Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
Jesus did not join a cult. It was much worse than that. He started one.
Jesus subverted the cult that had grown around John the Baptist, his rogue cousin with the weird hair and the wilderness lifestyle. Jesus also grew a new following while John was still out in the wild — the advantages of better social marketing skills. Whatever the origin of the groupies and critics surrounding Jesus, word spread of strange goings-on until Mary came with her other children to perform an intervention.
Was Jesus in his right mind? His family had heard that he was acting crazy. Hanging out with tax collectors. Sinners. Even fishermen. Healing people. (What was he thinking?) He was sending members of his new cult out to proclaim the message — though at this early stage it is unclear just what that message was — and to cast out demons.
Casting out demons. Now there’s an interesting skill for a resume.
Critics claimed that Jesus was possessed by a demon, even by Satan himself. In Mark’s Gospel they also name Beelzebub, perhaps a version of the old Canaanite god Baal that had become identified with Satan. The concept of Satan had come a long way over the preceding century or two, after the writings that would become what Christians call the Old Testament were generally formed. What started as a minor character, a member of the court of heaven, became the personification of evil. Here’s something useful to think about: there is far more written about demons outside of scripture than within it. There is more of horror movies than theology in our notions of evil.
It is interesting that Jesus does not dismiss the idea of demons. He does not say that such things don’t happen, that the diseases and mental instabilities people attributed to evil spirits had other, less supernatural, causes. Instead, Jesus makes an argument as to why his critics are wrong — he can’t be possessed by evil spirits, since that would represent a divided house, evil working against itself since he, Jesus, is performing good works.
It could be that Jesus merely uses his critics’ own accusations to demonstrate that they are not thinking very clearly. Which is more convincing, to tell them they are wrong, or to show them that their bucket doesn’t hold water?
After all, if I find myself on the ground, all thought lost in the twisting darkness of an epileptic seizure, it no longer matters whether I understand the cause, demon or disease. It matters that someone else helps me.
There is also the famous passage about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit being unforgivable. The Christian trinitarian view being that the Spirit is part of and one with that who is God, let’s paraphrase the verse—blasphemy against God is unforgivable. So what do we do with that?
Some scholars question whether Jesus even said it. The Holy Spirit is so much a part of the post-crucifixion/resurrection viewpoint of Christianity that these verses sound like a later addition. Such an approach — cutting out the parts that are problematic or that don’t appeal — is difficult for many reasons, one of the strongest being this is the scripture that we have in a form that the community of faith preserved over centuries. If, like Thomas Jefferson so famously did, we snip out all of the parts we find difficult or disagreeable, the gospel we end up with will not be the one we received from the community of faith.
We might consider context — what’s going on when Jesus supposedly makes this pronouncement? For example, many a person will point to this verse and tell you that suicide is an unforgivable sin. Isn’t it wonderful when genuine but unthinking believers blunder so judgmentally into the misery of other people? Do we hear of anyone committing suicide in this story? No. Other people will say that to die “unsaved” is blasphemy against the Spirit. Again I ask, is anyone dying in this story?
One thing is certainly going on in Mark’s Gospel, and it is the thing that Jesus is stridently rejecting. Some religious folk are pointing to something good, something of God — Jesus and his ability to heal people, to make them better — and calling it evil because it does not match their expectations or understanding. They are trying to prevent other people from experiencing what does not fit the framework of their religion, and Jesus condemns them for it.
Now that is worth thinking about.
“Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside calling for you,” the crowd tells him.
Another problem. There are plenty of people who go to great lengths to argue that these brothers and sisters were actually cousins, the idea being that while God could have become human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, it is unthinkable that Mary (and Joseph) had other children. Let’s just go with what it says — Jesus is in his home, surrounded by an ambivalent crowd of followers and critics, when Mary and his siblings show up to intervene.
Jesus looks at the crowd and tells them that all who follow God are his brothers and sisters and mother. There’s no record of how that goes over with Mary.
Sometimes we accept the family we are given, and sometimes we choose our own. The two groups may turn out to include some of the same people, overlapping circles. Mary stood outside the home of Jesus, outside the circle of new believers and onlookers, just as she would later stand on that hill when her son was crucified. She was still in that small circle when most of the others had run away.
It is likely that our understanding of God, the universe, one another and life around us is terribly flawed and desperately limited. Perhaps one day science will find other life forms we had not previously understood, and we will have to shift our concepts of angels and demons, just as physicists changed our understanding of “let there be light” with a bang.
One day we may consider that being right was never so important as being kind, or true, or faithful. Doing good is better than being right. Love is more powerful than judgment.
Maybe that is the unforgivable blasphemy against God — clinging to our judgment in spite of our ignorance, choosing our notions of what is right over what is good. Our hamartia, our fatal flaw, is that we turn our gaze so far inward, we focus so closely upon ourselves, that we fail to recognize our greatest faults and our greatest needs. Perhaps Jesus does not mean that God does not forgive us. Perhaps he means that when we draw our circle so tightly that our world contains only ourselves, there is no room for our brothers and sisters. When we cut ourselves off, there is no one left to absolve us.