by Daniel Harrell
Getting to the “real Jesus” is a constant concern for Christians since to be a Christian means to follow Jesus. This concern always leads us to the gospels and particularly to the sayings of Jesus, printed in some of your Bibles with red ink. These red-letters have been the topic of my sermon series this fall, a series I began back to last May, inspired in part by a recent book entitled Red-Letter Christians by sociologist Tony Campolo. Campolo asserts that the sayings of Jesus carry important political implications, appropriate for this presidential election season. As world financial markets wobble due to over-speculation and greed, as war and violence persist and disease and disaster take the lives of thousands each day, the outcome of this fall’s election does carry grave implications. Concerns over the election is the reason you see members of our church outside tonight inviting you to sign cards asking candidates to remember the poor amongst their political priorities. The hardest-hit victims of financial crisis, war, disease and disaster are always the poor. The real Jesus came as an poor man proclaiming good news for the poor. Whether through political or religious means, to follow Christ is to care about the poor.
Granted, there are those who prefer that politics and religion not mix, even if the cause is the poor. Nevertheless, I’ve done a fair share of mixing these past couple of Sundays. I’ve asserted that faith and politics are inseparable, but not for reasons we’d like to think. We’d like to think that our beliefs shape our politics, but more often than not, politics shape our beliefs. We see it in the current presidential campaign, we see it in Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees here in Mark. Jesus preached that “the kingdom of God is near,” but kingdom meant different things depending on your politics. The politics of Rome were the politics of power by military force. The politics of the Pharisees were the politics of power by militant morality. By contrast, the politics of Jesus were the politics of power by love and submissive obedience; a power that looked more like weakness. To the Pharisees, it looked like it came from hell. Sure, Jesus performed some impressive miracles, but by doing them on the Sabbath, he betrayed their source. The miracles came from Satan and not from God because God would never work on the Sabbath.
Jesus warned the Pharisees that taking pot shots at him was one thing, but demonizing God put them on very thin ice. “People will be forgiven for all sins, even for all the blasphemies they utter,” Jesus said. “but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, they are guilty of an eternal sin.” While I haven’t had much email about mixing politics into my sermons, I did get some email about this unforgiveable sin. Some people were worried. “Have I committed it?” Categorically speaking, I really don’t think there is such a thing as “the unforgiveable sin.” As long as you repent and ask forgiveness, there is no sin God will not forgive. Even if you “blasphemed the Holy Spirit,” as long as you recognized your error and asked for forgiveness, God would forgive you. No one blasphemed the Holy Spirit worse than the Pharisee Saul, but Jesus took a hold of him and turned him into the apostle Paul, a move of extraordinary grace that put Paul on his knees and humbled him into the chief example of a repentant sinner mightily used by God.
We get the idea of a categorical sin immune from grace whenever we take Jesus’ warning out of its context. The context is Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees over his real identity. The Pharisees agreed that “profaning the name of God” carried eternal consequences. They knew that attributing the work of God to Satan was a flagrant foul. What they refused to acknowledge by demonizing Jesus, was that they were bad-mouthing God. Jesus labels what they do “unforgiveable” in order to underscore its severity. The idea was to scare some sense into them. But they refused to heed the warning. Their were just like their Old Testament forebears. From the golden calf in Exodus to the Exile in Babylon, Israel’s religious leaders refused to acknowledge the “real” power of God in their midst. This stubborn refusal, their certainty as to their own righteousness, their proud hardness of heart left no room for repentance. If anything it is this refusal to repent that made their blasphemy unforgiveable. You can’t receive grace if you reject it.
If you’re worried you’ve committed an unforgiveable sin, you haven’t. To worry over sin is to repent of it. God always forgives whoever repents. However, if God’s forgiving you never translates into your forgiving others, you do have something to worry about then. Jesus is pretty clear that if you receive God’s grace only to keep it all for yourself, then you might as well have rejected it. He makes this point by telling a disturbing parable about a servant who was forgiven a huge debt by his master, only to then turn around and refuse to forgive a comparably meager debt of a fellow servant. Outraged by the lack of gratitude for the compassion the servant was shown, the master threw his ungrateful and unmerciful servant into jail to be tortured. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you,” Jesus warned, “unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’” If there is such a thing as an unforgiveable sin, this is it.
But how do you forgive when the hurt is so deep? How do you forgive when the ones who have hurt you are those closest to you: literal brothers and sisters, our own mothers and fathers? Some of you sitting here tonight know such hurt. If you’re like me, you’ve had people in your life, members of your own family, people you trusted and whom you thought loved you and had your best interests at heart—people who then for reasons and motives known only to themselves—willingly betrayed you and abused your trust. For others, rather than outright betrayal, the hurt is the humiliation of ridicule or the chronic guilt of reminded unmet expectations. You have brothers and mothers who marginalize you, sisters and fathers who treat you as if you’ll never measure up: “When are you going to get a real job?” “When are you going to get married?” “When am I going to get some grandchildren?” Or maybe they just treat you as a nutcase for following Jesus. They hear you talk about your faith and shake their heads in despair. They tell their friends and each other that you’ve “lost your mind.”
If you were here last Sunday night, then you know this is how Jesus’ family felt toward him. Verse 21 has his family arriving on the scene in order “to take charge of him.” It’s a word that means “to restrain” or “take into custody.” Are they embarrassed of his homelessness? Or are they ashamed of his defiance of religious authority? Mark doesn’t tell us exactly. He simply quotes what Jesus’ kinfolk said about Jesus. They simply said: “He’s out of his mind.” The same Bible that instructs us to forgive also instructs that we have an obligation to our families. It never says that blood is thicker than water, but “honor your father and mother” still applies. As the son of God, we expect Jesus to be perfectly obedient. We expect him to honor his own mother by heeding her wishes, even if she does think he’s crazy. Yet in tonight’s passage, when informed that his mother and brothers are waiting for him outside, Jesus acts as if he doesn’t even know who they are. Verse 33: “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
Jesus is preaching to a packed house when his family rolls into town. Unable to squeeze through the door, they get a message to Jesus saying that they’re looking for him. As readers we know their true intentions. This is not some friendly visit from the relatives. They want to haul him off to the funny farm. Does Jesus know this too? Mark doesn’t say. What Mark does say is that Jesus responds as if his blood kin are of no import. As if Mary going through nine months of pregnancy and having to give birth in a barn meant nothing! As if all the scandal and shame she endured didn’t matter, not to mention all those shepherds barging in on her just after she’d given birth, and then having to put up with his running off and leaving his aging father to fend for the carpentry shop by himself. Is this any way to treat your mother?
Bad enough that Jesus asked, “Who is my mother?” He then turns to the ones seated in a circle around him: poor fishermen and prostitutes, despised tax-collectors and outcast sinners, people who had left their own families to follow him. Jesus points to them and says “Behold my mother and my brothers.” Mary must have fainted on the spot. Jesus then said, “Whoever does the will of God, that’s my brother and sister and mother.” (He leaves out mention of Father for obvious reasons: Jesus has but one father, God in heaven).
But isn’t it God in heaven who commands we honor our mothers? What’s going on here? Is Jesus upset for being called crazy? Is he refusing to forgive? Is he being disobedient? No. He’s actually calling for obedience. Here in chapter 3, the account of the Pharisee’s blasphemy happens right in the middle of Jesus’ conflict with his family. By grouping Jesus’ family together with the Pharisees’, Mark accentuates their shared disbelief, their shared refusal to acknowledge the presence of God. As much as the Pharisees refused to recognize the holy spirit of God in Jesus, so did Jesus’ mother and brothers. But unlike the Pharisees, Jesus’ mother and brothers should have known better. Mary had endured nine months of a scandalous pregnancy, had witnessed angels and joyous shepherds and wise men bearing gifts. She’d heard Simeon at Jesus’ circumcision say how he could now die in peace for he had seen the savior of the world. How could she ever say her son begotten of God had lost his mind? Maybe it was because Jesus disappointed her own expectations of what a son of God should be like. And now he’s not even acting like her own son.
Even if blood is thicker than water, faith is thicker than blood. As the apostle Paul will make clear later, it is faith that saves you, not your gene pool. The Pharisees insisted that being a descendent of Abraham was what made them righteous. But as the apostle Paul discovered, that was only true if you also had Abraham’s faith—a faith in God’s promise that found fulfillment in Jesus. By warning the Pharisees of blasphemy, Jesus calls them to this faith. By disregarding his mother and brothers, he calls them to the same.
Now do not make the mistake of thinking that Jesus’ disregard of his mother and brothers grants you permission to disown your own family. Even if they’re the ones who have disowned you. To have faith in Jesus is to do the will of God, and to do the will of God is to forgive those who’ve hurt you. Now mercifully in some cases, this made easier because the people who’ve hurt you confessed their wrong and asked for forgiveness, making the burden of forgiveness light. But so many times there is no repentance and the burden of forgiveness is unbearable. Is this fair? No. Is this something you deserve? No. So why should you bear it? Why must you forgive? Because this is what it means to do the will of God. Repentance may be the condition for accepting forgiveness, but it does not cause forgiveness. Forgiveness is given as free gift. And we can give it because we’ve had it given to us. It was while we were yet unrepentant sinners ourselves that Christ died for us. It is Christ’s forgiveness of us that makes our forgiveness of others possible. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” And therefore, “it is no longer I who forgive, but Christ who lives in me.” Jesus in us forgives through us, and that is why we can forgive.
When Jesus said as he hung on the cross, “Father forgive them they know not what they do,” this surely included his family. But unlike many of the Pharisees also in Christ’s crosshairs of grace, his mother and brothers responded. Repentance does not cause forgiveness, but forgiveness can cause repentance. By the time we get to the book of Acts, Mary is numbered among the disciples. The same with Jesus’ brother, James, who ends up leading the first church in Jerusalem and goes on to pen a book of the Bible.
But what about those family members from whom your forgiveness elicits no repentance and no reconciliation? Those, who like the Pharisees, remain resolute in their own righteousness despite your gifts of grace? For you, Jesus provides a whole new family. “Behold my mother and my brothers,” he says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” And they, we, are your mother and sister and brother too. The blood of Jesus and not genetics makes us the family of God—a family of faithfulness and love that stretches into eternity.