(Genesis 3, 8-15; 2 Corinthians 4,13 – 5,1; Mark 3, 20-35)
Whenever we hear the news of some terrorist activity, or an act of mass killing, someone is bound to say: “How could they do that? They must be mad!”
If a person who commits such a crime is caught, before they can stand trial in modern legal systems there is usually a process to decide whether they are sane, and therefore can beheld responsible for their actions. The trial of Anders Breivik, who murdered members of the youth wing of a Norwegian political party in Oslo and Utoya Island three years ago, was not held to decide whether he was guilty, since he admitted that, and there was film of him doing it. It was to decide whether he is sane or not, whether he was mad or bad.
The same question “Is he mad or bad?” is being asked about Jesus in our Gospel reading today. Jesus’s family come to take him home, after hearing that his teaching and miracles have attracted huge crowds. They say he is ‘out of his mind’, and seek to take him under their protection. They are, in effect, maintaining that he is not responsible for his actions.
This is frequently said about religious people, especially those whose words and actions don’t fit the conventional mode. It was said initially about Joan of Arc, whose feast day the church celebrated a week ago, because she had visions which led her to dress up in male clothing, and lead an army against foreign invaders of her country. It was only when her efforts brought success that this charge was dropped by her countrymen.
There are some people who say that any religious person who claims to hear voices or see visions must be out of their mind. They are usually people who believe that the material world is the only reality there is, denying any reality to a spiritual realm beyond what we can see and touch. They have a point, when often the voices that people hear instruct them to do dreadful things. So, how are we to judge?
In our Gospel reading, the scribes don’t want to have Jesus judged as mad. They want to hold him responsible for his actions. They believe in a spiritual realm, composed of powerful beings, both good and evil. Their judgement is that Jesus is obeying the wrong spiritual beings, the evil ones rather than the good, Beelzebub or Satan and his demons, rather than God and God’s angels. They want him declared bad.
This happened to Joan of Arc too. When she was successful, she was hailed by the French Royal forces as sent by God; but when she was captured by the Burgundian forces, the allies of the invading English, they tried and convicted her of heresy, that is, serving the forces which opposed God.
After her death, and after the war between France and England was over, the trial verdict was reversed and she was declared a martyr (although she was not made a saint until the early twentieth century).
The resurrection and ascension of Jesus convinced many of his contemporaries that he was neither ‘mad’ nor ‘bad’, but doing the work of God on earth. Changes in social, religious and political circumstances did the same in the case of Joan of Arc. But how do we judge whether what we feel impelled to do by our religious beliefs comes from God or not? And how do we judge whether, when other people behave in strange ways in pursuit of their religious beliefs, are insane or evil?
Jean Pierre de Caussade (who wrote ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’) gave a simple rule of thumb for such judgements:
“The masters of the spiritual life lay down this principle to distinguish the true inspirations of God from those that emanate from the devil; that the former are always sweet and peaceful, inducing to confidence and humility, while the latter are intense, restless and violent, leading to discouragement and mistrust, or else to presumption and self-will”.
The accusations of his family and the scribes lead Jesus to make his statement about the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. There has been endless debate about what exactly this means. The commentary on the readings I read suggested that the ‘unpardonable’ sin is to state with absolute conviction that the work of God is the work of the Devil, and vice versa. People who make such statements leave no room for doubts and rely totally on their own judgement. (This incidentally links with the origin of the term ‘heresy’, which came from a root meaning a division resulting from individual self-will).
We can see the mythical representation of that action in our Old Testament story from the beginning of the Book of Genesis. You don’t have to take the story literally to perceive the truth in it. The details are unimportant; the tree and the fruit are just symbolic of any actions of human beings (in other cultures the ‘fruit’ is translated as a pomegranate or a coconut, rather than an apple). It doesn’t matter whether the woman or the man made the first move towards disobedience, no matter how the story has been used since to deny women equality. Both Adam and Eve choose to follow their own desires, rather than listen to the voice of God.
One result is that the community they were created to inaugurate is broken. Rather than remembering their common origin as created by God, bone from the same bone, flesh from the same flesh, originating from and returning to the dust of the earth, the man blames the woman and the woman blames the snake. The unity of male and female and of human and animal kingdom is destroyed, with the disastrous consequences we still see.
The blame game we see portrayed in the Genesis myth is still being employed to create divisions in society, and to allow people to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions. Anders Breivik did this repeatedly. He wanted to be declared sane, but he didn’t want to be declared evil, so he blamed his actions on his victims: his hatred of Muslims on perceived slights to him in by Muslims in childhood, his opposition to immigration on the political party whose members he attacked. Those were his judgements alone, and he was claiming that his judgement is the only thing to which he owes allegiance.
Jesus always took responsibility for his own actions, at the same time as claiming that he did what he was sent to do by God. He came to assure everyone, both those inside and those who were outside his community, that they could receive the forgiveness of God for the sins they had committed and took responsibility for. He extended the meaning of ‘family’ to include those outside his own biological family; he expanded the meaning of ‘community’ to embrace even all those whom his own religious community excluded. His sole allegiance was to the Kingdom of God.
As we move from an emphasis on the life of Jesus during the seasons of Lent and Easter, into the season of Pentecost, we are faced with the challenge of how we follow Jesus, and how we are called to work to live out our allegiance to the Kingdom of God, and to building community in our own situations. Is our ultimate loyalty to Christ, and to his radical way of creating community; or is it to our own racial or religious community, or to our own biological family – or ultimately, only to ourselves?
It is not an easy challenge to accept, and no doubt we will find it difficult to make those decisions, and be faced with doubts, when perhaps, the path we choose seems to be going wrong. We will constantly have to return to the question: “Is what we (or others) are doing mad, or bad, or following the will of God?”
In his second letter to the Corinthians, (the New Testament reading set for today) Paul provides encouragement as we attempt to live our our allegiance to the Kingdom of God. He acknowledges that it can often seem a waste of time; that it can cause us pain; that it can look to others as if we are giving our loyalty to something that is a fantasy, because it cannot be seen, or proved scientifically.
But, he reassures us, what we are placing our faith in, and basing our judgements on, is ultimate reality, is eternal, and will endure far longer than any of the judgements of this world as to what is mad, or bad, or the will of God.