Word For The Week
Most commentators seem eager to skip past the first part of today’s passage, to move on to Christ’s plan to overcome Satan’s power, or the family divisions and higher loyalties he demands of his followers.
Here’s the standard rap. The charges of Jesus’ insanity are almost incidental. His family is trying to bring him back in line, for their comfort and his safety. They are fully prepared to call him crazy so he doesn’t get himself killed. Better to be ostracized and alive than dignified and dead.
The scribes, meanwhile, throw a similar charge to mock Jesus’ power.
Not only has a demon driven him out of his mind, that demon gives him the power to cast out other demons.
Jesus responds sharply that even an evil force as powerful as Satan cannot stand divided against himself. Jesus intends to steal back those possessed by the demons, one by one. Why would Satan give him the strength to accomplish that mission? The scribes are welcome to doubt that his power is given by God—but, he warns them, that doubt will not be forgiven come Judgment Day.
His family appears again at this point, calling him from the door of the house where he speaks.
But Jesus shows his characteristic determination. “Who are my mothers and brothers?” he asks the crowd. “Why, you are! If you do the will of God, I am happy to call you family.”
So the story goes. This telling has much to recommend it: Jesus’ steel-eyed intent, for one thing. One person at a time, he means to redeem God’s people, even if they don’t particularly want to be saved. The ministry of Jesus, as Mark reminds us again and again, is a bottomless pool of controversy. The man of Nazareth consistently puts the good of the people over the rules of their religious institutions.
Naturally enough, that stirs up the opposition. Barely three chapters into Mark’s gospel, and already Jesus’ enemies are plotting against him.
His followers didn’t have it much easier. The people Mark wrote to almost certainly faced pressure and even hostility from their friends, neighbors, and yes, families for their beliefs.
That Jesus claims his disciples as family is thus a blessing on them. It is a reassurance from the very source of the religion that they are his brothers and sisters, even and perhaps particularly when their own families reject them as crazy.
Which brings us back to the first verses of this passage. They deserve to be lingered on.
You will notice, for example, that Jesus never bothers to refute the charge of insanity. Even when his family seeks to restrain him—seize him, really, the same word for his arrest in the garden—he just shrugs it off. Sure, I’m nuts. What of it?
Here I like to imagine Jesus looking directly back as his accusers with a long, uncompromising gaze. He knows the game, but he won’t play. Someone truly out of his or her mind deserves compassion and healing, not confinement to save the family embarrassment. Jesus calls his family’s bluff and the bluff of all those who would marginalize the mentally ill.
The church, as it so often does, has played an equivocal role over the years. Many Christians have accepted mental infirmity as an illness, not the result of sin, and advocated for humane treatment. Yet for centuries, the mentally ill were often warehoused in monasteries or Christian homes, sometimes chained to their beds or the walls, and made to undergo abuse aimed at driving out their demons. Many of the places advocates wanted to reform were in fact church-based.
The church has no uniquely bad track record, to be sure. Its understanding and treatment of what we might call the neuro-atypical waxes and wanes, along with society.
These days, mental health has been largely medicalized. This has the advantage of making appropriate treatment available to many, though of course much more could be done. But as with any kind of medical treatment, mental health has been privatized from the world of the church. In most churches, it’s rare to hear much about the subject from the pulpit. Parishioners might ask a word or two of prayer for someone who is grieving, or depressed, but even that is unusual.
The church these days mostly prefers to leave mental illness as one of the numerous, unspecific burdens of the world to be escaped—ignored—on Sunday morning. Or it turns it into another cause to be rallied around with great determination for righting the injustices of the world.
I have been fortunate so far to have had congregants willing to accept my openness about living with bipolar depression. They haven’t always understood it, but that’s to be expected. Only a few people have been truly put off by a pastor like me. A broader group has been tolerant but unable to accept the real limits my particular illness imposes: memory lapses, an increased need for rest, a heightened susceptibility to stress and anxiety.
Some people see naming one’s limits as malingering, being open about one’s struggles as complaining. Some folks still think anyone can run a marathon on a prosthetic leg, if they just put their mind to it. It’s good to be reminded that you can usually accomplish more than you think you can, but at times, it verges on a cult of positive thinking.
In this, the church is again no better or worse than society as a whole. It is difficult to live with an invisible disability. I should say that the biggest group of people I’ve encountered, maybe about half, are accepting and supportive as best they can. A few even appreciate my honesty. Those are usually the ones who have lived with someone who has the same kind of challenges.
The deeper issue not just for me but for everyone is how the church divides against itself through polite distance. By far the most common complaint I have heard over nineteen years of ordained ministry is “I still feel like an outsider.” Family church too often means that it’s like family for the people inside the circle, and only for the people inside the circle. Astonishingly, that stands even in a community of 35 or 50 people.
That leads to a strange dynamic. Church people sometimes don’t trust one another, really, let alone anyone outside the circle. So they don’t get to know one another in any depth, which means they don’t accept their real selves for who they really are, because they haven’t shared their real selves.
I have received far more support, acceptance and guidance by friends outside the church than inside. It’s not because Christians are jerks; it’s because my friends are people who have taken the time to get to know and understand and trust me, and I them. We have been able to let down our barriers without fear of judgment. Along with the cult of positivity, there is a kind of cult of niceness that prevails in many parts of Christ’s body which dictates that suffering can be shared, but only up to the point other members are comfortable with.
It’s different for a pastor, of course. We’re supposed to be the carers, not the recipients of care. But this goes for the people in the pews as well. Don’t push your luck. Don’t drag the group down. Don’t be too different. Stay positive. Stay well-balanced and well-adjusted. Those are the rules.
As we know, Jesus had little use for rules. His highest value is that healing be accomplished, regardless of schedule, regardless of propriety, regardless of the challenges to his authority. He was willing to meet his death—and ultimately did—for the sake of those who needed him to drive out their demons, in more ways than one.
So we shouldn’t be too quick to move past the condemnation of Jesus as being “out of his mind.” Targeted by that accusation, he refuses to brush it off, and in doing so, identifies himself with the people from whom he casts out demons. Yeah, I’m out of my mind, he says, and he is!
What we translate here as “out of his mind” is elsewhere “amazed” or “astonished,” as when the disciples see the empty tomb or are perplexed at receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. It’s also translated as “beside oneself,” as when Paul declares, “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God.” Call me crazy, but for the Lord.
More to the point, the God for whom we are crazy has died, one for all. It’s not just those who do the will of God who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters, it’s all of us. Or rather, those who do the will of God are those who, like him, are unwilling to be split apart from one another, even those the rest of the world would dismiss as simply nuts. It’s not just that Christ accepts people like Kate Spade or Prince or Anthony Bourdain or, well, me. It’s that when we claim those people as our brothers and sisters, he claims us.
This takes on a special relevance as we still all too often hear people say things like “You don’t go to heaven when you kill yourself. It’s incredibly selfish. Don’t do it.”
This attitude literally and actually kills people.
Let me say this as clearly as possible: God loves all people, even those who suffer with mental illness, even those who die by their own hand.
To limit God’s love is to limit Godself. It is to reject God’s power and mistrust the movement of the Holy Spirit. It actually is a sin.
I mean, my God, the gospel we just heard contains the one thing Jesus calls unpardonable: calling into question God’s power to heal the mentally ill.
Can the church claim the people seeks to heal over the opposition? Can it become truly brothers and sisters in Christ? The failures of the past point to a bitter no. So many have been hurt and rejected by the institution, those who live with mental illness among so many others.
But faith points to the most tentative yes. If Christians are willing to trust in the Holy Spirit to lead them into deeper relationship, to allow them to show and accept their real selves, the only division will be in the house of Satan. The family of Jesus will continue in its messy, wounded, glory. And we will all be out of our minds, for God’s sake.
Let us pray. When I say “In your mercy,” you say “hear our prayer.”
We pray first for those who live with mental illness, the depressed, the psychotic, the schizophrenic, the suicidal. God, in your tender compassion, protect them and heal them. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for those shunned by society, marginalized and rejected for their sins, real or imagined. God who did not turn away even from Adam and Eve, remember your people. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for the humble, the poor, society’s losers. God who lifts up even the smallest, give them—and us—cause to exalt your name. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for ourselves, who need strengthening of body and soul. God who answers when we call, hear us and deliver us. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for the prophets rejected as mad because they cling too closely to your message of everlasting love and acceptance. Prosper their work, and teach us to emulate their example. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
Send your stories of madness, with or without the church, to: firstname.lastname@example.org, and as always, send your prayer requests too. I’m happy to pray for you.
Be mindful this week of those who live with mental illness around you. If nothing else, just keep a tally of the people you know; you might be surprised.
And with that, Amen.