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2nd Sunday after Trinity

31 May 2024

Proper 5: Genesis 3.8-15; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1; Mark 3.20-end

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JESUS’s own family once believed that he was insane. NIV records this shocking fact with precision: “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” (NRSV dilutes the awkwardness by redirecting it: “People were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”)

People who opposed him must often have suggested that Jesus was mad (John 7.20). In one passage, John records both charge and defence (10.20-21): “Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’”

Explaining human behaviour in terms of demonic possession may sometimes be terrifying. But in other contexts it can sound deluded, or even wicked, as when exorcism figures in families and societies. Then it can happen that children suspected of being possessed by an evil spirit experience physical and mental abuse through ritual exorcism.

Some modern churches are cautious about blaming difficulties on Satan. They sense that such explanations are open to manipulation — even to the point of undermining confidence in the power of God’s goodness. The Church is guardian of the ultimate antidote to infernal influence (perceived and real) in the person of Jesus. Speaking lightly of good and evil is unwise.

If we tackle this Gospel without reference to the supernatural, what remains is simple: someone is behaving in an uncharacteristic way. Nowadays, internal chaos (psychosis, delusions) could offer the foundation for an explanation. But, here, an external factor has been deployed instead.

This charge of demonic possession comes right at the start of Jesus’s ministry. Reading Mark from start to finish gives the impression that such accusations of demonic possession faded with time. That is natural enough: what prompted his family to question his sanity in the first place was how uncharacteristic his behaviour appeared to them.

When he first stopped being a village carpenter and embraced an itinerant life as a preacher and healer, they must have been shocked. They had thought that what they knew of Jesus was all that there would ever be to know.

Jesus is not alone in having confounded the expectations and escaped the constraints of his past. Families know us intimately, instinctively — but as persons with a particular identity within the group (“the shy one”; “the cheeky one”). Such identities can become impossible to shake off. Put a person in a new situation, and you open up the likelihood that they will become a different character, because they have been set free from the constraints of others’ expectations.

Forging one’s own future can be intimidating. Observing someone we thought we knew as they assume a different persona can be shocking. In this instance, his family are so stunned at whom Jesus is turning into that they simply refuse to admit the evidence of their own eyes. Unable to accept that he can cast out unclean spirits, or demons (“Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’”, Mark 3.11), they resort instead to saying that his behaviour is demonically driven.

In the New Testament, “Beelzebul” is a name associated with Satan. It can be interpreted as meaning “lord of the world” — a title of honour (John alludes to it, 12.31). The similar name “Beelzebub” may refer to another Canaanite deity, or, more probably, be a contemptuous way of referring to the same one. We could do something similar by turning “the Right Reverend” into “the Right Reprobate”, or “the Venerable” into “the Venal”. This is how the one who claims to be “lord of the world” is really “lord of the flies”, of all things vile and unclean.

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