This is a story that illustrates what I love about the Gospels: we paint them into corners of being black and white, with an obvious moral, but when we take a closer look at them, they are actually challenging us to rethink our assumptions about who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong, who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy.
In this passage, we have the classic Gospel bad guys: the scribes and the Pharisees. I really feel sorry for the scribes and Pharisees, because the authors of the Gospels give them such a bad rap. The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism, that we know, but we don’t know much more than that, and we definitely do not know for sure that they were the legalistic nitpickers Mark makes them out to be, so we can’t take Mark at his word on this one.
So it’s Jesus versus the bad guys, and in this moment, these bad guys are failing to recognize the work of God happening right in front of them. Jesus is healing, and the scribes and Pharisees are claiming that he is using the power of Satan to do so.
Now, the original audience of this story would have been only so interested in Jesus’ ability to perform healings. Yes, they were miraculous, but a lot of healers were travelling around casting out demons. The question at stake was not the healing itself, but the source of the power that allowed Jesus to do the healing. It’s rather like getting cataract surgery: for us, doing surgery on eyes is impressive, but not a huge deal. The really important question is who’s doing the surgery and whether or not they really know what they’re doing!
For Mark, Jesus does know what He’s doing, because Jesus is God incarnate, and so it is by God’s power that Jesus casts out demons. But the scribes and Pharisees say that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, which was a pretty generic demonic name at the time, and that Jesus is casting out demons by the power of demons. Jesus, of course, points out the obvious flaw in their logic: why would Satan cast out Satan? Why would Satan work against his own interests?
Then Jesus says something rather worrying: he says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the one unforgiveable sin.
Hang on – aren’t all sins forgiven?
Yes, is the reassuring answer: that is the overall witness of the Gospels.
But what Jesus means is that the work he is doing is the work of the Spirit, and the scribes and Pharisees are failing to recognize that. They witness Jesus at work and because it falls outside their understanding of what is right and wrong, they label it as wrong. They are labeling the work of God as evil. That is the sin.
The point here is not to panic about whether or not we are committing unforgiveable sins. I think the point here is that it really, really matters to God that we pay attention to where God is at work.
We all have filters through which we view the world, and sometimes those filters mean that we can’t recognize God’s work if it’s being done by someone we don’t like, someone who doesn’t belong, or someone who is breaking the rules. We all have blind spots that make us the scribes and Pharisees; we all write off segments of the population because we don’t understand the way they vote, the way they dress, the way they talk. But the people we loathe, or distrust, or fear are still capable of being kind, neighbourly people. The people we write off are still capable of doing the will of God.
And that’s so uncomfortable.
That’s the challenge of the Gospel: we aren’t allowed to write anyone off. There are no siloes in the Kingdom of God.
We are all capable of both doing the work of God and undermining it. We are all capable of doing the will of God and working against it: we are messy, complex people who do not fit into black and white categories.
Black and white is seductive: it’s simple, it’s clear cut, it’s an easy way to be obedient, and it’s a very easy way to belong, and we all need to belong. It is a psychologically fundamental human need.
But black and white also leaves out a lot, and the message of the Gospels, over and over, is that Jesus questions everything we think we know. We can never assume we’ve got it all figured out, that we’ve got all the right answers, that God’s on our side and not on theirs: when we think that way, we will miss God at work.
So how, then, do we recognize the work of God in the world?
We shall know it, St Paul tells us, by the fruits of the Spirit. Jesus says that his work is the work of the Spirit, and Paul in Galatians tells us that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22-23). Where do we see these characteristics? When do we observe them within ourselves? When do we not observe them within ourselves?
To be on the watch for God requires paying attention, and it requires humility. We have to get past our prejudices and be willing to believe that God might choose people we think are absolute idiots, or people we think are deeply misguided, or people we find really annoying. If those people are doing the will of God, then those people are our sisters and brothers in Christ. If people we dislike are showing signs of love, joy, peace, kindness, and all the rest, then they, like it or not, are part of our faith family.
When Jesus proclaims that whoever does the will of God is his mother, sister, and brother, he is proclaiming something radical. In first century Palestine, the family unit was the basic building block of society. In an age when there was no welfare state, the family was your means of survival, but more than that, it was identity. It is hard for us to quite picture that, because we live in such an individualized society, but in Jesus’ time, one was not an individual first and then a member of a family – one was a member of the family. It was the key way of defining oneself.
So when Jesus turns that on its head, he admittedly does not sound as though he’s really got much of the Spirit flowing through him, because it doesn’t sound particularly kind, but He’s issuing us a challenge: are we ready to radically rethink who we are? Are we willing to have our notions of identity overturned? Are we willing to rethink who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong?
The United Church gets both applauded and disparaged for welcoming people who are unwelcome, or merely tolerated elsewhere. The beauty of that is real. I remember being in conversation with a gay married man in my home congregation, and he teared up when he spoke of what it meant to hear the minister say every Sunday that all were welcome, because he knew she meant it.
But our danger is the story we can then create; the story that we are right and all those other churches are narrow-minded, bigoted, and completely wrong. They are outside, we are inside. We do the will of God, they don’t.
I do not for a minute want to downplay the traumatic nature of being cast out of a church, or being only partly welcome, or being asked to change one’s fundamental identity in order to belong. And there are churches that preach messages of hate that are completely contrary to the Gospel.
But churches are filled with humans, and like I said, we are messy and complex, and so churches are messy and complex. If we are pretty sure that other churches are missing part of the Gospel story, it does not mean they have none of it. If they are missing some fruits of the Spirit, it does not mean they are missing all of them.
The particular time in which we find ourselves is forcing us to ask ourselves what it is to be a Christian. Christ, in this passage, is reminding us that it is not just about showing up on Sunday morning, but about discerning the will of God and then striving to do it.
There is no promise that this is easy. There is no guarantee we will not make mistakes. But there is a guarantee that if we root ourselves in the Divine and follow God’s path rather than our own, then love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control will be ours. Thanks be to God.