* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mark 3:13-35: True Family and Recognizing Fearful Fruits

The remainder of Mark 3 has three distinct pieces: a list of The Twelve (the group of men who were supposedly authorized to run the sect in Jesus' absence), a discourse about sources of power, and a teaching about true family. The list of The Twelve is most likely an important credentialing of early church leaders, even though the authors of Matthew and Luke do not agree with the author of Mark or with one another as to who should be included in this list. We discussed discipleship a few weeks back, and while some may find spiritual lessons in these lists of names, there is much more attractive meat on the table in the verses that follow the list.

In the midst of his exorcisms and healing miracles, Jesus is accused of being in league with the prince of demons. In some circles, this is still an effective way to attack a person who challenges religious power structures. The response of Jesus as recorded in Mark (and copied by the authors of Matthew and Luke) is that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. In other words, if a person is doing good work in the world, how can he do this through an evil source? (Although Hollywood directors have been able to conceive of situations in which it would be advantageous for a powerful demon to drive off a less powerful demon, there was apparently no argument to the gospel writer's logic.) This leads into an illustration about robbing a strong man in all three synoptic gospels, and in the gospels of Matthew and Mark there is a warning about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, essentially saying that it is unforgivable to assert that work done by God is actually empowered by Satan. Mark moves on from there, but the authors of Matthew and Luke tacks on a little something extra. In Luke, this amounts to Jesus stating, "You're either for me or against me." In Matthew, however, there is a striking lesson about good and evil, in which the author scripts the famous line, "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks."

This chapter of the gospel of Mark ends with Jesus' family coming to see him, either because they were concerned that he was a few cards short of a full deck or just to pay him a visit, depending on which version of the story you read. In all three synoptic gospels, however, the authors agree on one thing: Jesus' true family are those people who behave the way God wants them to behave. This stretch of the gospel of Mark, taken in its full context as it occurs in other gospels, allows for some striking extrapolations about people and behavior.

For one thing, people may not be who they think they are or who they claim to be, but an observant person can know the truth about an individual based on the visible fruit born out of action. For example, there are lots of people who claim to be Christian yet consistently behave contrary to the teachings of Jesus. The gospel writers suggest in this passage that we don't actually need people to tell us what they believe, because we'll know what kind of people they are by their words and actions. If a person is constantly speaking hatefully about certain groups of people, this passage suggests that we can tell something about the mind of the speaker. Put more bluntly, when people speak hatefully about the GLBT community, or illegal immigrants, or any sort of religious group, it says more about the people speaking than it says about the objects of their derision. According to this passage, people cannot hide what is in their hearts.

Honestly, more than using this passage as a means of judging people as good or evil, keen observation can suggest to us when people are allowing their fears to run rampant and when they are tapping into a deeper sense of beauty, truth, and inspiration. People who say hateful things are really just communicating that they are afraid of something, maybe not even what they're being hateful about. Fear is incredibly powerful, and we are not trained to keep our irrational fears in check. Thus, when fear is prominent in our hearts, our actions will reflect it.

Another extrapolation, then, is that we need different sorts of people to sharpen our perspectives. When we are willing to engage openly and honestly with people who disagree with our beliefs, we stand a chance to learn something about ourselves and other people. Articulating what we want our lives to be about is one way that we can measure whether our own actions are lining up with what we want to create in the world, or whether we have allowed some measure of fear to take root in our own minds. Our vision of what we want in our lives does not have to match what other people envision. We do not need for anyone to agree with our beliefs or approve of our decisions for our own lives. When we recognize that clearly, we can engage more openly with people who disagree with us without either side needing to convince the other of anything. Our interaction can become a dialogue of learning, clarifying, and understanding.

We also benefit from the comfort of people who are like-minded. People who understand us also sharpen us, provided they are not the only people with whom we interact. Of course, it's easier to spend time around people who bolster our own points of view than it is to spend time with people who challenge us. Most people don't have trouble connecting with others who think like they do, but the sharpening happens when we have a clear sense of what we want to create in the world -- what kind of people we want to be. People with similar perspectives can also cultivate similar fears, and it can seem that our irrational fears are validated by outside confirmation. On the other hand, recognizing fear for what it is and dismantling it in cooperation with other people can be powerfully effective.

So, actions reflect beliefs. We can know whether fear is at work in our lives or in the lives of the people around us by observable words and actions. When we see that fear is at work in other people, we can avoid judging people as evil, and we can acknowledge that they are human beings of worth who happen to be experiencing fear. When we see fear at work in our own lives, we can more easily keep from judging ourselves, and we can seek ways to dismantle our irrational fears and get closer to living like the people we most want to be. This is easier when we have a group of people we can trust, around whom we can be vulnerable. The gospel writers had Jesus call these people his family. We can call it whatever we want, but the sentiment is that we can seek out people who are "true" brothers and sisters, working toward the same things, confronting the same challenges, holding the same ideals. We can seek out "true" mothers and fathers, mentors who have had a little more practice and who understand the irrational fears we want to dismantle in our lives. Some of us have actual blood-relative families that can be included in the category of "true family," but the hope expressed in the story of Jesus is that even when those human individuals disappoint, there are others in the world seeking the same things we are seeking.

This is actually true whether one wants to do harm or good in the world. We can find people who agree with our values, no matter what our values are. As one version of our passage reads, a person can use wealth to bring about good, and a fearful person can use wealth to bring about harm. I would like to suggest that any amount of harm we may want to inflict -- any hatred on which we may want to act -- is irrational fear wanting to be expressed. Honestly, we can do better than manifest more fear in the world. There is something deeper about us than the fears and beliefs we have taken on, and that something deeper is creative and hopeful and honest. We can tell the truth about how much we have in common with the people around us, even when it challenges some familiar and comfortable fears. We can create rather than destroy, even though creation often seems like much harder work. We can do these things because within each of us, despite all of our fears and beliefs about ourselves, we are capable, worthy, beautiful human beings. If we set aside our irrational fears and embrace our capability, how can we not create something incredible in our lives and the lives of people around us?

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