Saturday, June 6, 2015

An Uncomfortable Gospel: encountering opposition

Reflections for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (7 June 2015)

Readings:  1 Samuel 8 (vv. 4-11, 16-20); Mark 3 (vv. 20-35)

These Sundays after Pentecost (and Trinity) take us into what it means to live the Christian life and live out the mission of the Church.  The fragment from Mark’s gospel this morning sets the scene – and, frankly, it is alarming.  It is a complex passage but there is one part of it that is unique to Mark and that the other gospels have carefully avoided; it is a part that even some early manuscripts of Mark have tried to obscure – I am referring to the resistance of Jesus’ family to the start of his ministry.  This part of the gospel is embarrassing and it raises so many questions and issues of alternative translation; nonetheless here it is: this moment where Jesus’ family seem to oppose his ministry.

Mark’s passage shows Jesus being eagerly sought by the crowds who have experienced his healing and he is so much in demand that even a chance to have a meal seems to be denied him. Straightaway Jesus is drawn into conflict – and this passage shows Jesus ‘sandwiched’ between the resistance of his own family who treat him as if he is insane, and the religious leaders from Jerusalem who claim that he is under the power of the devil.

Why is there such resistance and hostility?   Is it because here is something so new, so different that the default human knee-jerk response is resistance?  I think that is part of it.  There is also something darker in the background, a kind of fragmentation at work; something inherently destructive and death dealing rather than life giving.  Something that reminds me of the so-called reality TV shows where people are placed in difficult situations and compete against each other with participants being humiliated and eliminated along the way.  They are thoroughly nasty programs that play upon the least amiable aspects of human nature.  Instead of showing people working together they are shown working against each other.

What Mark shows Jesus to encounter from his family has the ring of truth about it; the feel of reality; a feel that we may recognise from our own family life.  The truth is that family life – even in the most wonderful families – holds conflict and can manifest conflict in various ways.  Here in Jesus’ own household conflict is encountered when they treat him as if he is ‘out of his mind’.  This may well be an expression of their love for him, their concern for him but it is also an act of dissociation from what Jesus is doing – ‘he’s on his own’; within the family network this is a form of social control; an attempt to bring him back into line and stop him ‘rocking the boat’.  Other social devices such as laughter and mockery also come to mind (what family has not experienced that at some point or another?) and in this context the effect is to minimise and trivialise what Jesus is doing.  In other words, ignore him; he is ‘out of his mind’!

The other half of this sandwich of opposition is the Scribes from Jerusalem.  They are institutional figures and embody powerful religious, social and cultural interests – so their opposition is accordingly very significant.  As you can see, they come on strong, they don’t pull any punches.  Their purpose is something we recognise from the way we have seen politicians act: they are out to discredit the one they have determined to work against.  Working like politicians, if the Scribes can discredit Jesus in some way, his influence will be minimised, his followers will fall away and once isolated he can be dealt with brutally, efficiently and without trouble. For their purpose it does not matter whether they speak truth or falsehood, are right or wrong, all that matters is that their tactics will do enough to discredit him – rumours will do – just get people wondering; sow the seeds of doubt; ‘no smoke without fire’, and so on.   The terrible thing, the truly terrifying thing, is that we recognise this behaviour; that it is so familiar to us.  What is being done to Jesus is recognisably a way the world often works – and sadly even it may be with our compliance!

There is an extra and sinister twist to how the Scribes set about their dark purpose: they wilfully misattribute his works of healing and goodness to the devil.  The representatives of the religious establishment deliberately misrepresent the work of God as the work of the devil.  The truth is wilfully perverted and good is misrepresented as evil.  This refusal to see the good and acknowledge it represents something deeply and dangerously amiss in the religious institution of the Scribes.

It reminds me of the painting ‘Christ before Caiaphas’ by Duccio (c.1255-c.1319): where, Duccio shows Caiaphas twisted on his chair and keeping his face turned away from Jesus; Caiaphas disassociates himself from the  one who is the way, the truth, the life.  Is it a matter of expediency; an unfortunate necessity?  What is amiss?  How does this speak to us?

All of this is a disturbing reflection and it comes from an uncomfortable reading to engage with.  Why does Mark present this material to the Church?  If you were to open a pew bible at Chapter 3 you would see that the passage immediately before this reading Jesus appoints the twelve apostles: they are the new ‘family’, the new society, the new Israel Jesus is creating.  They will be the church and this passage gives them (and us) the necessary warning of the hazards to expect and the affirmation for them (and us) - that “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
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