Following Jesus: A Risky Business

Mark 3:20-35

New International Version (NIV)

Jesus Accused by His Family and by Teachers of the Law

20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family[a] heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul!By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”

23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”

31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Footnotes:

  1. Mark 3:21 Or his associates

Dangerous Road

It’s summer break! For a lot of folks, it’s time for a nice vacation.

Suppose you are going on a road trip and you come to a fork and have to decide whether to go on a nice and safe asphalted road, or a treacherous and dangerous dirt road along a deep canyon. Which road would you take?

If you drive a 4×4 and you love the thrill of going off the beaten path, you’d probably take the road least travelled. But for most people, nice and safe is the choice. Why? Because it’s nice and safe!

How about the Christian journey? Is it nice and safe? Well, just based on a cursory reading of our Scripture text we can already say, not always. Walking with Jesus is beautiful and wonderful, that’s for sure. But that doesn’t mean the road is always nice and safe. Truth must be told about what else is out there as far as following Jesus, the way, is concerned.

So, indeed, following Jesus is a risky business. But I wonder if such thought crosses the average believer’s mind. What do people really think about following Jesus, and why do they follow him? Well, I’d be surprised if someone would say I follow Jesus because I love the risk involved in it. More likely, one who feels grateful to Jesus because I’m going to heaven when I die might say, I follow the Lord because he saved me. Or, if a person’s obsession revolves around living Your Best Life Now, that individual might say, I follow the Lord because he blesses me and helps me become successful.

Those may be innocent answers, but don’t they reveal the human tendency to welcome only what is pleasant? I think so.

If we say we follow Jesus who suffered and died for all, isn’t it reasonable to assume then that the path of suffering and death is, at least, a part of the journey we take? But it seems to me that many believers don’t want even a tiny bit of that bad stuff. Some may even regard it as from the devil because if you suffer, something must be wrong with you, or you must have done something bad.

Can we put the blame on believers for such flawed thoughts? Not entirely. I think that churches in general may have to take the bulk of the blame. Why? Because they appear to be giving people the impression that following Jesus is a 100% safe and nice experience. How? In the way they entice people with all kinds of benefits—or “comps” as we call them in Vegas—to get them to become members.

Who can resist a church that provides babysitting, summer programs for the youth, and an endless list of activities for people of all ages? Who can ignore a church that has a “praise and worship” band that can put some professional rock bands to shame? Who would not join a church that has a celebrity preacher who can make you laugh, or cry, as well as lift your spirit and make you feel better after another boring or stressful week at your workplace?

But what’s wrong with those? People work hard to earn a living and they give, some very generously, to the church. Don’t these people deserve to be pampered? Well, some churches think they deserve pampering, and more. I guess that’s why some churches have brought in Starbucks and it’s right in the lobby of the church building! And here’s what’s really cool: they may offer free coffee to help you get your “unsaved” friends to church, too! Isn’t that nice? Indeed, very nice.

So what’s wrong with that? There appears to be nothing wrong with that until we see that churches today are becoming more like secular companies in that the so-called bottom line (=$$$) has become the main concern. And is there a better way to secure cash flow than to plan a strategy that includes making church people very happy and highly satisfied, so that they’d continue coming to and giving toward the support of the church?

So although some big-budget churches may have “the lost” or evangelism in mind, yet at the forefront it is likely that getting people, especially a lot of people, to become members that occupies the mind because these can greatly help in meeting the ever-increasing budget. And being aware that there are other big churches with mega-million budgets, they fiercely compete and do everything to keep people satisfied to make them stay in their fold.  So the name of the game becomes What you can do I can do better!

How would you feel if you are a small church caught between these Goliath churches competing with each other? You’d probably feel like a sari-sari store (a small neighborhood store) amongst supermarkets and megamalls; and you feel very bad because these superstores don’t really care about what happens to you!

The trendiest and most effective ways of doing church today do not appear dangerous until we realize that these fashionable ways of doing church have actually made churches like business establishments. Like their secular counterparts, some churches thrive by catering to the needs—sometimes, the whims—of satisfied customers!

Aren’t churches then over-spoiling people? And don’t this pampering lead to an outcome which is really not good for their spiritual health? Is this the Church that Jesus, who sacrificed his life, envisioned? Is the pampered believer the picture Jesus had of his follower? Clearly no!

Jesus did not call people to become customers or consumers;2 rather he called them to become his followers! And, again, following Jesus is a risky business. It may surprise some, especially those that may be there just for the joy ride, to find that although the journey with Jesus can make one happy, the way can actually be bumpy. How bumpy? Uncomfortably bumpy! And the Jesus we say we follow could, at closer look, be seen as a dangerous man with dangerous ideas!

Who in his right mind would follow someone whose own family thinks he’s “out of his mind”? Isn’t it crazy for someone to follow someone crazy?  Yet we are called to follow this “crazy” man! And who would follow a man “Bible experts” said was possessed, not just by an ordinary evil spirit, but by Beelzebul, the prince of demons himself! Now that’s pretty scary!

So why should we follow this Jesus? To answer that question, I think it would help if we first understand why Jesus’ accusers lodged such serious accusations against him.

“He is out of his mind.

The narrative in the Gospel of Mark doesn’t say why Jesus’ family was upset with him. But a little research on the social structure in Palestine at the time of Jesus1 would yield some important information that would help us understand.

In Jesus’ time, and under the Roman rule, the Jewish people had a very tough time. For many, the way to survive was to stick with one’s family, especially if it had connections. If, for example, a family had a rich patron or it is friends with another family that had access to some businesses, like fishing, then that family had a very good chance of surviving. It may even thrive.

Evidently, a crazy thing that one could do was to get out of the security of that family. It was not only suicidal but also shameful in a society that operated on the foundational honor/shame value. So because Jesus did something that went against the norm, he put himself and his family to shame.

This is something we, Filipinos, understand very well because our culture puts a similar, if not the same, value on dangal and hiya (honor and shame). When a child is an honor student, for example, the accomplishment gives honor to the whole family. Thus the bumper sticker on the family car: “My child is an honor student.” And we don’t seem mind (we laugh) if somebody’s car has got a sticker that reads, “My Labrador is smarter than your honor student child.”

On the other hand, if a member of the family does something shameful we say, Nakakahiya! (“It’s embarrassing!”). And we say it in a way that only we truly understand the whole import of the word. In our culture, one would rather be slapped than put to shame: “Sampalin mo na lang ako… huwag mo lang akong  ipahiya” (I’d rather that you slap me than put me to shame!).

So now we understand why Jesus’ family thought he was crazy.  And now we know that the reason why they tried to control him (“take charge of him”) was to prevent further embarrassment.

But Jesus wouldn’t stop! Jesus called people to follow him!  And what do you think people would think  of those who follow someone crazy? They, too, must be crazy! Like leader, like follower.

Why did Jesus do such a thing? Why embarrass himself and his family and risk his and the reputation of those that followed him? Why was he willing to suffer hardship? And why involve others by asking them to follow him?

Aside from the quick and easy answer that Christians often give—It is God’s will—the reason is because to stick with one’s family was to maintain the status quo, which was not good. Why? Because although the existing condition may have enabled people to survive, but to merely survive was, and is, not good enough.

The state of affairs may have been good for the ruling elite, including the Pharisees and teachers of the law—because they reaped the benefits of an oppressive system—but it was definitely not good for the majority of people. These people were supposed to be living in a “land flowing with milk and honey” and yet were dirt poor!

That’s why Jesus left his family. And that’s why the disciples followed suit. The idea was subversive—so much so that it put the life of anyone who subscribed to it at risk. But this dangerous idea was irresistibly attractive. Despite the risk, the disciples decided to follow Jesus!

Today, we, too, follow Jesus because this crazy man was not crazy after all! He was “God with us” who was willing to give up everything to do God’s will, which is not just some abstract idea that we don’t have to understand and, therefore, have an excuse not to do. God’s will springs from the very heart of God whose love has been shown in a very down-to-earth way. How? By giving God’s only begotten Son, Jesus, who became human and who suffered and died on the cross to save humankind.

“He is possessed by Beelzebul!”

If Jesus’ family thought Jesus was “out of his mind,” the teachers of the law thought he was worse than that.  Not content with just putting himself and his family to shame but also his disciples and their families, perhaps they thought that Jesus deserved to be called worse than insane. So they cast a more dangerous and scary picture of him: “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”

Obviously they saw him or heard about him exorcising folks that had some malignant spirits. Did he do it on a Sabbath? Most likely! At the beginning of Mark 3 the opponents of Jesus saw him as a law-breaker. He “violated” the Sabbath, the day of rest, by “working.” How? He healed a man! The Pharisees and the Herodians thought it was a crime that deserved death. So they sought to kill Jesus!

The teachers of the law worked for the most powerful people in the society, perhaps indirectly. So I guess the teachers of the law had a good-paying job that enabled them to live a comfortable lifestyle. The ruling elite in Jerusalem must have seen Jesus as a threat to them and their politics. So perhaps the teachers of the law “who came down from Jerusalem” felt pressured to come up with, at least, an assessment of Jesus that would put him out of business.

So the teachers of the law announced that Jesus was “possessed by Beelzebul!” If they could not eliminate or kill Jesus, at least they could try to make him look scary so people don’t listen to him or, worse, follow him!

But could the accusation the teachers of the law put out there in the court of public opinion stand? Maybe it could—that is, if Jesus would remain silent. But like a good defense lawyer, Jesus puts his accusers to shame by showing how ridiculously fallacious and malicious their statement against him was. His parabolic defense (vs. 23-29) is so good that I have to quote the whole thing here:

How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter,29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.

To say that Jesus drove out demons by the power of Beelzebul does not make sense. Satan is clearly not the type that would put Satan out of business. He may be the devil, but he’s no fool! He’s probably the worst “tenant” one can ever have because he fiercely resists eviction. And to to say that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebul was to say that the Spirit of the living God that was in him was a demon. Now that’s tantamount to blasphemy, a grievous sin that, according to Jesus, “will never be forgiven”!

To sum up this theological, spiritual and, yes, political battle between Jesus and the teachers of the law, let’s imagine these heated arguments happening in a court of law:

The prosecution severely persecutes Jesus in a way that he looks not just as an insane person (which is already bad; although today insanity can be a good defense), but as an evil person who is a danger to the society and, therefore, needs to be put away, for good. It may appear that Jesus is damned. But Jesus immediately rises from his seat and eloquently and intelligently defends himself. And when he’s done talking, there is a great hush as the teachers of the law’s faces blush. Soon after Jesus debunks the argument of the dull, the judge pronounces a mistrial!

The trial is over. Or is it? As the teachers of the law put Jesus on trial, it’s now the teachers of the law’s turn to be put on trial.


The teachers of the law: narrow and shallow

The teachers of the law were narrow and shallow. The teachers of the law appear to be consistent in their mindless ramblings that some people seemed to no longer pay attention to them. That’s why when Jesus appeared and began to teach, the people noticed the stark difference. According to the Gospel of Mark, the people “were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (2:22).

The teachings of the teachers of the law had no weight—they had no grip on people. Why? Because they did not make sense! An area in which the teachers of the law are shown to lack common sense is in their interpretation and application of the law, specifically the Sabbath law:

One Sabbath Jesus was teaching in the synagogue where a man with shriveled hand was in attendance. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees “were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath” (see Luke 6:1-11). But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking, said to the man, “’Get up and stand in front of everyone.’ So he got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?’” (vs. 8b-9).

Nobody, including the teachers of the law and the Pharisees said anything. Why. They were trapped: if they answered, either way, they’d lose! So the best thing they could do at that point was to remain silent. So far, that was their only smart move.

But when Jesus healed the man, their being irrational got the better of them! They “were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus” (v. 11).  So what’s new? Today there are still some religious people who think and act like the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. If they cannot win an argument, they resort to malicious tactics, even violence, to try to destroy their opponent. Here’s what some pea-brained and hothead people might say when they are at their wit’s end: Idaan na lang natin ‘to sa suntukan! (Let’s just settle this through a fist fight!).

Why were the teachers of the law so slow? One possible reason is because they were more concerned about how they looked than how they talked. How did we come up with that idea? Well, according to Jesus, “They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets” (12:38-39). So, perhaps to look really good, they spent more time choosing wardrobes than choosing words.

We may despise them but they’re really not different from us—preachers—today. It might be embarrassing but we, too, can spend more time than necessary trying to look cool. How? Perhaps by spending too much time shopping for that perfect sits-below-the-waist pair of blue jeans and printed shirt, or the high and mighty looking robe and fancy stole. Some of us could actually spend more time trying to look good than studying the Word.

Ever wondered why some people would wear a sweater on a hellish day in summer, or a scanty pair of shorts and sleeveless shirt in the dead of winter? You got it! The trouble is not with the skin; the trouble is with the brain!

The teachers of the law had the same trouble. But their brains were not that useless. They used them well to exploit and fool, especially the weak, with their show of religiosity. This is what Jesus said about them: “They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely” (Mark 12:40).

Do you think there are still teachers like the teachers of the law today? You bet! Are there teachings today about the Bible that don’t make sense? Oh, yes! The problem with many believers today is that if the teacher sounds good, they think it’s good! What they don’t realize is that what sounds good might really be “bizarre food,” that is, unsound teaching!

Listening well and examining Scriptures is not as simple as it may sound. People need to have the basic skills in Bible interpretation. But there are at least a couple of problems. One, people have been too dependent on Bible teachers and preachers that whatever these “authorities” would say, they would just nod their heads or say their loud amen, especially so if the preacher is loud and dramatic and knows that making people laugh or cry can do the trick!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really against loud and emotional preaching. Sometimes, I get loud and emotional, too! What I can’t stand is brainless teaching! But the problem is how do we know if the teaching does not make sense? Simple! Let’s not let only the heart to rule, but also our mind along with the Bible!

Two, the churches’ educational program appears to be in need of repair. The problem does not only lie in the way people listen to teachings, but also in the materials available to them, especially Sunday school materials. I wonder how these so-called “Christian materials” became also “born again”!

I was new in Las Vegas when an established church that shared their facility with our small congregation, asked me to teach Sunday school for their young couples. I gladly said yes. I was handed a Sunday school material to use. I used it, but only as a guide. My class grew, really big, and I was ecstatic!

After a few Sundays, the pastor again came to me. But it was not to congratulate me or my growing class. He came to tell me that I was not going to teach Sunday school anymore. He did not say why, but I think I knew why—I did not really teach all the contents of that Sunday school material. But why didn’t I?

My answer to that question is a question: Suppose Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps was to teach swimming lessons, would he use a swimming manual written by someone else? He might look at some manual but I doubt if he’d use it to give them a lecture when they’re in the pool! Why not? Because he’s the expert!

That may sound arrogant but my intention is not to boast. I was actually teaching young couples how to interpret the Bible, especially because there were verses that were used incorrectly (really, abused). What I did, to use a saying that is trite but true, was not just giving them fish, but teaching them how to fish! And I guess they appreciated it, and that’s why, I assume, the news spread and our class grew!

So, what now?

In light of Jesus’ struggle with his own family and the teachers of the law, what do we learn and what must we do?

Jesus did not set out just by himself. He called his disciples to follow him. The reason was because leaving one’s family was the first step to forming a new family, the family of God. Those that left their families declared their independence from an oppressive system and placed their trust in Jesus who formed them into a caring and sharing community. In this new community, they’d work together to help meet everybody’s needs and this community will serve a as the model in their attempt to change the world for the better.

Jesus and his disciples broke away from a system that favored only the elite and some well-connected families. In place, Jesus formed the family of God made up of the people who would do God’s will and whom he considers his new brothers, sisters and mothers! The new family, which we now call the Church, would include and benefit everybody, especially the poor and less privileged.

Was the vision of Jesus realized? To some extent, it was! In Acts 2 we read, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (vs. 44-45).

But that was then, we might say. The world has changed and we now live in a different world. True. But do you really think that Jesus has changed his vision of the Church—that since we now live in a different world the Church does not have to have the same characteristics and values?

I, too, believe that as the world changes so must the Church, if it has to function effectively in the world. However, a church must have the same core values that it had in the beginning, or else it can no longer be called church. Just as you cannot call an object that looks like a car a car if it doesn’t have the basic components of a car—like the engine that makes it run—so, I think, you cannot call an organization a church if it does not have the basic properties that makes it a church!

In a make-believe car, kids may play in it and may use their voices to creatively produce a car engine’s sound but it still is not the real thing! So, if a church has all the conveniences it can offer to its members, but it does not really seek the welfare of the people, especially the poor, and does not do anything to fight evil in all its forms, including structural evil, can we really call it a church?

Since the Church is composed of people who follow Jesus, those that follow him must follow him in a way that the core values of the community Jesus envisioned continue to serve as the guiding principles for how it operates in the world. And one of these principles is love.

Jesus left his family not because he loved them less. He left his family because he loved not just them but the whole world! In seeking the greater good, Jesus was willing to suffer shame and lose whatever he had. So if we call ourselves followers of Jesus, shouldn’t we then assume that you and I must be like him or, at least, somehow resemble him in his selflessness? I think so!

To change the world the Church, the agent of change, needs to be transformed first. And transformation of the Church to one that approximates the biblical model can only take place through a proper understanding and appropriation of God’s Word. Wrong theology leads to wrong ways of doing things.

So is the Church properly taught? Do believers today know their Bibles? These questions bring to mind a group of believers in the Book of Acts: the Bereans. The Bereans knew their Bible and they were smart. Here’s why. Although the Bereans “received the message with great eagerness” they still “examined the Scriptures every day” to find out for themselves if what the preacher said was true. Yes, they examined the preacher’s words against Scriptures even if that preacher was the Apostle Paul (Acts 17:11)!

Tightrope walker Nik Wallenda walks the high wire from the U.S. side to the Canadian side over the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, June 15, 2012. Mark Blinch / Reuters

Be Like a Daredevil

I know that this can be extremely overwhelming. But for the Church of Jesus Christ to be the agent of change, we’ve got to do something different and right. We should not be content with just business as usual. Jesus changed the world because, despite what people might do to him, he was willing to make it happen. The disciples put their lives at risk as well when they began to follow Jesus and committed themselves to him and his vision.

To follow Jesus is to live dangerously because it involves loving people, including those that are not like us. If we truly care, we must be willing to take the risk of loving others despite the possibility that the same people we care about might, for example, criticize us for our theology, ostracize us for our methodology, label us liberals for our “heresies,” or, for our “dangerous” ideas, call us crazies!

The world may crucify us for following Jesus. But even if it does, that won’t be the end of us. For as Jesus said, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19b). Perhaps we should take those words of Jesus not just literally. The reason is because the sweetness of such life that has been promised to us for the future can, in the here and now, let us already enjoy life despite the fact that the path we tread may be lined with peril and strife.

But we couldn’t be too pessimistic about the world. Very recently, daredevil Nik Wallenda walked the high-wire walk above the thundering waters of the Niagara Falls and across the U.S. and Canadian border. When a Canadian customs agent asked about what his purpose was for his “trip,” he said, “To inspire people all over the world.” And inspire them he did!

There might have been some jealous guys that wanted Wallenda to fall and fail, but as expressed through their cheers, spectators really wished him well. And because he was determined to walk across, he disciplined and trained himself to get focused. As a result, he gave the world a spectacle that made us all feel wonderful!

As Wallenda inspired the world, I believe we, too, can. Therefore, with the power of God in Christ given to us through the Holy Spirit, let us follow Jesus and walk the dangerous walk. And as we do, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, NIV 1984).

Once again, let us walk the dangerous walk and let us fix your eyes on Jesus for, who knows, the world might just be moved!

__________

1A good source of information, for example, is Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts by K. C. HansonDouglas E. OakmanAugsburg Fortress: 2002.

2Spiritual consumerism is clearly one reason the megachurch attracts so many—and one reason many wonder what type of faith people are being discipled into.” Mega-mirror: Megachurches are not the answer or the problem. A Christianity Today editorial [ posted 8/6/2009 8:41AM ]

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