Words on the Word

10. Sunday B

Genesis 3.9-15: Adam, where are you? 
2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1: The inner man is renewed day by day.
Mark 3.20-35: They were convinced he was out of his mind.

The Gospel shows us three modes of response to the person and message of Jesus.

First we encounter the crowd who cling to Jesus so closely that he can hardly move, never mind get a bite to eat. People have seen him do the strangest things. He has healed lepers, restored motion to the lame, rebuked Pharisees, expelled evil spirits. He seems to have the solution to every difficulty. And so ‘a crowd collected’, naturally. For who doesn’t carry a wound in need of healing, some mess to be tidied up? Our own life of faith may have originated in such an experience of necessity. We needed help, sought it, found it. It is precious to have known this. But in order to become adult Christians we must pass on. We cannot stay locked in the thought of our own need. If we do, our Christianity will be focused on ourselves. The Lord will become the means to an end: our wellbeing. We do not then seek God for his own sake, to learn to know, love, and serve him. Scripture teaches us that the decisive step from a faith based on need to true worship is by no means automatic. Where was the ‘crowd’, all those people Jesus had nourished, comforted, and healed, when he hung on the cross and cried, ‘I thirst’? In the inner sanctuary of our heart we may ask ourselves: Would I have remained by his side, at his disposal?

Another form of response is that of his ‘relatives’. They came, we read, ‘to take charge of him, convinced he was out of his mind’. Who were they? Not the group of disciples, who were standing with Jesus, directing traffic. Probably the reference is to ‘his mother and brothers’. They turn up again a little later, ‘sending a message, asking for him’. Remember: Jesus is at home. The scene plays out in Nazareth. Many of the folks present will have known him his whole life. So is this account an illustration of the principle: ‘No one is a prophet in his own land’ (cf. Luke 4.24)? Yes and no. The Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, has a clearer perception than anyone of who Jesus is; she does not lack faith. But she remains his mother. Hers is the womb that bore him. Like any mother she wants to protect her child from harm and humiliation, perhaps from himself. Jesus knows what stirs in a maternal heart. Will he not later shout out over Jerusalem, the city about to commit history’s grossest injustice, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children as a mother-hen gathers her brood under her wings’ (cf. Luke 13.34)? But it doesn’t work like that. None of us, be we mothers and fathers, can live someone else’s life for them; we must let go of those we love confidently and encouragingly; we must let them walk their own path, following the call that is their. Even Mary, the lucidest Christian of all time, immaculate of heart and mind, needs to pass through this detachment, an instantiation of the sword Simeon told her of 33 years earlier, the one that was to pierce her heart (Lk 2.35). To believe in Jesus is not just to admire the Good Shepherd who goes about doing good, speaking sublime words and inspiring comforting thoughts. It is to recognise ‘The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’, to affirm his all-encompassing sacrifice and to let ourselves be incorporated in it. In order to believe on these terms we have to be out of our minds a bit. The proclamation of the cross, the inevitable risk of Christianity, is and will ever remain foolishness to the world (cf. 1 Cor 1.18).

The third form of response is quite different. ‘Beelzebub is in him’, some exclaim when they see the Saviour’s works: ‘It is through the prince of devils that he casts devils out’. Note that those who talk like this are ‘scribes’, that is, teachers of the Law, in theory versed in Scripture and salvation history: the professional theologians of the day. Nonetheless they miss the point magisterially. They have not developed a knack for recognising the patterns of God’s action through history; they are like sheep deaf to the Shepherd’s voice (cf. Jn 10.27), only concerned with trumpeting their own. Jesus points out the absurdity of their hypotheses. If the powers he expels are really evil, is it reasonable to postulate that he is of evil origin? Wouldn’t the devil’s reign then be as divided as his hoof? Nothing suggests that the scribes change their mind. If we only consider Jesus from the outside, proudly and imprisoned in preconceptions, we shall lack discernment in theological questions, at risk of committing categorical errors and yet be convinced that we are right. We see countless examples of this in Scripture and in Church history, even in our time.

When Jesus qualifies the scribes’ presumption as unforgivable blasphemy against the Spirit it is because forgiveness is the Spirit’s work. If I deny the Spirit and place myself outside the Spirit’s reach, maintaining that the fount of all good is evil, I draw down a blind: light will have no access to me and I will condemn myself to perpetual darkness. In today’s collect we pray: ‘God, from whom all things come, grant that we by your Spirit (‘te inspirante’) may know what is right and by your guidance do it’.

Let us be realistic and humble enough to pray that prayer often. Much in our crazy world attracts the needle of our inner compass with magnetic force. We must take care therefore to check it regularly by objective criteria: Scripture, the Church’s teaching, the logic of the sacraments, the imperative of charity. If we do, we shan’t fall prey to our own narrow-mindedness, sensibility, or felt need. The life of Christ will be awakened in us by the Holy Spirit. We shall hear the Father’s voice and be drawn, rejoicing, to see God as he is (1 Jn 3.2). Amen.

Jesus and the teachers of the Law as Rubens saw them. His painting ‘The Tribute Money’ is now in The Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco.