Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1 &2)
This is the first commandant given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. It is easy for us to look at the historical context and say we do not bow down to graven images. We do not worship Baal, Asherah, or Astarte like the Canaanites, we don’t build temples to Zeus, Poseidon, or Apollo like the Greeks. We don’t call our rulers god’s like the Romans, but are we guilty of putting our faith and trust in other people before God? That and failing to recognize God in our midst are the primary themes of today’s lessons.
In our Old Testament lesson, we are drawing near to the end of the time of the judges. These were men and women who were tribal leaders that drew the people back to the God of their ancestors. The last good judge mentioned is Samuel. Samuel is the one who was raised in the service of the tabernacle as a small boy, sort of a live-in acolyte, and who heard God calling to him one night. As a child he had the difficult task of prophesying the downfall of the house of Eli, the high priest whom he served. Now in his old age, the elders of Israel are bringing him similar news. His two sons, Joel and Abijah are serving as judges, but they are selfish and corrupt. The people are tired of waiting for God to raise up a just judge as God did with Samuel and others before him. They want the stability of a monarchy. They see the surrounding nations who have kings, who are wealthy and successful in battle, and they want to be like them. They demand that Samuel appoint a king for them.
Samuel goes to God with their request. God tells Samuel that this is not a rejection of Samuel but a rejection of God, and he reminds Samuel that this has been a pattern of behavior he has seen many times before. Remember the story of the Golden Calf that Aaron made while Moses was on Mount Sinai getting the commandments. God tells Samuel to give them what they want, but to caution them about the consequences of their request. They had been slaves in Egypt, but now they are free. If they ordain a king to rule over them, they will become slaves to their own government. Their sons will be conscripted into the kings armies. Their daughters will be taken out of their homes to serve as servants in the king’s palace. The king will confiscate their best lands to give as favors to his friends. They will be heavily taxed to care for the needs of king and country. And God says, when this happens, remember it was by your own choice and don’t come crying to me.
Hopefully you know the rest of the story, but keeping it short, Samuel anointed Saul, a warrior king who began battling with their neighbors in an effort to secure their place as a nation, but Saul turned out to be headstrong and perhaps a bit crazy. God removed his Spirit from him while he was still king and chose David to replace him. David turns out to be a greater warrior than Saul, but David did much of what God warned the people about. It was a time of great national growth for Israel, it was also a time of war, a time when the royal palace was built, and despite David’s devotion to God, his household was plagued by rape, murder, and political intrigue. God promised David that as long as his descendants obeyed God’s commands they would sit on the throne of Israel, but by the time of his grandchildren civil war had broken out and the twelve tribes were split into two nations, in the north, Israel, which would be totally lost through war and captivity, and in the south, Judah, which would spend fifty years in slavery to Babylon and later come under the rule of first Persians, then Greeks, then Romans.
Do we ever put our faith in political leaders, trusting them to fix things for us, instead of relying on God?
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus makes a startling critique of two other institutions that have great potential to be godly, but are sometimes worshiped ahead of God: the family and the church.
“…then he [Jesus] went home”. We don’t know where Mark considers “home” for Jesus. He appears to be somewhere in Galilee “and the crowds came together again, so that they could not even break bread”. I have visions of the crowds that swarmed the Beatles and Elvis in the 60’s, tearing at their clothes, baring the way for them to get away.
Jesus’ is becoming a scandal to his family as the neighbors gossip that Jesus has lost his mind. Nice boys of Jesus’ upbringing would have stayed home and learned the family trade, got married, raised children and helped to support their aging parents. They do not go out and cause a scene for people to gossip about. Jesus was also not a “properly” trained rabi. Who did he think he was claiming to interpret the scriptures and perform signs in the name of God? The scribes from the temple, religious authorities, hear about the commotion and they come all the way from Jerusalem to restrain this “devil” that is causing all this unrest. He is said to be casting out demons, creating chaos, and is sure to bring the Roman authorities down upon all Jews, who so far have been able to live mostly unmolested by Rome.
Jesus is not anti-family. He goes to a wedding with his mother early in his ministry and performs his first public miracle, changing water into wine. While on the cross he sees to his mother’s safe keeping with John telling John she is to be as his mother, and Mary that John is to be as her son. Jesus is not anti-religion. He faithfully attends both the synagogue on the Sabbath and the temple on the holy days, participating in the study of scripture and the liturgies of his time and faith. But in this circumstance, Jesus critiques both groups for failing to see that he was doing the work of God.
How can Satan cast out Satan? Jesus is healing people of “demons,” whether this was actual demon possession or medical conditions that caused frightening behavior, I cannot say. The scribes looked at these miracles of Jesus and instead of seeing God’s presence among them they mistook it for the work of Satan. The other name they called him was Beelzebub “Lord of the Flies.” It was a mocking name given to the Canaanite Baal Zabul, ruler of the demons. Jesus calls this the unpardonable sin. When they looked at the work of God they called it evil. They rebuked the Holy Spirit. Jesus questioned their rational. They were so blind, these teachers of religion, that they could not discern the difference between good and evil. Why would Satan destroy his own? If this was truly happening, it would be a thing to rejoice over, because Satan would be defeated.
How do we discern good from evil, even in the church. What do you do when two groups both claim that they are doing the right thing and following God and claim the other person is in the wrong? We see this in society all the time today and often both groups appear to have part of the truth on their side. Pray, ask for discernment, try to gather as many facts as possible, pray some more, re-evaluate, do your best and remember we are all human. We can disagree on theology and ethics, still be true to what we believe, and love each other. It means we speak the truth as we perceive it, gently, allowing the other person the dignity of having a voice as well, and leave judgement to God.
Finally we have Jesus’ response to his family. Tradition says that his brothers, James and Jude did not believe he was the Messiah until after the resurrection. We know his mother knew who he was from his conception, but perhaps she didn’t understand how his life would be different from other sons. James eventually becomes the leader of the church in Jerusalem and both James and Jude write epistles that make it into the New Testament. But today, they see their older brother acting in a way that could bring suspension and shame upon the family and they seek to bring him back to a normal life. When Jesus is told his mother and brothers are outside asking for him, he turns to the crowd at his feet and proclaims these are my mother and brothers and we are left thinking that Jesus did not respond to his mother and brothers. He claims those who do the will of God are children are his family.
This is a difficult passage. Someone asked me this week where in the Bible is the example of a healthy marriage. Jesus and his disciples abandoned their families, at least to some extent, to do the will of God, but I think we all know the damage that happens to individuals whose homes are broken or in constant conflict. Paul, suggested celibacy for those who were not already married and who could devote themselves to the work of God without falling to temptation. I don’t think he envisioned Jesus taking 2000 years to return and he is speaking to a small group of people who have devoted themselves to spreading the gospel. I don’t think he is worried about negative population growth, but he also devotes a good bit of the first letter to the Corinthians speaking in a positive way about marriage, of fidelity to one’s partner and of obligations of both partners in the marriage to one another. People are quick to discount Paul for his couple of passages telling women to obey their husbands, be quiet in church, and cover their heads. We need to keep this in historical perspective. Paul is telling a particular group of women not to be scandalous just because Christ has liberated them, but if you read him closely, he calls for marriage to be a mutual partnership of love and respect. We just have to discern how we do that in today’s culture.
Jesus calls us to recognize that families extend beyond biology. Christian families include all those who seek to do God’s will and the bonds of agape love among our Christian brothers and sisters will call us to look to others with the same care and affection we have for our biological families. It is great when a family works together in ministry, but sometimes we have to do a bit of juggling to meet both our obligation to God and to our family.
The scriptures are not suggesting anarchy, and the demise of the church and family are good things. What it is saying is that political parties, religious institutions, and the family are human things. They are capable of error and we need to put our faith and trust in God first and then as Jesus says, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [i.e. material necessities] will be given to you as well.” (Matt 6: 33).