by Br Julian McDonald cfc

When his relatives heard of this, they set out to take him in hand, convinced that he was out of his mind. The scribes said: “He is possessed by Beelzebul. It is through the prince of devils that he casts devils out.” Mark 3, 20-35

Before you continue with your reading of this week’s reflection, I invite you to stop and ask yourself what attitude you hold towards religious sects.

Did you find, for instance, that the very word “sect” stirs up prejudices within you? Our English word “sect” is derived directly from Latin secta, meaning school of thought, and is generally used in reference to religion. Islam, for example, has two sects or schools of thought – the Shia school of thought and the Sunni one. At the time of Jesus, there existed a sect in Judaism known as the Essenes, a strongly ascetic group that practised voluntary celibacy and simplicity of life. In Christianity there are lots of different sects or denominations such as Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Now, we’ll put this topic on hold and move to a story that will lead us into today’s gospel and how it relates to sects.

You’ve probably heard of the youngster in junior secondary school who asked his father for help with his history assignment. “What’s the topic?” his father asked. “How do wars start?” the boy replied. “Well, son,” his father began “take World War I. That started when Germany invaded Belgium.
“Just a moment,” the boy’s mother interrupted. “It began when Francis Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist.”
“Well, dear, that was the spark that ignited the fighting, but the political and economic factors leading to the war had been in place for some time.”
“Yes, I know, dear, but our son asked how the war began, and every history book will tell you that World War I began with the assassination of the Archduke of Austria.”
Drawing himself up with an air of superiority, the husband snapped: “Are you answering the question, or am I?”
His wife turned on her heels and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her. When the plates stopped rattling, there was an uneasy silence. The youngster broke it: “Dad, you don’t have to tell me anything more about how wars start. I understand now.”

This anecdote gives us an insight into the influences that help to shape the opinions we offer, and the judgements and decisions we make every day of our lives. If we are honest with ourselves, we can probably trace the political views we hold back to the family in which we grew up. What we think of schools and education today may well be shaped by what we think of the school from which we graduated as teenagers. We know that we sometimes look at our schooldays through rose-coloured glasses, forgetting that more attention was given to making sure that we passed public examinations than went into educating us to think and act for ourselves. The two parents debating over what started World War I more than likely had different text books and different teachers, and so they interpreted their son’s question differently. On reflection, we realise that wars begin well before the first shot is fired, and that family disagreements start before someone storms out and slams the door.

The on-again, off-again North Korea Summit that has been international news in the last few weeks seems to have had its fair share of metaphorical door-slamming. Some commentators have referred to it as an impending clash between two leaders whose giant egos seem to matter more than the best interests of the people they lead. Something worthwhile might emerge if the common good could be given preference over individual, personal wants. Nothing much will come of the proposed summit until each of the major participants can come to see, understand and respect the perspectives of all who are part of the meeting. Inflexible views and self-interest will always help to fuel conflict and keep collaboration and unity at a distance. But remember, the views I have expressed in the last two paragraphs have been shaped by my experience, perspectives and biases. You are free to agree or disagree. But reflect first, because you, too, have your own experiences, perspectives and biases.

Today’s gospel reading puts the focus on the conflicts and tensions that had developed between Jesus and the official religious leaders, and between Jesus and the members of his extended family. As Mark tells the story, we can see two great ironies. It is ironical that, as Jesus address the crowd about the danger of division in families and communities, members of his own extended family are labelling him as crazy. The young man they saw grow up in a respectable family of their village is now a source of embarrassment. They interpret his outspokenness against religious authority as something of a brain-snap. In their minds he has gone and set up his own religious splinter-group. He and his disciples are very much like some kind of strange, religious sect. And yes, in the minds of those who saw him grow up, he has led astray those prepared to listen to him and incited them to look critically at the conduct of their religious leaders. He is talking about the dangers of division and his talk looks as though it is creating division. It’s difficult, isn’t it, to change our thinking and acting, even if they hold us oppressed and unfree, especially when such thinking and acting are promoted by the authorities, both religious and civil, we have come to trust?

The second irony, of course, is that Jesus, who has been seen by crowds casting out demons and freeing people controlled by evil spirits, is now labelled by the scribes as a man “possessed by the prince of demons, Beelzebul”. Of course, people who have a comfortable patch to protect often, out of fear, resort to name-calling those who try to unmask them. Any law, tradition or practice that keeps me safe in my comfort, position or reputation, I am, understandably, reluctant to change. So, the reaction of the Scribes comes as no surprise.

Jesus came on a mission to convince people that they were loved deeply by the God who had loved them into life. His message that love, reconciliation, mercy and kindness would eventually triumph over things like self-interest, competitiveness, prejudice and oppression looked and sounded like lunacy, especially to those who had built comfortable lives at the expense of the poor, the oppressed and those who could not bring themselves to question the integrity of their religious leaders. That message of Jesus may still sound like lunacy to the ears of those who cannot move beyond the narrow ambit of self-interest. It requires effort and humility to see the world from the perspective of someone we regard as a threat. Underneath today’s gospel can be found an invitation to us to listen to a world that is hurting and confused, to a world whose agenda calls for a response based on the “lunacy” of the Gospel, the “lunacy” of humility, forgiveness, compassion and acceptance of the other, however different we think that other is.