Labels. They can be useful things; they tell us what’s in the tin, what not to touch, where to stand and so on. But they can also be cruel:‘coward’, ‘cissy’, ‘trouble maker’, ‘useless’, ‘pathetic’. And once acquired, labels seem to stick. They get passed on, copied and replicated and so more and more people begin to believe the label, without even thinking that it might not be true. Labels are used to accuse, and often, even when answered, they still stick tight.
This was even more so in Jesus’ day. Once a label stuck it was impossible to undo. So if Jesus had, on the day of today’s Gospel reading, been successfully branded as mad or evil, he would very likely have been locked up and may never have been released.
It was probably for this reason that Jesus’ family tried to take him away – out of harm’s way. Had the ‘demonic possession’ label stuck, the shame would be attached to Jesus’ family as well as to him. They too would become outcasts.
The onlookers were presented with a choice. What did they think about Jesus? Who were they going to believe? Was Jesus from God, or was he a manifestation of the devil? Some, no doubt, turned their backs and walked away. But others would have been able to see Jesus as good because of the fruits of his life and ministry. So they followed and were faithful. These, Jesus called his brothers and sisters. This was, in itself, a very radical thing to say. The Temple, its worship and customs, was the thing that bound people together. Jesus’ recognition of his followers as his family represents a shift – for his followers, their faith now revolved around Jesus – a person rather than an institution. You can see why the Scribes would have found this outrageous!
And that is what we are: Jesus’ family. This is a worldwide family which anyone is welcome to join – an inclusive family, generous, warm and welcoming. Like Jesus, his family has the job of healing and serving. We’re good at this – caring people who seek to do good. But, like Jesus, sometimes we are called to stand against evil – Mark calls this ‘binding the strong man’. This is a startling image of evil: something powerful, thuggish, and frightening. Jesus talks of entering the strong man’s house by night and tying him up, in order to plunder his possessions.
It suggests that we need to take evil seriously. We tend to apply it to rare individuals – destructive political dictators, mass murderers, serial rapists. But evil, today, is generally less obvious, much bigger, more pernicious. Covid has laid bare some of the cracks in our society and in the world which have arisen from staggering inequalities both in terms of wealth and power. We are aware of environmental destruction but feel powerless because we are small people unable to affect the huge companies from which we buy food all wrapped up in plastic, goods which are built not to last, things which rely on the exploitation of other people in their production. We have our hands tied – the strong man walks free.
No matter how powerless we feel, there are others with whom we can work with for change. There are environmental movements to join. There are groups seeking to improve life for the poorest in the world. Or maybe you could twin your fridge as our children have done for the church and hall fridges. And we do have some choices we can make as individuals- fair trade or not? Loose potatoes or a handy pack in a plastic bag? Electricity from a green provider – or not? Stopping to think how clothing was manufactured before we bag a bargain. Sooner or later things will shift, but only if binding the strong man is a collective endeavour – none of us can bind the strong man alone.
Rev’d Dr Anne Morris
Vicar of St. Oswald’s Church, Knuizden