The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 10, 2018
Text: Mark 3:20-35
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and redeemer.
In thinking about a title for today’s homily, “Family Matters” struck me as being relevant and partially reflective of our appointed Old Testament and Gospel readings. Family matters, specifically the conduct of their sons, played decisive roles in the stories of both Eli (that we heard last week) and Samuel. In the latter case, the malfeasance of his sons led Samuel to acquiesce in the people’s demand for a king—with ultimately fateful consequences. The Gospel reading also has a family component—though that is sometimes overshadowed by a dramatic confrontation between Jesus and the scribes seeking to incriminate him.
Today’s Gospel reading included a line that is very familiar to most of us, but not necessarily or exclusively because Jesus used it as part of an effective rebuke to the scribes who had arrived from Jerusalem to contest his authority. Americans know it well because Abraham Lincoln employed the same words in a very different context 160 years ago this coming week. In his June 16, 1858, speech to the Republican state convention meeting in Springfield, Illinois (a gathering that had just nominated him as a candidate for the U.S. Senate) he asserted, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” In that presumably more Biblically literate era, I am reasonably confident that hearing those lines near the opening of Lincoln’s address seized the attention of his listeners and helped convey the seriousness of the argument he would go on to make. Today, in our notably divided nation, we might well ponder the applicability of those words to our own times.
However, my message today will not focus on those famous words. Jesus’ encounter with the scribes is a kind of hearty sandwich filling in the middle of today’s appointed gospel lesson. Nevertheless, there are times when it is just as important to recognize the contribution of the bread as of the filling to the making of the whole. In this case, the surrounding slices of bread represent a different and possibly surprising set of circumstances that I want to examine somewhat more closely. I should point out that while the other synoptic gospels–Matthew and Luke–also include similar accounts of the “house divided” encounter with the scribes, they omit the surrounding material, the “bread slices” as it were, from their account.
As we heard last week, Jesus had just entered into his earthly ministry. He had been preaching, teaching, and healing various physical and mental afflictions. In the verses immediately preceding today’s reading, Jesus had just appointed the twelve for two specific purposes: proclaiming the message and casting out demons. At this point, he had returned home and entered a house only to be besieged immediately by a crowd that wanted to hear and see more of this remarkable person about whom they have already heard so much. Given the circumstances, the crowd’s attitude is completely understandable. Who would not want to see this wonder worker? What happened next may seem surprising—or perhaps not if you reflect on it for a moment.
Depending on the precise translation of Mark’s gospel, his friends, those closest to him or (as in more recent versions, such as in the NRSV and REB), his family members hear of his activities and set out to restrain him, saying that “he is beside himself” or that “he has gone out of his mind.”
This family dynamic may be familiar. On the one hand, there is the natural and generally laudable desire to protect a family member who may be unable to care for himself or herself. On the other hand, family members may be so mortified by the actions of another family member that they seek to spare themselves from even greater embarrassment. In such cases, the concern is not so much for the other individual but for themselves and their reputations. In fact, both of these elements easily could be understood as contributing to the family’s initial response to Jesus’ sudden and previously unforeseen notoriety.
The underlying implication is that Jesus, who had begun, after all, to acquire his reputation with the people in part by casting out demons, is himself demon-possessed. The family members fear that some demonic presence has displaced the normal person that they thought they knew intimately. This was in complete accordance with the contemporary view that demons could and did invade persons to cause disease, physical disabilities or mental illness. The scribes eagerly joined in this diagnosis, though their intent was to neither protect nor quiet Jesus but to discredit him.
The “house divided” portion of the reading interrupts the family narrative flow, enabling Jesus to demonstrate decisively to the scribes and anyone else through discourse and parables that he is the master of the situation and not Satan, Beelzebul or any demonic force. Jesus underscores this through the concluding pronouncement in this portion of the narrative that confounding the Holy Spirit with “an unclean spirit” is so grave an error as to constitute an eternal or unforgivable sin.
After this interlude resolving any question about Jesus’ authority vis-à-vis the scribes and by extension the Pharisees, the family drama, picking up at verse 31, resumes its course, only to draw to a climax at the conclusion of the gospel reading. Jesus’ mother and siblings arrive but, given the hubbub, they remain outside the house where he is conducting his discourse, sending a message in to him. Note that their separation from him is at once both physical and metaphorical. When the messenger reaches Jesus to tell him that his mother and brothers are asking him to come out, he responds with a rhetorical question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
As we have heard in the lesson, Jesus, looking at those gathered around him, answered his own question, saying, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” With this announcement, the nature of the story takes on a different dimension. It began, after all, with family matters—the response of those closest to Jesus to his, from their perspective, confounding and distressing emergence from the near anonymity of Nazareth to becoming the talk not just of the town but also of all Judea. However, Jesus’ message is not about family matters, but it is one that tells us that family matters—and in this case the family comprises all those who, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul would later call “the family of faith.”
As members of that family, even amidst all that seeks to divide us, we too have an obligation to embrace and support all our brothers and sisters in Christ in their journey as they do the same for us.
I will conclude with the Prayer for the Human Family found on page 835 of the Book of Common Prayer.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony round your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.