Gospel: Mark 3:20-35
The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Mark tells us in his Gospel that, “The crowd came together again.” I’m always intrigued by references in the Gospel to “the crowd.” The gospel writers often refer to the crowd as if it were a single entity rather than a collection of unique individuals. The crowd often seems to assume a personality and to actually become a character in the story. In today’s gospel reading Mark uses the crowd, a motley assembly of dissimilar seekers, to illustrate the expansive nature of God’s love. With the crowd sitting around him, Jesus poses the question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at the crowd, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
As a young college student I was deeply involved in the opposition to the war in Vietnam. Reared in a religious tradition of Biblical literalism, I took seriously the idea that the North Vietnamese might be my brothers and sisters and mothers and I didn’t see how God wanted me to kill them. After the war ended, despite having heard countless times the refrain from the old Negro Spiritual, turned protest song, “Ain’t gonna study war no more, I ain’t gonna study war,” I decided to do just that and entered graduate school, first at the University of Texas and then at the University of Sussex in Brighton, on England’s South Downs, to engage in peace research. Eventually, I determined that an academic approach to peace wasn’t proving to be particularly fruitful and what I was really seeking was peace within. However, in the interim I learned a fair bit about international relations, but even more about interpersonal relations.
England, at the time, seemed to accept some sense of responsibility for educating the citizens of the Commonwealth, the former British colonies scattered around the globe. So my fellow students hailed from every continent, emerged from every class and subscribed to most every creed. The academic engagement was rigorous and demanding, but the real education came in conversation with my classmates. My closest friend was a Canadian Marxist who had just returned from a four-year stint as a CUSO volunteer (the Canadian equivalent of the Peace Corp) in Ghana. Another friend was the son of the British Ambassador to Iceland. Another was a Ugandan who anxiously awaited news from his wife who was making her way through the jungles and swollen rivers of Uganda to escape the tyranny of the notorious dictator Idi Amin. A Brazilian friend across the hall, despite being the son of a wealthy factory owner, was a fierce advocate for workers rights.
I remember an engagement party at a local Lebanese restaurant where the bride to be, a smart, spirited working class young Brit sat at one end of a long table, while her fiancé, a dashing, too handsome, young Egyptian student sat opposite her – holding her gaze from across the room. Surrounded by new friends from 12 different nations, I ate humus and pita bread and taziki for the first time and I marveled at the richness of the conversation among people with such different stories to tell. The betrothed couple was deeply in love and their love for each other brought together and created a bond among a diverse collection of young people that remains unbroken to this day. And at least for that moment, all of us oceans away from mothers and brothers and sisters, we were family.
On another, more somber occasion, I sat a pub sharing my favorite English lunch, a ploughman’s and a pint, with several friends. Seated at the table was a fellow student, Jacob, an Israeli. I didn’t know Jacob well, but I had noticed him around campus because of a decided limp in his gait. His affliction must have caused him considerable discomfort, because even his ready smile couldn’t hide a pained grimace that accompanied every step he took. Also seated at the table was Jusuf, an Egyptian engineering student. Both Jusuf and Jacob were a little older than the rest of us and both seemed to possess a seriousness and depth – gravitas – that their fellow students hadn’t yet acquired.
In the course of the conversation, Jacob disclosed that his affliction was the result of a wound he had sustained as a soldier in the Israeli army, fighting in the Six-Day War. Jusuf listened intently and asked where Jacob had had been fighting when he sustained his injuries. Jacob told him about the corner of the Sinai where his division had received a heavy mortar assault from retreating Egyptian solders, that had wounded him and killed two fellow Israeli soldiers.
Jusuf pushed his meal aside and said, “I was an Egyptian soldier. I too fought in what you call the Six Day War in Sinai, what we call the War of Setback. I fought in a rocket brigade.”
Absolute silence hung over our table and no one spoke of what each of us was thinking – that it was entirely possible that Jusuf had launched the rocket that had wounded Jacob and killed his comrades. Nobody said they were sorry. No one offered forgiveness. But it was clear that at that moment these former enemies had glimpsed the humanity inherent in the other. And all of us gathered at that table – Christian, Muslim, and Jew – a least for that instant, were brothers.
In the passage we read from Mark today, the religious authorities, even Jesus own family, thought he was crazy – going “out of his mind.” And why wouldn’t they? The way Jesus had been going around the countryside embracing the sinner, the tax collector, the poor, even fraternizing with women – violated the social norms of his culture and his time and his family. Yet looking out over the crowd of fellow crazies said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.”
Jesus was always pushing the boundaries – stretching the limits of what was considered socially and religiously acceptable, enlarging his followers’ notion of who was included in God’s love, expanding the conception of family. As Jesus reminds us, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
And what is the will of God? Well, that’s where the idea gets a little slippery. Because each of us, in every religious tradition, imagines that we alone have the clearest conception of God’s will. I rather like the path that we have chosen as Christians, and as Episcopalians. But to imagine that the path to God that we have elected to follow – our particular beliefs, our practices, our norms – is the path that should be chosen by the six billion inhabitants of our planet Earth, strikes me as the height of arrogance and conceit.
My we, as members of the human family, in our striving to follow the will of God, echo the words of the psalmist, “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing your praise.”