jesus is doing in people’s lives and to learn to share their joy. If we refuse to rejoice to see the work of ‘concrete liberation’ in the hearts of others, it may be a small step to ascribing that work to Satan.
Gatekeepers feel nervous when the wrong people come. They may be too political, too blue collar, too stuffy. They may be too tattooed or too twinset and pearls.
The community that Jesus gathered around him was not gatekeeper-friendly. Those of us who have been part of the community for a long time if not our whole lives, or those of us who are in the church’s employ, may not realise how easily we can become gatekeepers. We want a friendly church full of people we already know how to act friendly towards. But the church is not a gated community. You don’t need a password to get in; it’s all grace from beginning to end.
We sang these words earlier:
Who is my mother, who is my brother?
All those who gather round Jesus Christ…
As we leave the Gospel scene today, we are left with scribes who have turned away with a flea in their ear, and a family on the outside. On the inside are the ‘new family’ of Jesus, the ones doing God’s will: they are misfits, they are misunderstood and unwanted. With them are disciples who consistently fail to get what Jesus is on about. But they stay with him, because where else can they go? In who else is there life?