To change or not to change?

Pentecost 5
Mark 6:1-13
Marian Free

In the name of God who shakes our certainties and challenges our smugness. Amen.

Try to imagine that one day you come to church and discover that one of the children who has grown up here and who has attended Sunday School and Youth Group has returned as an adult. You are excited to see her and even more excited when you discover that she has been asked to address the congregation. All your memories of her childhood days flood back. You remember how she played with the other children – perhaps even your own children. She was always so good – willing to lend a hand, considerate of the older members of the congregation, good with the children. Even her teenage years were calm and placid as she blossomed into a beautiful young woman.

You are surprised then, even a little shocked, when you finally see her. Gone are the tidy, appropriate clothes and the neat hair. She is scruffy – even a little wild – as if she has been living rough. In fact she appears quite different from the person you knew.  Nothing however, prepares you for what happens when she opens her mouth! Surely this isn’t the same person – the child who collectively you raised, who shared your values and embraced your faith! In her place is a provocative and challenging radical. She implies that you are hypocrites, that instead of keeping the commandments of God, you are keeping human traditions. The things she says – sell all your possessions, let the dead bury the dead, love your enemies, not everyone who says: “Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven!

In no uncertain terms she denigrates the practice of the church leaders as false piety and she makes outrageous claims about sinners – even prostitutes getting into heaven before you! She states that what it says in scripture applies to her.

As you squirm in your pews you might think: “How dare she? Has she forgotten who she is, where she is? What happened to all the good principles on which she was raised? Where did she learn such disrespect for those who taught her? You would be justified in feeling threatened and insulted. If you did, your reaction might be to distance yourself, to reassure yourself by making out that you can’t give possibly give any credence to what she might say. After all, she is only a car park attendant, the daughter of Mary – and now you remember – you were never really sure about the father.

If this wasn’t enough to restore your equilibrium, you might call up the rumours that you had heard, but had previously discounted. Apparently she doesn’t care who she associates with – she has meals with the most inappropriate people. What is worse, she appears to wander all around the countryside trying to build up a following by performing miracles to impress the simple-minded. (Now you think about it, she has performed no miracles here.)

If you were to build up a picture of her as someone who is quite disreputable, you would discover that what she had said had no power to distress you. You know who she is and where she comes from after all. What right has she to say such things? Why should anyone take notice of her? In this way you would reassure yourself that she was way out of line. She is far too scandalous for you to allow yourself to be upset by what she might say. You would be able to return to your comfortable existence, your world view could remain as it always was, your beliefs and practices could continue unchallenged and the ripples she caused disappear out of mind.

Jesus has become so domesticated that it is difficult to believe that he caused so much offense that his own people not only plotted to destroy him, but eventually succeeded. Those of us who grew up on the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” can find it hard to believe that he was anything but a comforting presence. Why would anyone get upset by his teaching we might ask?

Yet, here in his own home town, he causes so much umbrage, that those attending the synagogue are reduced to insult and disparagement in order to avoid taking seriously anything he says. After all, they reassure themselves, isn’t he only a carpenter, the son of Mary – and weren’t we always suspicious about the circumstances of his birth? He lacks the respectability that would be expected in teacher, so his teaching can be ignored or disregarded. By questioning Jesus’ status in life, his listeners are able to distance themselves from his teaching. Someone of his reputation has no right to criticize them or to tell them how to behave! The problem is solved – the messenger is successfully discredited so the difficult teaching can be ignored.

Many of the religious people of Jesus’ time were comfortable with their way of life and their practice of the faith. They felt confident that they understood their scriptures and that knew what they needed to do and how they needed to behave in order to be right with God. They were, by and large, good and moral people. They did all the right things. They attended synagogue, observed the festivals, ate the right food and observed the Sabbath. They gave to the poor and kept themselves apart from those who might pollute or contaminate them – gentiles, tax-collectors, prostitutes. The problem was that they were pleased with themselves, they were self-satisfied and smug – they felt they had their salvation all sewn up.

Jesus upsets their comfortable view of the world. They expect him to praise them for their goodness, instead he accuses them of being nowhere near good enough. Their reliance on their own goodness has reduced their reliance on God. In fact, by acting as their own judge and jury, they have put themselves in God’s place! Who needs God to differentiate good and bad when they can do it for themselves?

We, with them, discover to our shock, that Jesus’ greatest condemnation was not of the sinner, but of those who believed they were righteous. He commended those who, knowing their faults, humbly threw themselves on the mercy of God and he criticized those who had become so self-assured that they had dispensed with the need for God.

When we think we have nothing left to learn, we forget that God is beyond the reach of our human understanding. When we think that we are already good enough, our very smugness isolates us from God. When we allow ourselves to become comfortable with God and of our place before God, we find we have allowed our beliefs and values to define who and what God is.

If we are unsettled or dismayed by what Jesus says, is it because what Jesus says cannot be right or because we are so confident in ourselves that we believe that we do not need to change?

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