The American journalist Franklin Jones once said that “Honest criticism is hard to take – especially when it comes from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger”. Well, anyone familiar with the life of Jesus will know that he received some fairly harsh criticism from all of those categories of people. In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus is criticized by his family, by “people”, and by the scribes, the religious and legal experts of the day.
But before we look at the whole of today’s Gospel story, let’s just dwell for a moment on the fact that Jesus was criticized. Too often we make Jesus a bit safe, a bit too easy to get on with. We make him into someone that no-one could really criticize. But Jesus was not safe, and the scale of the criticisms that he faced were pretty large. In the Gospel this morning, we hear Jesus described as mad and as in league with the devil. He is quite definitely spoken of as being mad, bad and dangerous to know. As we seek to follow Jesus in our lives, we come across Jesus time and time again. We meet Jesus in the people and situations that we come upon. And what I want to think about a bit this morning is the ways in which we as individual Christians and as a community are implicated in the criticisms of Jesus that are reported in the Gospel.
So to the Gospel. First of all, we find that Jesus is accused of being mad, “people were saying ‘He has gone out of his mind’”. It is his family who act on this, and more of them in a moment, but it is ‘people’ who are saying this. This is gossip, pure and simple. It is the nameless ‘people’ who are saying that Jesus isn’t really normal, he’s lost it, you have to be a bit screwy to say and do what he does, he’s out of his mind. But it comes from the nameless ‘people’, who never have to be accountable for what they say. Gossip and nameless criticism is a corrosive thing. It has its effect on Jesus, but it has a greater effect on his family. What “people were saying” turns them against Jesus. Gossip is corrosive of community, when ‘people are saying’ things about others in a community, it undermines the ability of a community to hold together.
Our gossip too undermines our ability to respond to Jesus. In our world, the gossip networks are much more refined and numerous than in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. We have tabloid newspapers and social networks. One of the most striking things about the earlier stages of the Leveson inquiry was the effect of poor and lazy journalism on the families and friends of those being reported on. And within any church community, the phrase ‘people are saying’ rarely prefaces anything constructive or helpful. Our gossip, however we do it, undermines people and community, and in doing so undermines our relation to the Jesus that we meet in those people and communities.
Jesus is criticized by the gossips. And that leads to criticism from his family. Jesus has come home, and the crowds gather. Jesus and his disciples cannot even manage to eat something, so great and demanding are the throng. And so his family come to restrain him, to lock him up. Whatever he did wandering around the roads and villages of Galilee, bringing it all home with him is too much. Perhaps they were embarrassed: Jesus is at the centre of something that is just a bit troubling, and well, it doesn’t do the family name any good. Perhaps it was the inconvenience, this mass of people, with their noise and their litter and their chatter all invading our home and the neighbours are not too happy. I’m certain that they were concerned for him, can he really be alright when he says and does these things. It’s for your own good that we just want you to see the doctor and take it a bit easier for a while. However we imagine the scenario, and however much sympathy we want to have for Jesus’ family as the gossips spread abroad, they are failing to understand and appreciate what has sprung from their midst.
Can we see what has sprung up under our noses? Can we learn to see the places and the people in whom we can meet Jesus today? They may even be the people we are most familiar with, who we thought we knew. There is a challenge to our pride and our certainty here. But above all there is a challenge to us to value those who disrupt our lives and who cause us effort and hard work. They too are people in whom we meet Jesus.
If gossips and Jesus’ family are the first source of criticism, the story then turns very nasty. Scribes, come down from Jerusalem say that Jesus ‘has Beelzebub’, that he is possessed. All his miracles they ascribe to this demonic influence. Now these are the scribes, the religious experts, and they are appalled at Jesus and what he is doing. Perhaps they are serious biblical scholars who take offence at Jesus’ claims to forgive sins and his healings on the Sabbath. Perhaps they are worried by the people Jesus is associating with and the effects of his teaching without reference to the religious leaders. Whatever the reason, they accuse Jesus of receiving his power from the devil.
What Jesus does in reply is to ask them to consider not just religious theories, but also the reality of what is happening. He is bringing freedom, healing and respect to people, and that is the work of God. If it does not fit our religious theories, then perhaps those theories need to be enlarged. But Jesus goes on with a warning, a warning to the scribes and also to us, that if we turn our face against God, if we describe God’s actions as those of the devil, then we have committed the sin against the Holy Spirit. This is not an accidental confusion of what is happening, but a deliberate and willful refusal to accept what God is doing.
Learning to recognize the Holy Spirit at work in us, in others, in the church and in the world is one of the important tasks of the Christian life. And it begins by not allowing ourselves to be so ruled by religious theory that we neglect the reality of what is happening in front of us. It continues in an honesty of calling good things good, however hard that may seem. And in controversies in the church, we Christians are particularly bad at this. Church arguments, in particular, seem to bring out the absolute denial of the goodness of the other position. The church becomes polarized, and that is dangerous for us all. The attitudes to sexuality in the church are one matter on which it is imperative that we do not call evil that which is good, (and I commend to you the Cathedral Seminar tomorrow night). The severity of Jesus warnings to the scribes of his day need to be heard by the church of today.
So our Gospel reading today shows us Jesus facing criticism. It warns us that our gossip can distort our encounters with Jesus in our lives. It challenges us to see Christ in those who disrupt our lives. And it presents us with the need to be honest in our religious thinking, so that our religious theories do not prevent us seeing what is plainly in front of us. Gerald Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit monk and poet, wrote that “I greet him the days that I meet him, and I bless him when I understand”. In the coming week, let us look for the people and the places where we meet with our Lord. And let us let him teach us and challenge us to become more like him. Amen.
Given at Derby Cathedral. 10.6.12.