Have you ever thought it odd that no-one today says a word against Jesus? I don’t think I’ve ever met a person or read a book that criticises Jesus himself – which is strange. What I mean is: Christianity has many enemies. There are plenty of people who will take apart our beliefs, ridicule the church, oppose and even persecute Christians. But hardly anyone will ever attack Jesus himself.
Sure, a hardened atheist may say that the church has let Jesus down. An Islamic extremist might argue that the apostles and New Testament misrepresented Jesus. But even they don’t accuse Jesus himself of saying crazy outlandish things. Or of calling his followers to outrageous acts. Of living and speaking as if he were the most significant person on the planet. People rarely accuse Jesus himself of being mad or bad.
And I wonder why this is. Perhaps Jesus’ sound teaching, his goodness and integrity are so transparent that no-one can criticise him. Perhaps his willingness to carry through his mission even to death has meant that even if you disagree with what he said, you still have to respect him.
Maybe that is true. I wonder also though whether the popular image of Jesus is so meek and mild, such a stained glass figure, that there doesn’t seem to be anything in him to cause offence. Perhaps our representation of Jesus is so domesticated that people can’t imagine he ever did anything that might cause controversy. If so, our images have done Jesus a grave injustice. He was immensely controversial. People reacted to him strongly, one way or the other. For he is good – and passionate, powerful, provocative.
In the C S Lewis novel ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’, four children have entered a magical land Narnia. Some talking animals are telling them about the lion Aslan, who is a kind of Christ figure. ‘This Aslan, is he safe?’ asks one of the children. ‘Safe?’ said Mr Beaver. ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you.’
Jesus is good. But he’s a lot more challenging than we often admit. As we can see in today’s gospel reading, his contemporaries just didn’t know what to make of him. As he began his ministry the people around were genuinely puzzled. I can imagine them talking amongst themselves:
‘This Jesus, he hangs out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He’s always feasting but never fasting. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath. And you want to go to him for ethical instruction?’
‘Sure, he’s a funny guy. Witty pointed teacher, a true one off. But don’t you also find him enigmatic, contradictory, extreme? Imagine what the world would be like if we put it into practice what he says! Is he brilliant? Or is he mad?’
‘I saw him heal a lame man. It was amazing. But the very next minute he was setting himself against the spiritual authorities – he pulled no punches, he insulted them. So is he religious or not? This power over devils, where does it come from? Is he the demons’ enemy or their king?’
Even Jesus own mother thought he was a nutter. In v.21, as Jesus’ ministry takes off, his family come to section him because they think he has gone out of his mind. Jesus knows what it is like to be seen as unbalanced, he knows what it is like to have those closest to you think you’ve got it all wrong, he has experienced the opposition of his family. If you have ever been misunderstood, or misrepresented, if your best efforts and intentions have been slandered, if you ever find yourself in that place, remember Jesus has been there too.
For in v22 the religious authorities that he has Beelzebul, or Satan, and that by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons. In other words he has this amazing power because he is in league with the forces of evil.
There’s a flaw in their argument. In v.23 to 26, why would Satan cast himself out? Evil would be fighting evil, so it would quickly collapse. A much better way to see it is that the devil has been defeated by one stronger than him. Satan is the strong man in v 27, and Jesus has tied him up. Now Jesus can plunder his property, set the captives free.
Jesus does so when he releases people from addiction, from the power of besetting sin, from the hold that the past has on their lives. Jesus sets people free from self-hatred, greed, fear and isolation. Jesus can liberate us to become the people God intended us to be, in relationship with him and with one another.
If anyone feels held captive, trapped by anything, bring it to Jesus and ask for his freedom. Working with you through his Holy Spirit, he can do amazing things.
For Jesus has a great power that he uses for good. The effects of his power, bringing healing, show us that the source is good. Jesus says that those who argue that the source of his power is evil are spiritually confused, and Jesus gives them a very severe warning. In v28-29 he says that any sin and blasphemy can be forgiven, except the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
In other words, any sin can be forgiven because there is always the possibility that the sinner might turn away from evil and ask God for forgiveness. But the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is what those Scribes did to Jesus – it is the persistent act of misrepresenting the Holy Spirit, of saying that pure goodness is in fact evil. Anyone who cannot recognise simple goodness is in a very dangerous place. How would they be able to accept God’s forgiveness if they could not accept that God was at work? Much has been said about this difficult verse. I think the most sensible and reassuring thing I’ve heard is that anyone who is worried about committing the sin against the Holy Spirit certainly isn’t doing it.
So Jesus refutes the charge of being bad. How will he respond to the accusation of madness? He says that he is committed to following God’s will – and anyone similarly committed is part of his family. When his mother and brothers arrive to take charge of him, in v. 33, he replies ‘Who are my mother and brothers and sisters? Whoever does the will of God is my mother and brother and sister.
Jesus recognises that faith can divide families. I read recently of a woman who converted from Islam to Christianity and was thrown out of her home. She wandered round the streets until a Christian family took her in and helped her start afresh. Many Christians have had that tragic experience of losing their birth family due to their new found faith – and they’ve also found that what Jesus said is true – there is a new family in the church. Anyone who follows him is part of his family
It’s easy to miss how radical this is. We tend to fuse the ideas of Christianity and family values. But if you want Jesus’ teaching on family values, it’s here. Where he has created a totally new family. Not nuclear. Not based on marriage. Or blood relationships. But on a shared commitment to God. Of course the physical families that we have still matter, immensely, but Jesus tells us that ‘family’ is much bigger.
Holding those truths together can be challenging. A student returns home from his first term at Uni. He tells his parents that he has discovered a personal faith – he’s full of joy! What they think he’s saying is ‘You guys didn’t bring me up properly’, and Mum cries. Better perhaps for the student to live out the faith, and answer the questions when they come.
A wife has an unbelieving husband who doesn’t like her being involved in church. She may need to be firm about the level of commitment that allows her to continue in her faith. But she will also need to be generous in enabling her husband to feel loved and make sure they have time together.
Just as parents cannot pressure their children into a church wedding, or insist their grandchildren are baptised, so we have to respect the freedom of our family members. Exactly as Jesus does here. He does not reject his birth family, but invites them. They too can be part of the family of God. And of course they did. Mary, James and Jude did the will of God – later on in the New Testament we find them at the heart of the church, central to God’s new family gathered around Christ.
It is in Christ that this family is defined. Around Jesus, who was controversial, misunderstood, maligned. If we follow him, sometimes we too will be thought odd or our morals called into question. Perhaps some of us will have to persist in our commitment to Jesus even in the face of opposition from those closest to us. But let us be reassured. In Jesus we have the truth, in relationship with him we are part of a new family, and perhaps faithfulness will change the attitude of our loved ones.