What are are people saying?
Politicians peruse polls, actors crawl through critiques, lawyers regard ratings, and even vicars scrutinise church attendance figures. People vote with their feet. And so many of us care very deeply about what people are saying about us, about who we are, for good or for ill. The American writer Edgar Watson Howe wrote: ‘What people say behind your back is your standing in the community in which you live’. And whilst for vicars, at least, the primary intended audience for all that we do, is God and not man, I feel sure that the effectiveness of a vicar as an evangelist in a community does depend, to some extent, upon what people say about him or her. ‘He’s a this’. ‘She’s a that’; as an adjective is attached to our name and our standing in the community is enhanced or crushed.
It’s a relief to see, from the passage that we have just had read from Mark’s gospel, that even Jesus faced similar challenges. Indeed who is Jesus? The key question of his identity and character is at the centre of the gospel stories.
Let’s imagine what is going on in this passage.
Leaving the temptation in the wilderness behind, Jesus has just spent an extended time walking around Galilee healing the sick: Driving out unclean spirits in Capernaum, healing Peter’s mother in law from a fever, healing lepers and a paralysed man lowered through the roof, a man with a withered hand, and numerous others. Throughout all this period he is calling disciples to follow him. And they do. There is huge excitement wherever he goes – as one can easily imagine, and crowds besiege him at every place.
Now he has come ‘home’ (presumably to Nazareth) and there are there are varoius groups pressing in on him at this key moment of his ministry. He is in a crowded house with neighbours and people from afar, all wanting to get a piece of Him. It is so crowded that they could not even eat. But although it looks like chaos, this melee is actually divided into four distinct groups.
On the one side are his family and perhaps others who have known him since he was a child, concerned that he might have become insane, who are trying to make their way through the crowd ‘to restrain him’. Why? For going around curing illnesses and driving out demons? Surely not. Here must surely be an echo of him telling the paralytic in nearby Capernaum that his sins are forgiven. Who can forgive sins but God alone? Is he saying that he is God? Madness surely…..
Another group are the visitors from Jerusalem, the scribes, saying that Jesus is not mad but bad – he is demonic – that he is using Beelzebub – the Lord of the Flies – to drive out evil spirits.
And presumably a third group, the cured and the released and their relations, ecstatic at what Jesus has done for them and the recently chosen disciples, hanging on his every word, for whom it is increasingly dawning that he might actually be the Messiah, the Son of God.
But what about the rest of the crowd? The undecided. The uncommitted. The neighbours next door. Who may sing hosanna on Palm Sunday, but may shout crucify on Good Friday. Who will they side with? Is Jesus mad, bad or God?
Jesus can see what is going on. What is in the hearts of men and women. In five sentences he demolishes the lies of the scribes from Jerusalem: not by asserting a denial, but by a rational argument. He has driven out demons. But if he is driving out demons by the power of Satan then how can this be? Would Satan drive out Satan? If he does then he is defeating himself. It makes no sense to say that Jesus is driving out demons by the power of the devil.
But if it is not Satan who is driving out these demonic possessions, then who is it?
I love the way that Jesus uses a parable to get the crowd to work it out for themselves. It’s not what he says, but what he doesn’t say that gets them to think. It’s the conversation playing in the heart of the listener to which Jesus is appealing. He asks ‘how can you plunder the house of a strong man?’ And gives the answer: Only if you neutralise the strong man – you have to tie him up. So what is the implication of that? Doesn’t that mean that you have to be stronger than the strong man to do so?
And if the strongman is Satan and his house is the body of someone who is demon possessed doesn’t that mean that you need to be stronger than Satan to do so?
Who is stronger than Satan – only God? And that must mean that Jesus is………’work it out for yourselves’ He is saying. Jesus leaves the crowd to join up the dots. To work it out in their hearts.
And then he delivers the killer blow: ‘and if you attribute the work of God – the work of the Holy Spirit – to Satan – if you defame the Holy Spirit – then you have committed the only unforgivable sin’. You can be forgiven: greed, theft, rape, murder, genocide were you to come to the Lord Jesus for repentance; but not blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
Defaming the means of grace, the way by which we are forgiven, is like cutting off the branch of a tree on which you are sitting or shutting the door to salvation. If we do this we cannot be forgiven, because we have rejected the means by which we are forgiven.
It turns out that it is the religious experts, those who are asserting that Jesus is using demonic powers, it is they, not the crowd – who are the ones most at risk of condemnation; because of their refusal to recognise the work of the Holy Spirit in action and condemning him to all as satanic.
It must have been thrilling for the disciples to hear this wisdom and to see the clever religious lawyers from Jerusalem trounced.
But then comes the next challenge. From those who know him best. His family. They have finally got a message through to him through the crowd. They have come to collect him, to restrain him because they fear that he has gone mad. But you see Jesus has already shown to the crowd, by his cool reasoning to the scribes, that he is not in the least unbalanced.
And he turns the table on his family as well. The culture of the times would have required Jesus to make himself available to a request like this and the crowd would have expected him to interrupt his teaching to come out to them. But Jesus sees the arrival of his family not as an inconvenient interruption, but as a timely illustration.
Jesus continues the line of thought, despite the interruption. If Satan has been driven out by someone stronger than him; and the crowd have started to suspect that Jesus might be the Son of God, then how is the crowd to respond to who Jesus is? Jesus replies to the unstated question: ‘do the will of God and you are my brother and sister and mother. No one is closer to me than those who do the will of God, not even my own family. This is how you are to respond to God’s presence among you.
It must have been thrilling to be in that crowd. Perhaps to decide to follow him at that moment. To join the group of disciples.
So what about us? Which group are we in, in the crowd? Who have we decided that Jesus is? What are we saying to our friends and neighbours about him? What do we say in those chance conversations with people over the fence or on a dog walk, if the subject of Christianity comes up? If they ask you whether or if you go to church? What do you say to your relations when this comes up when they visit? Is he mad, bad or God?
You see a lot of people today say that Jesus is not the Son of God – he was a mortal prophet, a great religious teacher, but not the Son of God. And frankly that is the popular conception of Jesus. A sort of Ghandi like figure. But not God. That would be far too controversial. Too politically incorrect.
But although we only see it indirectly in this particular passage, this is not what Jesus said about himself. The driving out of demons by Jesus means that the strong man Satan has been tied up by someone even stronger, so that his house can be plundered. Who is stronger than Satan? Only God. Therefore Jesus must be God. The implication is clear.
But even if we don’t accept this passage as stating a clear claim that he is God, there are numerous other ones. Most religious teachers would point away from themselves to where God is to be found. But Jesus pointed to himself: John 14: 6 ‘I am the way the truth and the life – no-one comes to the Father, except through me’. Or John 10: 30-33 ‘I and the Father are one’.
How do we view a person who says such things about himself?
As CSLewis wrote: ‘a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher, he’d either be insane or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God or else insane or something worse. But don’t let us come up with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He hasn’t left that open to us. He didn’t intend to.’
Who do you say that he is?