A Reflection on 1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15 & Mark 3:20-35 for Proper 5B / Ordinary 10B
It has always fascinated me that so many scenes in the Bible contain the instruction, “Do not fear”. In the last while I think I have begun to understand why. If there is anything that will shift us from our dreams and desires; if there is anything that will drive us into destructive, even evil, behaviour; if there is anything that will cause us to shift our allegiance from God’s Reign to self-protection, self-interest or idolatry it’s fear.
It is well known that one of the challenges that we have faced in South Africa since the birth of our democracy in 1994 is high levels of crime and violence in parts of some of our large cities. The fear that has resulted has often led us into situations that have been worse, perhaps, than the crime itself. Our fear has, at times, led us to hide behind high walls, topped with razor wire or electric fencing – to the extent that one radio station put up a billboard showing a massive, secure wall with the caption, “Who’s putting who behind bars?”. Our fear has, at times, led us into xenophobic or racial violence against those who are different from us. Our fear has, at times, led some of us to make the tough decision to leave our homeland altogether, seeking security and opportunity in other lands. And, of course, it was our fear that created the apartheid system that still leaves deep scars on our life together. But, these realities that have been so highlighted by our fear, are far less of an issue than they would seem. We live in a country which continues to contribute to the world in many significant ways. There are initiatives across the land in which people of all walks of life, races and nationalities work together to ensure that the sick are cared for, the hungry fed and the homeless sheltered. South Africa remains a land of awesome beauty, friendly and resourceful people, and creative response to personal and social challenges. It is only our fear that blinds us to the goodness.
After a season of peace and prosperity with Samuel as judge, the Israelites found themselves at a turning point. Samuel was getting old, and it was uncertain how long his tenure as judge would continue. It seemed, though, that he had forgotten the word of judgment that God had asked him to deliver to his mentor, Eli, when Eli’s sons had gone astray and had not been disciplined by their father (1 Samuel 3:11-14). Perhaps in his own fear for their future, Samuel had appointed his sons as judges, but they were corrupt and untrustworthy. Up to that point, the judges had been seen as the mouthpiece of Israel’s true king – God – but now the people were afraid for their future. Their faith in Samuel’s sons was non-existent, and their faith in God’s ability to keep them secure was failing. So, they asked Samuel to help them appoint a human king, like the nations around them. It was an attempt to take control of their own future, but, it was driven by fear and so it cost them way more than they could ever have realised. Although Samuel tried to warn them, they ignored his pleading, rejected God as king, and set their nation on a course which divided the kingdom in two, left their fortunes in the hands of rulers that alternated between godliness and corruption, and ultimately destroyed Israel and drove the people into exile. The consequences of their fear were far-reaching and destructive.
In a similar way, when Jesus arrived on the scene, his proclamation of the Good News and his demonstrations of God’s grace and power challenged both his loved ones and his religious leaders in a way that brought out the worst of their fear. As his popularity grew and people began flocking to hear him and be touched by him, Jesus’ family clearly became concerned. They became afraid that he was losing his mind – or perhaps that’s what they told themselves to avoid confronting the real possibility that he actually was the Messiah. Certainly, it took the resurrection to convince his brother, James, that this was the case. If he was becoming something of a megalomaniacal madman, the family had a lot to lose if they didn’t control him. Their reputation, their standing in society, and quite possibly their safety were all on the line. So, they went to find him and take him home. It is curious that Mary seemed to have joined this family delegation. Jesus’ mother is hardly mentioned in Mark’s Gospel, and it is clear in v.32 that she was with the family who had come to see Jesus. Yet, the other Gospels indicate that she knew that her son was God-sent. Had her fear for her son’s well being and her family’s safety overwhelmed her faith? While Mark does not spell this out, it seems pretty clear that fear was at work in the family’s quest to silence their sibling and son. After all, no one calls a sane family member mad unless there is a lot to lose.
For the religious leaders the situation was, perhaps, less emotionally fraught, but no less fearful. This wandering preacher was drawing crowds, while ignoring Sabbath regulations and forgiving sinners. In their minds there was no way he could be sent by God – or at least there was no way they could entertain the possibility that he was the Messiah. The popularity of Jesus was a threat to their status as religious leaders. It was a threat to their control of the people and their ability to maintain the purity of their faith. But, perhaps most frightening of all, it was a threat to the political stability of their nation. So, in their fear, they accuse him of being demon possessed. It is the only way they can explain his power without acknowledging God’s work through him. Their fear blinded them to the truth that the ancient dream of God’s Reign, that had been held for centuries in the heart of their nation and their religion, was now being fulfilled in their time.
This is the destructive power of fear. Fear drives us to isolate ourselves from those who are different and threatening in hyper-protected bunkers. Fear turns us into self-appointed protectors who seek to control those around us and keep them from doing anything that would upset our carefully constructed security. Fear drives us to demonise others when they step out of our boundaries of religious or cultural acceptability. Fear teaches us to wage war, to hunt witches, to hate the “other” and to close our hearts to the new. For many people of faith allegiance to our fear feels like allegiance to God – even as it drives us, and those we condemn or exclude or control, further and further from the grace and love of God.
But there is another way. “Anyone who does God’s will is My brother and sister and mother,” said Jesus (Mark 3:35 NLT). This is the way of faith, the way of trusting the values and purposes of God’s Reign, the way of repentance, of embracing necessary change, and of losing our lives so that we may find them. This is the way of trusting our lives to our Divine Monarch, instead of seeking to control our own destiny. It is the way of opening our minds to the possibility that our own family member may be God’s Chosen one, and that this strange, challenging Carpenter could be the Messiah we’ve been waiting for. It’s not a magical faith that sees God as a super hero who swoops in to save the day on our behalf. It’s a hard-working and reasonable faith in which we give all that we have and all that we are to the message and mission of justice, love, grace, compassion, goodness, truth and beauty. But, it’s also a faith that recognises that we are not the final controllers of our destiny – that there are creative and serendipitous ways that God’s Spirit works in and through us to enable us to navigate an unpredictable and difficult human journey.
And we all know this way, although we may not know that we know it. All of us have had moments of amazing connectivity to the life of God and of the universe. We have all had moments when our best efforts seem to combine with something bigger than ourselves and we achieve something beyond our own expectations or natural abilities. We have all had moments of being “in the zone” or “in the groove” or in a “flow state”, when our awareness and responses have seemed to be energised and awakened by something other, something more divine than our own innate capacity.
Jesus is the example of this way of living. He was comfortable to challenge the religious leaders, knowing how dangerous it was, because he had given his life for something bigger than his own security. He could see through his family’s attempt to control him, and refuse to entertain their fearful demand to see him, because his loyalties lay with something that would ultimately heal and liberate his loved ones, along with so many others. Jesus, whatever fear he may have faced, consistently and courageously made the ultimate choice – faith instead of fear – and it carried him through the ultimate sacrifice to the ultimate victory.
Now, as we witness the faith of Christ, we are faced with the same choice – and we must make it every single day – will we live out of our fear, or will we make the radical and dangerous choice for faith. Will we give our allegiance to kings and idols of our own making, believing that this makes us safer and more in control, or will we bow the knee to Christ, and trust our lives to the unpredictable promptings of love and justice? It’s not an easy choice, make no mistake. But, it is a choice between life and death – and it’s not fear that preserves our lives, no matter how much we may convince ourselves that it is.