When good is perceived as evil

Pentecost 2 -2015

Mark 3:20-35

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

If you have never read the Gospel of Mark from beginning to end, may I suggest that you take the time to do so. Mark’s account of Jesus is quite short and I think most of us could read it in one or two sittings. This is important, because, it is only by reading the gospel from start to finish that we can gain some idea of the plot development and of the themes that run through the gospel. For example, a prominent theme is Mark’s gospel is that of “conflict”, in particular a conflict regarding who has authority – Jesus or the religious leaders? The question can be narrowed down still further to “who has God’s authority – the authority to represent God before the people?” – Jesus or those who have been given, or who have assumed the authority to interpret scripture and to guard and to pass on the traditions of the faith. When the question is narrowed down still further, we begin to see that the conflict is a contest between good and evil, between the heavenly authorities and earthly authorities, between God and Satan.

The earthly authorities (whether the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, the priests or the Herodians) try over and over again to discredit Jesus, to demonstrate that he not only disregards the law and the traditions of the elders, but that he willfully breaks the law and ignores the traditions. The “authorities” are determined to assert their own authority to represent God, and to expose Jesus as a madman, a fraud, a blasphemer or worse, an agent of Satan. Instead of which they themselves are exposed as self-serving, misrepresenting God, misinterpreting scripture, enforcing a tradition that has reached its use-by date and worse, as blasphemers. Despite the best effort of “the authorities”, in every confrontation Jesus is able to turn the tables on his accusers and to reveal them to be guilty of the very things of which they accuse him.

Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath, but whereas his actions (of healing) lead to wholeness and life, the action of the authorities on that same day is to plot Jesus’ death. The authorities try to entrap him with questions about divorce and about the resurrection, but Jesus knows the scriptures so well that he is able to point out that they simply do not understand. They accuse Jesus of breaking the law only to have Jesus point out their hypocrisy and their propensity to twist the law to suit themselves. All their attempts to entangle Jesus or to cause him to lose face before the people have the opposite effect. A result of the conflict – which they have instigated – is that the so-called “authorities” are revealed as loveless, legalistic hypocrites.

Nowhere is the battle between good and evil so clear as in today’s gospel. This is the last of the first series of confrontations between Jesus and the authorities. So far Jesus has been accused of blasphemy, of breaking the laws of ritual purity, of failing to observe fast days and of breaking the Sabbath. At the same time the crowds have identified Jesus as “one having authority” and the evil spirits have recognised Jesus as the Holy One of God. The end result is a conspiracy to destroy him.

In today’s gospel, the scene is set when Jesus’ family, made anxious by reports that he is “out of his mind”, come to restrain him. The idea that Jesus himself might be possessed by an evil spirit is taken up by the scribes (who apparently have come all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to attack him). The scribes accuse Jesus of having Beelzebul (Satan) claiming that only Beelzebul would have the power that Jesus has to cast out demons.

Such a claim is so ridiculous that it is easy for Jesus to demonstrate that it is utterly baseless. No one would possibly try to defeat an opponent by destroying members of their own team. Jesus points out that is only because he has already defeated Satan that he can now so easily dispense with Satan’s minions. Having dealt with the attack on him, Jesus turns the tables on his accusers. He suggests that by identifying him with Satan, the scribes have revealed their true nature and committed the most serious sin of all – that of the sin against the Holy Spirit which is the only sin for which there is no forgiveness. In Jesus, the scribes have seen evil and not good and in so doing they have confused God with Satan. Their attack on Jesus has exposed just how completely they have come to depend on themselves and on earthly authority and how, as a consequence, they have effectively shut God out of their lives. They cannot recognise in Jesus God’s beauty, love, wisdom and compassion. Instead they see in him only evil and threat.

Worse, what is good has become to them so threatening and so disturbing, that they believe that they have to destroy it. The scribes are so intent on preserving their position and their traditions that anything that shakes the status quo is, by their definition, evil. The goodness and life that Jesus represents is to them the source of evil and death.

This then, is the unforgivable sin, to mistake what is good for evil. The scribes have become so blind to goodness that they have closed their hearts to all that is good and true. Believing themselves to be arbiters of good and evil, the scribes simply cannot see that they are in need of forgiveness. They have so effectively locked God out of their hearts and lives that they have put themselves out of reach of God’s loving compassion. It is not so much that God won’t forgive, but that they will not allow God to forgive because instead of seeing in Jesus an example of God’s goodness, they can only see the destruction of everything that they have come to hold dear.

Seeing evil in what is good is not limited to Jesus’ first century opponents. A willingness to rely on human authority and a desire to maintain the status quo has led to acts of oppression and injustice and that have seen the imprisonment and torture of good and prophetic men and women. It is fear of change and distrust of the other that has allowed humanity to turn a blind eye to the abuse of power and the destruction of innocents discrimination against those who are different and rejection of those whom we imagine would threaten our lifestyles.

My our lives be so focused on God that we are not so afraid of change or so determined to hold on to what we have known and believed to be true that we fail to see goodness when it is right in front of us. May our lives be so driven by God’s love and wisdom and compassion that we do not hear the voice of change as the voice of evil when the change is for the greater good.

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