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He’s Out of His Mind (and Other Theories)

June 11, 2012

“He’s Out of His Mind (and Other Theories)” Mark 3:20-35 © 6/10/12 Ordinary 10B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Back in the day, one of my favorite TV shows was the original “Mission: Impossible.” Quite often, as I recall, Jim Phelps and his team would be tasked with “discrediting” some dictator or other prominent figure. As a teenager, with no political savvy or knowledge, I could never understand why they didn’t just kill the guy or make him disappear. It never occurred to me that discrediting someone, making it so no one trusted him, would be much more effective in the long run than assassination. The latter would create a martyr, give rise to anger, and become a powerful recruiting tool for followers. But the former, discrediting the man, would mean that his ideology, his teaching, would be suspect. No one would listen to him anymore; his support base would dry up except for maybe a couple of hardcore fanatics. The people in the country might begin thinking a bit more along the lines desired by Phelps and his employers.

Of course, discrediting is a common tool for opponents in government, in the church, and in families. Cast doubt on the circumstances of a leader’s birth or claim that she is out of touch with ordinary people. Try to get the electorate to think that he hasn’t changed since that incident in high school or college or she is uninformed and ignorant. Raise questions about the accreditation of his seminary or drop hints as to why she was let go from her last position in that other church. Suggest that he’s aloof and can’t relate to people or that she just can’t get her act together. Sow seeds of doubt about a parent’s motives or a teen’s honesty, bring up something humiliating from childhood in the midst of a serious adult discussion or continue to see the capable, bright college student as the little helpless girl.

There’s a good bit of that going on in the story from Mark. Jesus has just gotten home to Capernaum from a long preaching and healing tour throughout Galilee. He’s ended the trip with the appointing of twelve of his disciples as a special group called “apostles,” which means “those who are sent.” So it’s a pretty high time for Jesus and these men.

As you can imagine, they wanted nothing more after the exhausting mission than to kick back, pop a cold one, chow down on a plate of falafels, and relax. But that was not to be. Word spreads fast in a small town, and pretty soon the crowd was so big and deep that Jesus and the guys were trapped in his own house. And the demands of the moment were so great, they had to forget about lunch and attend to the sick and the suffering.

Somehow his mama, his brothers and his sisters hear about this, and they all drop what they’re doing and come from Nazareth to take him by force. Interesting that his family wants to do the same thing as the authorities do later on. The word in the original means to “arrest,” “restrain,” “hold,” “take by force.” His family is staging an intervention; they want him locked up or at least taken away from the situation, you know, in order to “save him from himself,” “for his own good.”

The Greek text is ambiguous, so we don’t know exactly who was saying Jesus was out of his mind or beside himself. The original has simply “they said.” A couple of translations interpret “they” as anonymous “people” who were claiming such things. That’s the New Revised Standard and the Good News Bible. So, it’s possible that his family came to rescue Jesus from danger. They were going to force him to listen to reason, to get out of a potentially volatile situation, made worse by the hostility of the authorities to his teaching. He needed to cool it for awhile, not be so public, stop threatening the Powers That Be. Could even be that his mama heard Jesus was exhausted and not eating right and constantly under stress, and being a good mother, she came to try to talk some sense into him and take him away so he could have a bowl of soup in peace. Once he saw all his siblings, along with his upset mama, outside the door, he would send everybody away and settle down.

Maybe. But more likely, with most translations, it was his family, literally, “those around him,” his relatives or perhaps simply his friends, who thought he was several sandwiches short of a picnic. Or too full of himself. Or eccentric. Just not right in some way or other.

Can you imagine? Your own folks, your mama, your brothers, your sisters, thinking you were off your rocker, couldn’t be trusted, had some kind of delusions! How painful would that be? How distracting from the goals you were pursuing?

Why would Jesus’ family believe such a thing and be willing to come drag him with them kicking and screaming or in restraints? One reason may be that he was unconventional. Jesus was the firstborn son, and as such, he was supposed to carry on and interpret the family traditions, set the example of obedience and propriety. Instead, he left home and went out on the road, gone for weeks at a time preaching. He never got married or fathered even one child, as far as we have it from the canonical gospels. Again, his siblings would be wondering what was going on there. Why were they left to carry on without him, support their mother, be the good kids? What made Jesus so special that he could just shirk responsibility? It was all so embarrassing. How could Mary go to the market without encountering catty remarks and laughter at how her son turned out? How could James focus on business when all his customers wanted to talk about was his crazy brother?

Another reason was that he seemed intent on antagonizing the authorities. Who in their right mind would do that? Normal people kept a low profile, knew their place, stayed under the radar. They didn’t stir up resentment or gather large crowds or intentionally say and do outrageous things. But not Jesus! He thumbed his nose at the rules, criticized the religious leaders, hung out with the wrong kind of people, even claimed authority to forgive sins, like he was God or something. There wasn’t anybody, it seemed, who didn’t want him to touch and heal them or bless them. His home had become a gathering place for anybody who showed up. This had to stop!

So that’s one group, his own folks, who want to discredit Jesus by claiming he’s crazy. The teachers and experts in the religious law go one step further. He’s not crazy or eccentric. He’s in league with demons, in fact, with the prince of demons, Beelzebul.

We talk about “demonizing” one’s opponents, and we mean that metaphorically. The scribes intended their accusation to be literal. They couldn’t argue with Jesus’ results. People were healed. The crowds saw in Jesus a deliverer, someone who could help them. He was extremely popular. So, if you can’t discount the message, then vilify the messenger. Get him out of the picture.

Again, rather like his family, the scribes’ problem with Jesus was that he was threatening, bucking, the established order. Societies and organizations typically are deeply conservative. In order to survive, they need to have particular ways of doing things, for people to play their proper roles, for hierarchies to stand, and tenured power dynasties to keep ruling. Change or anyone who suggests change is a threat. Especially in a crisis, stability, order, predictability are tremendously important. But Jesus was taking the social fabric and ripping it down the middle. He was challenging long-standing class distinctions and undermining the power of those whose duty it was to maintain order. How dare he?! Survival of a people in the midst of an occupied nation was at stake.

Anyone who dares to be different is likely to be labeled evil or heretical. The power of the medieval Church was threatened by the order founded by St. Francis and by other spiritual movements, so the Inquisition “imagined heretics where these do not exist,” as novelist Umberto Eco once put it. Joan of Arc was condemned not just for supporting a French king, but for the “sin” of dressing in men’s clothing (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carol-muskedukes/vatican-vaticant-newsflas_b_1549474.html). And a study I read some years ago noted that a “significant number of accused witches” in Salem “were women who were not subordinate in some way. They did not fit the accepted stereotypes of the way women were expected to behave. In refusing to conform, they threatened the traditional order of society” which was ordained by God. So anyone who went against such hierarchy was obviously satanic. Interesting that over half of those executed in Salem had inherited or stood to inherit their own property (After the Fact: 53-54).

We could no doubt cite examples from our own day. But whoever they are and whenever they live, there is always a group of people, larger or smaller, who will do anything and hurt anyone to hold onto their power and privilege. And no rational argument, no salutary result of a new method, no human need addressed will convince them to change. For their part, the entrenched, rigid opponents of our Lord were so convinced of their own rightness that I suspect they ignored and dismissed immediately his reasonable arguments. Yes, no house divided could stand. No, it didn’t make sense that Satan would undermine his own efforts. But none of that mattered. Jesus was wrong. He had to be stopped. He was the devil’s minion. End of discussion. Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is made up. Or more likely, my heart is closed, bolted, and the key thrown away.

But the text does not simply reveal what threatened people will do. It also reminds us of the agenda and character of Jesus. First, far from being eccentric or out of his mind, Jesus is actually the only one who is truly centered, who perceives reality as it is. He insists that there is another Reality beyond and within this one that sits in judgment on everything we claim is real and true and right. He is the one who is in touch with what it means to be truly human, while we are the ones who are severed from our moorings and adrift on a sea of self-deception.

Jesus is the truly imaginative man. The word his family used to say he was crazy also means “capable of surprise or amazement.” And it is into the land of imagination, of things that never were but can be, that he invites us to go. What could we do and be spiritually if we were as open to the New Creation as Jesus was?

The renowned fantasy and sci-fi author Ray Bradbury died last week at 91. He once said: “‘If we listened to our intellect…we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down’” (Malcolm Jones, “Ray Bradbury…Taught Generations…How to Dream,” http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/06/06/ray-bradbury-dead-at-91-taught-generations-of-readers-how-to-dream.html?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=cheatsheet_afternoon&cid=newsletter%3Bemail%3Bcheatsheet_afternoon&utm_term=Cheat%20Sheet).

Jesus teaches us that the risk of dreaming, of building your wings, is worth being thought a little touched in the head, being regarded as strange, even being on the outs with your family.

So our Lord shows himself to be the One truly in touch with God and humanity. But second, he warns against the consequences of a closed heart and mind. Those are the only things that can thwart, block, the forgiveness of God. Think about it. Grace may be irresistible, but only in the sense of being immensely attractive and winsome. We are courted by the Spirit, but we can say “no.” God does not force his way into our hearts; the Spirit will not assault us with salvation against our will. The religious leaders were so jaded and so self-righteous that they had things exactly backwards. The work of God they called the work of the devil. Rules were paramount, while people in need were dispensable. So in the nature of the case, they were unwilling and unable to accept the love and care of God, the presence of the Spirit. Their hearts were hard, persistently so, and as writer Fred Craddock has said, that condition “foils the dynamics of forgiveness.” It is not those who are spiritually sensitive, with tender consciences, who commit blasphemy against the Spirit. It’s those who are on the outside religious and say the right words, but inside are corrupt and hateful and wouldn’t know the reality of God if it rose up and bit them. They have lost the capacity to accept the love of God. And God lets them go the way they have chosen.

But not only does Jesus invite us to a world of imagination and warn against closed hearts and minds. Finally, he broadens the scope of his relations and redefines family. Water is thicker in this case than blood. The water that washed us in baptism gives us an identity that transcends the one we have because of the blood in our veins, the DNA in our cells. And we are related to Jesus, and thus to each other, not so much by who we are as by what we do. It is the witness of our lives that matters, not the labels we pin on ourselves or attach to others.

That is tremendously good news for those who are perhaps on the outs with their biological families. It matters greatly to emerging adults who are away from home and need people to depend on. The church community can become another of the urban tribes that young adults form. It’s a people among whom to form connections, to seek solace, to find nourishment at the table. Jesus’ redefinition of family invites us to wonder whether the focus of the Church on nuclear families in our day might need looking at. (For an insightful and practical discussion of these issues, see Carol Howard Merritt, “Church for the 21st Century: Family Structures,” along with the comments at http://tribalchurchblog.wordpress.com/author/tribalchurch/page/2/.)

But if our Lord does and says all that, for Mark he is primarily known as the Strongest Man, who cannot be restrained, even by death. His family could not hold him. He could not be taken by force until he was ready. And the tomb could not keep him closed behind its stone door. Instead, our Lord plunders the kingdom, the house, of all that is unholy, all that is intent on breaking and deforming human life. He binds, holds, arrests, the efforts of the demonic that constantly arise in our world in one form or another. He steals its power, discredits it, brings it to nothing.

And all the while, as he pursues his mission with grace and with resurrection power, we are never out of his mind.

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