“I don’t know.” isn’t a wrong answer.

Mark 3.20-35

…and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

I am constantly amused by my conservative fundamentalist friends. I am not impressed by their fear based paranoia but their inconsistency is a constant source of joy.

Take for example, the matter of evil and demons.  Just this week a young woman called me, deeply concerned that her friends were warning her about read Neale Donald Walsch’s, “Conversations with God“.  “They say it was written by a demon.” she told me.

What I find amusing is that the friends of the young woman, don’t realise that in doing and saying this they are placing themselves in the category of people whom Jesus says commit the unforgivable sin. How strange (and humourous) that the very people who are so hell bent on judging everything and everyone that doesn’t fit their narrow fear-based system, are in fact choosing to head for the very hell they threaten other people with!

How can I say that?

Well let’s look closely at this Sunday’s gospel.

Jesus is teaching in Galilee.  Scribes from Jerusalem come to hear his teaching and judge that Jesus is performing his works of power by the power of the Prince of Demons Beelzebul.  Sound familiar doesn’t it?

Jesus responds by saying that not only is the charge illogical, (how can the devil cast out the devil) but it also is blasphemous.

To call what is of God, of the devil, is to sin against the Holy Spirit. I didn’t say it Jesus did.

How is it that my literalist Bible loving friends don’t get it?

This is the same Jesus who also told his disciples not to forbid others who were healing in his name.

Mark 9:38-41

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

So why are my conservative friends blind to what they are doing? Truth is I don’t know.

Just as I can only guess why the Scribes were blind to the good that Jesus was doing, I can only speculate why my friends are so judgemental and afraid.  Is it possible that we can become so fearfully arrogant of anything different from us that we end up cursing God for what is innovative and different?

When I read the Scriptures it seems that every now and then wisdom is able to transcend fear.

A good example that is contrary to the Scribes of the New Testament and the Conservatives of our day is Gamaliel who was a teacher of the law in Jerusalem when the religious leaders wanted to kill the apostles for what they were saying.  Gamaliel said  “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; you may even be found fighting against God!” Acts 5:38-39

I have no idea whether or not Neale Donald Walsch, actually has conversations with God.  I do know that his work brings millions of readers closer to God and transforms their lives.

So I am not going to accuse him, nor my fundamentalist friends of demon possession.

Like Gamaliel, I will see what happens and let God be the judge.

Liberating a shadow legion

Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

It is a tricky task when reading scripture not to force too much modern symbolism out of nor into the reading which, it must be acknowledged, comes to us across a twenty century cultural and historical divide. So having paid my dues to decency, that is exactly what I am going to do with this passage simply because it begs to be read at all its rich levels of meaning.

I am intrigued by the context of this miracle. Jesus has crossed over the lake of Galilee, and has entered the wilderness area of the decapolis (ten cities). We should not be surprised that Jesus has crossed over. He is the consummate, “fence jumper” isn’t he? Put a label, a prejudice, a social barricade before Jesus and before long he will, “cross over”. It is thus not surprising that in this wilderness area of the Trans-Jordan, Jesus encounters demons. This wilderness was after all the place where the scapegoats had for centuries been driven with their shadow burden of Israel’s sin. This wilderness was the place of Israel’s projections. Similar perhaps to how the continent of Africa has been scapegoated with all the shadow material of the Euro-American high priests placed on its people’s dark skinned shoulders?

Jesus goes to the repository of shadow material.

The fact that Jesus encounters a naked, demoniac (psychotic?) is not surprising. What is surprising is that the fence jumping Jewish Rabbi is not averse to an encounter with this frightened and frightening person. All the rules of culture and religion dictated that it would be best to ignore and avoid a person like this.

The demoniac on the other hand comes to Jesus and knows who he is. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” He also is reluctant for an encounter with Jesus. “I beg you, do not torment me” Here is a person robbed of dignity. Exposed and shamed, symbolised by his nakedness and excluded by reference to his location in the tombs.

Jesus’ response is to inquire as to the man’s real identity. By asking his name, Leslie Weatherhead suggests, Jesus is asking a question equivalent in the day to a therapist asking in our day, “How did it all begin? What power is it that is over you“. The insight that emerges in the narrative suggests that Jesus might have spent a long time in this conversation drawing closer and closer to this rejected and abused human being to get him to a place of trust where he could share his story (his name) with Jesus. Weatherhead goes on to speculate that perhaps the reference to the name “Legion” may be a pointer to the fact that the man was naming atrocities committed by the Roman Legionaires who controlled the Decapolis.

Whatever the illness of the man, Jesus sets him free and liberates him from the abysmal energies at work in his life. No wonder that the man deeply desires to stay with his divine therapist from then on, and how skilful of Jesus not to encourage that dependence but to set the restored man free to be himself, and not a slavish dependent disciple? I wonder if, in our ministry as churches, we are as generously skilful?

I suppose I really should stop here, with this psychological interpretation that would be acceptable to us as preachers, and our congregations. I really should stop, but there is a question haunting me in the right outfield of my mind. I have to notice it.

The question is, “In what form is this Demoniac representative of people haunted by legions of hurtful and abusive experiences from the Church?”  Is the church the demoniser?

If it is true that the demoniac symbolises the demonised members of society who have been stripped of their identity and clothing and who are living in the tombs, then it must be equally true that Jesus wants to encounter those very people and bring them back to healing and community.

Space and time does not permit me to begin naming the thousand and one members in this legion of abuse and shaming commanded and executed by the church. Let me begin the current  list and leave you to complete it.

Racism and slavery, sexism and patriarchy, homophobia, paedophilia,… The legion of fear based “tactics of exclusion” that has many living in the tombs having forgotten their identity as children of God to the extent that they beg Jesus to leave them alone.

Hear the good news, “Jesus is a fence jumper!”

He will go to the shadow wildernesses created by our fears and projections and liberate our scapegoated sisters and brothers from their abysmal exclusion. Having done this he will command us to continue this work in his name.

After all, was the heyday of the church not when we dwelt in the catacombs ourselves?