Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. Maybe people today think that we are crazy too, when we choose to follow Jesus the Messiah. I want to examine this idea through the gospel reading from Mark, as well as the OT and NT readings.
Why did people think that Jesus was crazy? The gospel text says, “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’”
Two responses to Jesus. What was Jesus doing that led his family to say, “He’s out of his mind”, and the teachers of the law to say, “He’s possessed by a demon!”? First, he was healing people and casting out demons himself. His actions caught people’s attention, so that crowds started following him to listen to his teaching and to see what he would do next.
Second, Jesus made implicit claims about his identity. In chapter 1 he cast out an evil spirit, who identified Jesus clearly before he left the possessed man: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” The people heard this spirit speak, and they started speculating about Jesus.
In chapter 2, four men dug a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus was teaching. They lowered their friend, a paralyzed man, through the hole in the roof, for Jesus to heal him. Jesus response was not a simple healing. Instead, he said, “Son, your sins are forgiven!” If the event in chapter 1 started people talking, this action poured fuel on the fire of their thoughts. “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Jesus did not back down, but referred to himself as the Son of Man, a title meaning “the Messiah”, as he healed the man’s paralysis. At the end of chapter 2, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees, and refers to himself both as the Son of Man and as the Lord of the Sabbath.
These actions were the real reason that his family thought he was crazy. He claimed unity with God. He claimed a direct unique identity as one with God.
C.S. Lewis described the problem that Jesus presents us with as a trilemma. Let me explain. Jesus claims to be uniquely identified with God. If he had lived in India as a Hindu of that time period, this claim would not have surprised anyone. One school of Hinduism uses the phrase, “I am God, You are God” to express the essential unity of all reality. If they had heard Jesus talk about “the Son of Man” and “the Lord of the Sabbath”, they would have agreed.
But Jesus lived in the Roman Province of Judea, and he was a Jew. First century Jews had a clear understanding that God is unique. The great Shema of Judaism says, “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Any suggestion that you are I or anyone else was somehow uniquely identified with God was blasphemy. In Jesus’ life, his claim to one with the Father was a basic reason that the Jews had him crucified. The penalty for blasphemy is death.
So we come to Lewis’ trilemma. Here is how he puts it in Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God
At this stage of his career, Jesus’ family did not accept the idea that he was God, but held to the idea that he was a crazy: a lunatic. The teachers of the law also could not accept that he was God, but held to the idea that he was allied with Satan. So, why did people (including his family) think that Jesus was crazy? They thought that Jesus was crazy because he identified himself as the one in whom God comes to earth. As he puts it in John’s gospel repeatedly, “I and my father are one.”
1 Samuel 8 and 2 Corinthians 4
Jesus made no effort to fit into people’s ideas of what he should be. He was simply himself: One with God; the Son of Man [i.e., the Messiah]; the Lord of the Sabbath. God’s people have been less ready to stand out from the crowd.
In 1 Samuel 8, the Children of Israel decided they wanted a king. The people living around them had a king, and they wanted to fit in. Samuel counselled against their choice. Giving their ruler the power of being king would lead to tyranny, he warned, but the people insisted: They wanted a king. God gave them a king – first Saul, and then David and his heirs. God even used their rebellion to prepare the way for the Messiah, God’s Chosen One, to come. But the point of the passage is clear: By deciding to be like the people around them, the Children of Israel rebelled against God. God wanted them to understand that God is king, rather than any human ruler.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul defends his authority as an apostle. The Corinthians were attracted to spiritual rock stars (Paul calls them “super-apostles”) who showed up in their midst, but Paul refuses to fit into their ideas of what he should be. Earlier in chapter 4, he refers to himself and the Corinthians as “earthen vessels”, that is, ordinary people who do not stand out from the crowd. Here he observes that their ordinariness is being transformed into glory.
We might wonder then: Do People Think We’re Crazy? They might! If people around us listen to our conversation and to our hymns and all that we say and do together, they might think we’re crazy. As with Jesus, their perception might come from our stated identity.
Look at the person beside you. Maybe you think they’re really cool or really dull. Maybe you wish they had sat closer to you or a few rows behind you instead. The fact is, however, that whatever else we think about each other, we all fit. We’re an ordinary group of Canadians, and no one would think twice about us, at least at first sight.
Then we start to sing and pray and read Scripture, and we say things like, “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” We start to talk about each other as people who reflect God’s glory. Pretty soon we are referring to each other as kings and queens, divine royalty. We come close to outdoing Shankara, the great Hindu theologian of 1400 years ago, who said to his students, “You are god!” If people really understood what we’re saying, they might indeed say, “You guys are crazy!”
A hundred years ago, Vachel Lindsay wrote a remarkable poem called “General William Booth enters into Heaven”. He pictures the moment that the founder of the Salvation Army, renowned for his work among the world’s poor, died and went to heaven. Listen to part of what he wrote:
Booth led boldly with his big bass drum—
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
The Saints smiled gravely and they said: “He’s come.”
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,
Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank,
Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale—
Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:—
Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,
Unwashed legions with the ways of Death—
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
Lindsay continues with the transformation that overtakes the crowd in Heaven:
Jesus came from out the court-house door,
Stretched his hands above the passing poor.
Booth saw not, but led his queer ones there
Round and round the mighty court-house square.
Yet in an instant all that blear review
Marched on spotless, clad in raiment new.
The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled
And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.
Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole!
Gone was the weasel-head, the snout, the jowl!
Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean,
Rulers of empires, and of forests green!
The hosts were sandalled, and their wings were fire!
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
But their noise played havoc with the angel-choir.
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
O shout Salvation! It was good to see
Kings and Princes by the Lamb set free.
The banjos rattled and the tambourines
Jing-jing-jingled in the hands of Queens.
That’s us too! Look around at each other. Divine royalty following our master into the very presence of God!
What Does This Mean Now?
What sets this “good kind of crazy” off from the real crazy? I remember Jonestown. Jim Jones led a cult he called “The People’s Temple” to found a commune in Indiana, which moved to California and finally to Jonestown, Guyana. More than 300 people died when he led them in a mass suicide. I remember David Koresh. Koresh led a cult called the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Koresh and 79 others died in an FBI raid. I have no interest in being part of a cult that elevates its leader beyond all reason and destroys the members’ ability to think.
How is the good kind of crazy different from this? Consider why Jesus’ family changed their minds about him – because they really did change their minds. They observed him throughout his ministry. They saw how he loved people unconditionally and worked on their behalf. They heard to his teaching and recognized the Spirit of God moving through him. The longer they listened and watched and paid attention, the more they realised that Jesus was not crazy, nor was he possessed; they realised that he was just who he said he was.
What’s Your Story?
I have referred to C.S. Lewis often. He began his adult life as a bitter atheist, convinced that God did not exist and angry with God for not existing. Throughout his 20s, his atheism was challenged at various levels, and he came to believe in God. He did not, however, become a Christian. As Alistair McGrath puts it, Lewis could not see what difference Jesus could make to our lives today. The stories about Jesus were just too far away to be relevant.
Then his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, said something that changed his mind. Tolkien pointed out (to use our 21st century language) that everyone lives by what we call a metanarrative. Alistair McGrath describes the story that people like Jean Paul Sartre and Richard Dawkins live by:
We are here by accident, meaningless products of a random process. We can only invent meaning and purpose in life, and do our best to stay alive—even though there is no point to life.
McGrath continues with the story of Jesus:
We are precious creatures of a loving God, who has created for us something special that we are asked to do. We have the privilege of being able to do something good and useful for God in this world, and need to work out what it is. (from Lunches with C.S. Lewis)
We discover what God wants us to do by paying attention to Jesus. Jesus is unique in the world’s history. No other “great teacher” claimed to be God. The Buddha was clear that he was not God. Mohammed and Moses would have been horrified at the idea. Jesus says that he shows us God uniquely in himself. He provides a way to live, a strange habit of life that looks crazy, but proves to be the door into the heart of God’s love.
How do we know if this story is true? Lewis tells us that the best way to know if a story is true is by seeing how well it makes sense of the rest of reality. If we are no more than “the meaningless products of a random process”, then we cannot make sense of anything. What Lewis found as a young man, atheist and angry with God for not existing, was that belief in God made sense of everything from his own misfortunes in life to the horrors of World War One. As Lewis famously put it, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
[Please note: This is not any kind of a developed argument here. You will have to go and do the work of understanding these ideas more fully on your own. A good place to start is Christian Smith’s book, Moral, Believing Animals, in which he describes several of the major metanarratives that people live by today. In this space, all I can say is that I found the story of Jesus to be true, and I have organized my life round it.]
As we read the story of Jesus, then, we discover how we are to live. We are not like the people around us (unlike the Children of Israel in 1 Samuel 8). We are ordinary people (like those in 2 Corinthians 4), who carry the glory of God inside of us. How do we do this? By choosing the story of Jesus to become the pattern for the story of our lives, a strange habit of life.
Like Jesus, we care for people who are hurting and broken. Like Jesus, we refuse to participate in patterns that are harmful and destructive. Like Jesus, we listen for God’s voice within – both within each one of us, and within the community as a whole, through the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, listening for God’s direction for each step of life.
People like the Branch Dravidians or the People’s Temple did not allow God to reshape their own stories with God’s story, told through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We live in that story, as God reshapes our lives. It may look crazy to the people around us, but it is in fact the source of all that is good and true in our world.
10 June 2018
Grace Bible Church
1 Samuel 8:4-20:
4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.’ 6 But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. 9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.’
10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, ‘This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: he will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. 20 Then we shall be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.’
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1:
13 It is written: ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken.’ Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 5 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ 22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’
23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.’ 30 He said this because they were saying, ‘He has an impure spirit.’
31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting round him, and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’ 33 ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked. 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle round him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’