It is difficult to imagine the chaotic scene described by Mark in our gospel for today. This story occurs after our gospel for last week, which took place on the Sabbath day when the Pharisees deliberately misinterpreted Jesus’ actions as they gathered evidence against him. Then he went down to the Sea of Galilee, with a great multitude of people following him. Along the way he healed the sick and cast out demons, and the crowds were so tremendous that the disciples had a boat ready for him to sit in so he could speak without being crushed. Then, according to Mark, he ascended a mountain and called the twelve who would become his inner circle of disciples.
Our story picks up with “then he went home” which we assume means his hometown of Nazareth. It’s no wonder he headed home, after all he had accomplished he must have needed a safe place to rest. But that was not to happen. It seems that crowds of people followed him to Nazareth, and they were so insistent that Jesus and his followers could not even sit to eat a meal. That triggered three different responses – from Jesus, the Scribes and his family members.
The famous words which were spoken by Abraham Lincoln can be found in this text. “…if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” Jesus knew that the social order his people had known for centuries was crumbling. The land that peasant farmers had farmed for generations was being turned into estates, owned by absentee landlords. That created an exodus into the towns and cities, particularly by younger sons, because of the lack of land for them to inherit. The cities were becoming crowded and full of poverty as the traditional network of family and clan began to erode.
Jesus was seeking healing and change, not just for individuals who suffered, but for the social institutions that the people depended on. With that background, it is easier to understand his radical view that those who were normally considered the insiders might become outsiders, and those who were marginalized by society as outsiders would now have the opportunity to become insiders.
Unfortunately, the Scribes did not hear Jesus’ teaching in the same way that he intended it. Instead, they sowed dissension, by falsely claiming that Jesus was able to heal and perform exorcisms because he was under the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons. Jesus cleverly points out that Satan cannot drive out Satan and implies that the worst he could be guilty of is instigating a coup in hell. Yet the Scribes are unable to be open to new revelation. They assumed that Jesus could not possibly be doing the work of God through his healing and exorcisms because he did not fit the categories they understood nor did he always follow their strict interpretation of the law. They were incapable of being open to the possibility of change and forgiveness through the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Scribes were considered the most learned men in Israel, and so had tremendous influence. They used that influence to continually try and turn people against Jesus. As Josef Goebbels, who was Hitler’s minister of propaganda said, “If you tell a lie often enough people will believe it.” And so, we see in scripture another example of the maxim, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” History repeats itself when lies are told and repeated until people believe them, often with tragic consequences.
The third response is from the family of Jesus, and his reaction to them. Jesus was in a house with his followers, and his family were outside. They did not enter, but rather called to him to come out to them. This part of the story is probably the easiest to understand from our perspective. What worried parent or sibling has not at times wanted to protect their loved one from harm by removing them from what they perceive to be a dangerous situation? Jesus was being accused of blasphemy, of being a disciple of Satan. Not everyone in the crowd was disposed to be friendly towards him. The Pharisees and Scribes had done their work of sowing dissension and fear in order to create a hostile atmosphere. It would have suited their purposes well if Jesus had given up and gone home with his family. This is a lesson we can learn when we sometimes act out of misguided love and try to inhibit our loved ones from taking on a challenge that we perceive to be dangerous or foolhardy.
Jesus’ response to them is sometimes misunderstood. He does not exclude his family from further contact, rather he redefines the meaning of family. The biological family would no longer be defined just by blood, just as the family of God would no longer be defined by the religious authorities. Jesus assumed the freedom to reinterpret religious practices in order to fulfill their ultimate purpose of life with God. He opened up the traditional restraints of family and clan to make relationship with him a matter of commitment rather than shared ethnicity.
This story ends with his mother and siblings standing outside the house while he refuses to leave his followers and go home to safety with them. They are temporarily on the outside, and those who have chosen to follow him are on the inside. His family initially acted out of their fear for his safety, but because he refused to give in, they, too, gained the insight and courage to follow him. We know that Mary, the mother of Jesus, will continue to demonstrate not only her love for her son but her commitment and example to others as a faithful disciple. His brothers will become leaders in the Christian community, in fact, his brother James will become the chief elder of the Christian community in Jerusalem.
Jesus’ entire ministry was about making the kingdom of God available to everyone. He believed in having hope for the future and in the ongoing inspiration and power of the Spirit and so he could not be controlled by the past. The community he was bringing together would have no limits. No one would have special access to him except through believing in his message and putting it into practice in our lives.
Once again, we can say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” but this time in a positive light. As Christians, we sometimes have to break with traditions or assumptions from our past and reinterpret our practices in order to embrace the life-giving intentions of God for everyone. We have to be willing to drop our claims based on race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual identity and economic status in order to embrace a wider meaning of the family of God. We have to be open to the revelation and inspiration of the Spirit in our lives. As Jesus demonstrated, acknowledging past wrongs, being open to new inspiration, and being willing to make healthy changes can lead to new life. Amen.