We hear so many stories of verbal abuse on social media these days. One story the week before last was about how the black English footballer Marcus Rashford suffered seventy cases of racist abuse following his team’s defeat on Wednesday night in the Europa League Final. I was pleased to read two days later that the people behind some of the anonymous accounts that sent the foul messages had been identified and the information passed to the police.
Religious people should be different. But too often we’re not. Today’s reading is a story of Jesus being on the end of abuse from his family and from religious leaders. His own family – the so-called ‘holy family’ – claim that ‘He is out of his mind’ (verse 21). Transfer the story into our society today and they’d be calling for the signature of two doctors so that he could be sectioned.
As for the religious leaders, well you can’t get much worse an insult than the one they dish out: ‘He has an impure spirit.’ Jesus calls this ‘blasphem[y] against the Holy Spirit’ (verse 29) – in other words, committing libel against God.
I’d love to tell you these problems don’t exist in today’s church, but they do. A school chaplain at a church school preaches a sermon in which he says you can dispute some teaching about LGBT issues, but you must love your gay neighbour as yourself. What happens to him? He is reported to the Government’s Prevent strategy by a member of staff as a potential terrorist and he loses his job.
I won’t give you any specifics for obvious reasons, but there has been the odd time when the vitriol against Debbie and me in the church has been so untrue and malicious that we would have been within our legal rights to sue people for libel.
So what do you do? Certainly there are times when it’s more dignified to say nothing, but on other occasions you still need to say something and keep on keeping on. Let’s look at the two things Jesus does here – one in respect to the religious leaders who libel him, and one in respect to his family who want him locked up in a secure unit.
Firstly, how does Jesus deal with the religious leaders? Put simply, he tells the truth. When he gives that spiel about how a house divided against itself cannot stand, he is following through some simple logic to show how ridiculous their claim is. It’s doing that which enables him to expose their real attitude of heart, which is that they might proclaim to be faithful to the religious traditions, but in reality they are enemies of God.
Sure, there are times to ignore your critics, as I said. On the Internet that’s often known as ‘not feeding the trolls’. And we know how Jesus kept silent through many of the interrogations when he was arrested.
But there are other times when we need to put these people right and expose them for who they are, because they are carrying out their nasty work in public and there is a risk of them influencing others for the worse. That’s what happens here – whereas when Jesus stays quiet at his trials it’s not in public.
This doesn’t guarantee that we shall be successful in persuading these people they are wrong. If they have hardened their hearts, they may remain intransigent as opponents and may continue to cause grief to us. We can’t force them to do otherwise.
But we can stay publicly faithful to the truth, so that onlookers who might not understand or who might run the risk of being deceived hear a clear testimony to God’s truth.
The example of Jesus here is that we have the courage to stand up for the Gospel and all its implications, and that we don’t let our enemies shut us up. Even those in the church.
Secondly, how does Jesus deal with his family? At first sight it’s not very charitable. When he’s told that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him (verse 32) he replies,
33 ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked.
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle round him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’
Jesus redefines the family. He has a new family. It’s the family of God. Those who go in the way of the kingdom are themselves a family.
Jesus won’t let social conventions get in the way of him proclaiming and building the kingdom of God.
We know that later his brother James would lead the church in Jerusalem and his mother Mary would be revered in the church but these things didn’t happen because Jesus went home and played Happy Families. Instead, he stuck to his guns about the kingdom of God, even though at this stage they thought he was mad. But over a period of years they must have been persuaded. Had he given up on proclaiming the kingdom it wouldn’t have happened.
Sometimes we think that when we have a conflict or a misunderstanding with someone who doesn’t share our faith that the Christian thing to do is to compromise or to water down our faith. However, the example of Jesus here shows that’s the wrong thing to do. Stay faithful. Don’t be harsh or you’ll become like Jesus’ religious enemies. Live well for Christ.
So – these are the two strategies: speak the truth and live for the kingdom. There is no guarantee of success, as I said. Some of those religious leaders later plotted to have Jesus executed. I don’t know whether that school chaplain will get his job back.
But these are the right things to do when people defame our character because we are Christians. And if we don’t speak the truth and live for the kingdom we’ll sell Christianity and Jesus short.
Just remember that we believe in a God of justice who vindicates those who are unjustly treated. He may do that in this life, or it may wait for the Resurrection of the Dead and the Last Judgement.
Let’s make sure with the help of the Holy Spirit that we don’t let Jesus down when people unfairly target us.