Trinity 1 B 6/6/21
2 Cor.4:13- 5:1. Mark 3:20- end.
I have always had an interest in the Bible, from the first stories in Sunday school and the favourite tale in Welsh schools of Mary Jones walking to Bala across the lonely hillsides to purchase her copy. In the 60’s Religious Education for O and A levels involved a lot of biblical history and identification of key biblical texts and I loved it. In various stages of study across the years I have been busy reading the latest theories and discoveries and theological reflections but I am just as likely to immerse myself in such books just for pleasure. So at the moment I have been making my way through John Barton’s excellent book; A History of the Bible. It is full of fascinating facts and presents the results of scholarly research in an even handed manner; it also demonstrates how both Jews and Christians might interpret the same texts in different ways.
My enthusiasm for such books is not universally shared by every Christian. Such research can be challenging and unsettling for many. Some Christians are disturbed by the notion that some stories may not be historically accurate if they believe (wrongly) that God dictated the words in the text to the human authors and will not brook any questioning. Any close reading of certain texts will reveal that the Bible often gives two or more versions of the same event and there is no logical way to unpick the puzzle. For example there is a passage in Exodus 24 where Moses goes up the mountain to receive the law. Within 18 verses it speaks of Moses going up the mountain alone, then with three others, then with 70 elders without coming down in between. So we are left wondering who did actually go with him or did he go alone?
Barton says if we were making a film how might we direct this part of the story? It would be very confusing. So why does this happen? It is because we have several authors adding to the text; priestly writers who were concerned about the religious aspects of this encounter with God and editors who are concerned about the legal aspects that need to be stressed in their opinion. Their contributions show us how these texts were of crucial importance to the people of Israel and there was never any intention to change or distort the story for the sake of it but to illuminate and understand these key moments at a deeper level.
The people of Israel were influenced by their surrounding neighbours and their myths and legends, especially as their little nation was frequently conquered and under foreign rule. But the various books we have gathered into our Old Testament or perhaps better named the Hebrew Bible are a unique telling of God’s interaction with his people and continue to instruct and guide the moral principles we hold so dear. We can read the events of Kings and prophets; the stories of saintly figures and cruel despots and they tell us about the human condition that unites us over the millennium. We find there links to our own lives and times and to the fear and despair that still overshadows us at times.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth today he mentions that the same spirit of faith that unites all Christians is in accord with scripture. Paul would never have read any of the gospels as they had not been written in his day but he was well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures and would have heard the stories about Jesus from those who had met him. Paul and the early Christians looked with new understanding on the old texts as they saw there the seeds of all that had come to fruition in the person of Jesus. Jesus had opened up the ways of God in his teaching and revealed what had been hidden until this time.
In our church bible studies and Lent groups we often invite a text to speak to us and certain words and phrases can stand out. I thought today I would invite you to consider our gospel reading and to ponder its meaning. It is not an easy passage. One of the ways we dismiss people if we disagree with them is to be tempted into name calling. We say ‘oh, they are this, they are that’ and in this way we subtly undermine them and their views. The scribes from Jerusalem are trying this out with Jesus. They want to discredit him in the eyes of the crowd so they are hinting that he is slightly crazy, not in his right mind and even worse that he is under the influence of some malign power. At a time when mental illness was widely regarded to be due to some demonic possession it is not surprising these accusations were made.
But Jesus argues a case with clarity and skill, saying no division brings strength and power only a weakening and fracturing of purpose. Civil wars cause untold damage and destruction and strong kingdoms are brought down; family feuds divide the harmony and unity of blood ties so Jesus says their argument is based on impractical nonsense. But here in Mark’s gospel as he writes about division and the question of what is empowering Jesus we suddenly have a picture of Jesus’s family and the worries they have about him.
The church has always portrayed Mary as strong in faith, accepting God’s call in humility and learning more about her son’s destiny through the encounter with Anna and Simeon in the temple and in his youthful trip to Jerusalem. Mary stands at the foot of the cross when many had hidden away in fear. But here we have Mark hinting that his family were concerned about him too when they knew the things others were saying about him. They want to protect him and take him safely home because they did not understand his ministry.
Middle Eastern cultures like many others have a high regard for the family framework. Here in the West we expect children to take up their lives and they are not necessarily required to live in the same neighbourhood as their parents but such a notion would have been deeply shocking in Jesus’ world. The family bond was tight, local and binding. Everything was shared in common so when Jesus refuses to go with his family he is making a big statement.
We may feel for his mother and his family. Was Mary afraid that Jesus was shaming her family by acting this way? Was she hurt by his words? This must have been a story that unsettled people; it is shocking but also very important. The family bond was strong and positive but it was also insular. You were either in or out. Jesus is saying that the sense of family belonging will be open to all who follow him. This is the same Jesus who welcomed the socially, religious and political outcasts to be part of his family of believers. Mary and the rest of his family had to come to see this as an essential part of his ministry.
We too will be challenged by some of the words of Jesus and we must be ready to accept that we shall always have new things to learn. Our scriptures are a source of comfort but also a puzzle at times and like Mary we shall hope to discover together that the ways of God are to be discerned within its pages and the various authors and editors who bring to us their own particular insight and experience so that we might discover for ourselves what God might be saying to us in our own time.