When His family heard it, they went out to restrain Him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of His mind.” (Mark 3.21)
We’re often more frustrated by what the gospels don’t tell us than trying to decipher the mysteries they set before us. As modern readers, we expect them to filter Jesus’s life through a psychological lens: focus first on His thoughts and feelings, then show us how they play out in His behavior and accomplishments. But the writers come at biography from the opposite angle. They concentrate on Jesus’s words and deeds as evidence of His ideas and emotions. So little is said about His inner workings that Mark 3:20-35 (Sunday’s Gospel) catches us off-guard. The passage is one of very few to consider the psychology behind Jesus’s actions. Even then, it’s not about what He thinks. It describes what others think of Him—their suspicions about what makes Him tick. And their conclusions aren’t flattering. Those closest to Him (His family) believe rumors that He’s gone crazy. Those most threatened by Him (theologians) believe He’s possessed. Not flattering.
The strangest aspect of this episode is that Mark doesn’t go into detail about what brings it on. He gets Jesus up and running right away: no preface (like John) stating his views of Jesus, no detailed account of Jesus’s birth and lineage like we find in Matthew and Luke. In Mark, John the Baptist declares, “Prepare the way of the Lord” and—boom!—there Jesus is, fully grown and ready to get started. Mark dashes off a few high points: the baptism, wilderness temptation, assemblage of the disciples, and a few exorcisms and healings, a couple of which upset the religious establishment for occurring on the Sabbath. But we don't find much insight as to what's going on in Jesus's head, or why people think He's insane.
Jesus Makes Sense
The crowds around Jesus keep growing. By the time we reach the third chapter, verse 20 says they’re so large that Jesus and His followers can’t even find a quiet place to eat. Up to this point, Jesus doesn’t say very much in Mark. So what follows comes out of the blue: “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.’” (v21-22) In a time when the countryside runs riot with healers and exorcists, we wonder what makes people say Jesus is crazy. Why would they flock to Him if they truly thought He’d lost His mind? What causes His family’s concern—to the point that they would rush to pull Him away from His work? Do they believe He’s crazy, too? Why would learned religionists theorize that He’s doing the devil’s work by relieving people of vexing spirits? None of this makes sense until Jesus opens His mouth. Then we get it. People think Jesus is crazy and/or possessed because He makes sense. The surest way to sound nuts during nutty times is to speak soundly, sensibly, and assuredly to the situation. Which Jesus does.
What Mark and the other writers don’t tell us (as it need not be told to their intended readers) is that Jesus has come to people stranded in an upside-down world. The land God gave them has been stolen—again. While they await their King, they live under Caesar’s thumb. Their synagogues ring with psalms of God’s goodness and provision. Yet the soundtrack of their lives is replete with dirges of sorrow and hunger. Corruption, injustice, and poverty have warped their minds. Despair has dislodged hope. They substitute religiosity for faithfulness. Nothing is as it seems or what it should be. Deceit masquerades as honesty; virtue is met with suspicion. If we didn’t live in similar times, it would be difficult to conceive how jaded and unhealthy Jesus’s world is. Since He is Truth and Life, however, He speaks truth and life. So, of course, people think He’s crazy, as His words and actions don’t conform to their daily reality.
We get a taste of just how twisted things have got when the scribes—the most learned leaders of their day—assume that freeing people of diabolical influences proves Jesus is possessed. How crazy is that? Yet it makes sense to them until Jesus dismantles their logic. “How can Satan cast out Satan?” He asks. “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” (v23-24) He cautions against attributing His work to “an unclean spirit,” saying such a sin is unforgiveable. That’s when His mother and brothers show up and insist that He stop talking and leave with them. In this topsy-turvy culture, the family unit is the only stable institution. Rumors that Jesus has gone mad are shaming His family. Their demand must be honored. Yet instead of submitting to His kinfolk’s crazy fears and insufficient grasp of Who He is, Jesus redefines family. He looks around at those nearest Him, who find eternal truth at the heart of His puzzling statements and demeanor. “Here are My mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is My brother and sister and mother,” He declares. (v34-35)
Believe the Good News
So where are we in this story? Well, that depends on what shapes our psyches. If we allow this crazy, mixed-up world of ours to control how we perceive others and ourselves—if we surrender to its oppressive ideologies and suspicions—then we belong with the backward crowd: amateur critics, learned fools, and fearful family members. But if we set our hearts on being like Christ—if we refuse to yield to uninformed opinions, religious nonsense, and loved ones’ pressure to conform—we will speak truth and life to those who long for hope and healing. We will see the world not as it is, but as it should be. We will heed the first words of Jesus that Mark records: “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1.15)
In Romans 12.2 we read: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Do we know that people say we’re crazy to believe God loves us, regardless where we come from and who we are? Of course we do. Are we aware that many religious folks attribute our pursuit of faithfulness to satanic delusions? Sure we are. Do we have friends and family who put more credence in what others tell them about us than what we know to be true? It’s highly likely. In this Gospel, Jesus serves as living proof that conformity to the world’s upside-down ways is not His way. Succumbing to group pressure, cynicism, and fearful mindsets won't lead to transformation. The kingdom of God is near. Leave the crazy nonsense behind. Believe the good news.
The truth of Christ sounds crazy to a crazy, mixed-up world.
Postscript: “All That I’m Allowed”
This song is new to me. I recently heard it in a supermarket and stopped in my tracks. I can’t quite articulate how it connects with this post, but somehow—for me, at least—it does. Perhaps it’s because Elton John also gives witness to the power of speaking truth and life to an upside-down world. “I always hoped that I’d do better, that I’d come out on top for once,” the song says, adding, "The barriers get in the way, but I see hope in every cloud." And when we forego conformity to nonsensical opinions and fears, that’s what happens. We come out on top.
May we all be thankful for all that we’re allowed.