Yesterday I decided not to help someone. It was nobody I knew—a man who had called the church and gotten a number for pastoral emergencies from our recorded telephone greeting. He told me that he’d called fifty churches and that I was the first person to call him back. He was asking for more than I usually give, two nights in a motel, and it would have been more than usually inconvenient for me personally to do it. That was a factor, I admit. But he was single male. From the way he described his situation, it sounded like he’d survive. And you can’t say “yes” to everyone, not if there’s going to be money in the discretionary fund when an even more pressing need arises. I didn’t judge him as unworthy of help. I didn’t feel justified in what I did. But I did tell him that I had decided not to help him, and that I was sorry, which I was. A few minutes later I got a text message calling me a “false prophet” and a “dog.”
Dom Helder Cámara, a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil in the 1960s and ‘70s, famously said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." This is what happens in unjust social systems. People turn against each other. I’m not suggesting a moral equivalence between the lonely man in need of shelter and the Brazilian ruling class. I’m not putting myself in the same league as Helder Cámara, equating courageous obedience to God’s commands concerning the poor with lame rationalizations for shirking them. I’m just noticing something common in our experience, that place where inequalities of wealth and power, and the work of being present to them, gets us called names.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been going around Galilee, preaching in the synagogues about the kingdom of God, about how close it is, about the shift in consciousness that brings people into it. He has been healing and casting out demons on his own charismatic authority. And he has been making provocative connections between the sicknesses he cures and the social and religious conditions in Galilee, between paralysis and debt, between hunger and Sabbath laws, between leprosy and priestly codes of purity. The tension between Jesus and the established authorities is mounting and they send some scribes down from Jerusalem, Public Information Officers, to issue grave warnings that Jesus is a black magician. He may have authority over the unclean spirits, but don’t be fooled. He is in league with Beelzebul, the prince of demons. This is the secret source of his power.
Jesus responds to this accusation in a remarkable way. He doesn’t deny the charges. He doesn’t accuse his accuser in return. Instead he joins with the premise and plays with it. “If I am using the power of evil to drive out evil,” he says, “then that’s really a good thing, is it not? Because if the devil is divided against himself, he is like a kingdom at war with itself, or a house divided. And that means that his power is at an end.” Speaking this way, Jesus not only disarms the fear and hatred which the scribe’s words were meant to arouse against him. At the same time, he turns the attention of his listeners away from the imaginary bogeyman Beelzebub, and toward the real danger that hangs over their lives. For, even though he is having fun with the silliness of the scribes’ slander, he is not making light of evil. Jesus, in his teasing way, directs our attention toward the real spirit of evil in the world, the one who works by making accusations, demonizing enemies, dividing kingdoms and houses and people against themselves, and bringing all down to ruin together.
Jesus then goes on to say something even more surprising. “But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” I think it is safe to say that Jesus is not advocating burglary. The strong man must be Satan, and the property that should be plundered from his house is us, the human beings on every side of a divided kingdom. It is all of us who are captive to the spirit of inequality, and division, and insult, and Jesus seriously intends to set us all free.
But to do that you need to get your hands dirty. You need to lay yourself open to the charge of being a criminal, to take the place of a robber, as Jesus will do on the cross. You can’t bind the strong man without getting very close to him, “up close and personal” as the saying goes. The other day in traffic with my family we saw a bumper sticker that read, “God bless our troops, especially our snipers.” Well, that approach doesn’t work with Satan. You can’t snipe at him from a distance. You can’t blow him up from 7,000 miles away with a pilotless drone.
In the last year or so I have been approached at one time or another by organizers for four different groups who are trying to bring together faith communities to build grassroots power for social change. Of course they want me to get involved, or more precisely, to get me to get you to get involved, and I have to explain to them that we are still in this start-up situation and have our hands full just getting our own fallen house in order. But it is intriguing to me that at a time when churches and synagogues are shrinking and closing their doors, and younger people are staying away in droves, and nobody in the society at large seems very interested in what we have to say, someone should be knocking on our doors looking to us for leadership to save the day. Maybe these organizers didn’t get the memo about the decline of the church. Or maybe there’s something else going on.
At the end of today’s gospel lesson Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters come to the door looking for him. They’ve become uncomfortable with all the attention he’s been getting, and the signs of trouble brewing. They’re worried about him, and are trying to get him to come back home and return to his senses. But when Jesus hears that they are outside, he looks around at the people who are sitting with him and says "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Here is an alternative to the society in which inequality sets people to blaming and cursing each other. Here is a vision of a single human family in which all are united in the freedom of obedience to no one but God. Maybe the organizers want to talk to us because, however imperfectly our communities of faith realize this vision, as segregated as we may still be by divisions of class and language and ethnicity, as haltingly as we may practice the ethical obligations that are the natural working out of this vision, at least we keep the vision alive. At least we know that this is what our life together is supposed to be like, and that we are in need of repentance and forgiveness when it is not.
And if binding the strong man, the spirit of inequality and bigotry and hatred, really demands that we get personally involved, maybe the organizers understand that only the power of the Spirit can give people the courage, and the stamina, and the capacity for bearing the truth, to stick with the work of liberation all the way to the end. Only people who know that the key to the new age that the world is literally dying to enter is a complete change of heart will steer clear of grandiose fantasies of power, and the seductions of self-righteousness. Maybe the new politics that the world needs really do start here, where we can take the risks, and make the mistakes, and learn the lessons of loving one another across our divisions, because we have been loved and because we have been forgiven.