I was having a conversation with someone the other day about cream teas, as you do. The thorny subject came up of whether you should put the cream or the jam on your scones first. Apparently, cream first is the Devonian way, and jam first is a sure sign you are Cornish. I have to say that, coming from the West Country myself, I don’t ever really recall this being a “thing” when I was growing up, but maybe that is because as a Devonian, it never occurred to me to do anything other than what is quite obviously right – cream first. I hadn’t realised it was a tribal marker until recently, but if it is, then it’s clear which tribe I am in! The person I was talking to said “Oh, I see. So there’s a Devonian way and a Cornish way” “No,” I said, “there’s the Devonian way and there’s the wrong way!”
Tribalism – which I was most certainly guilty of - is at the heart of the Gospel reading we heard today. People around Jesus are puzzling over his words and actions, but for many of them the question isn’t so much about the merits of his message, but whether he is like them or not, one of them or not, part of their tribe or not. Does he do things the way they do, see the world the way they do? If he does, he’s obviously a good thing; if he doesn’t then he is mad or bad and probably dangerous to know as well.
Even his family are behaving like this. Mark’s story is topped and tailed by reports of their concern for him. “He has gone out of his mind,” his family say. This will end in tears. They can see that. And they’d like to spare him, and themselves, the inevitable trouble which will come from annoying those in power.
Still, at least they care about him as a person. The scribes are much more brutal,. They accuse him of being in the pay of Satan.
The local Pharisees already have it in for him because of his apparent disregard of the Sabbath laws, but these religious experts have come all the way from Jerusalm to see what’s going on, and their verdict is damning. “ He’s possessed!” they say. “He’s a servant of Beelzebub”. They can’t argue with the facts. He has been healing and exorcising. But they argue that he’s been doing it through the devil’s power, because they can’t believe that God would use someone like him, a carpenter from Galilee who mixes with sinners.
They demonize him, quite literally, but that’s something we can all do, even if we don’t believe in actual demons at all. We demonize people by ascribing dark motives to those we’ve fallen out with or whose political or religious views we don’t share. We suspect them of hidden agendas. Nothing they can do is right or good, even if it really is right and good.
Our distrust spreads to things that have nothing to do with the real differences between us. Their dress is the wrong dress. Their football teams are the wrong football teams. The way they eat their scones is wrong, wrong, wrong. We forget what we originally fell out about. Now everything becomes a marker of our difference, and the result is that we can’t see anything good in them any more, or hear what they are really saying above all the clamour of all the stuff we’ve decided to hate about them.
Demonization poisons communities. That colleague or fellow member of the congregation who we disagreed with about something once, or who hurt us or made us look bad, now can’t open their mouths without putting our backs up. Our hackles rise as soon as we think of them.
Jesus demolishes the scribe’s argument with one blow. They’re saying that he’s casting out demons by the power of Satan. But why would Satan give him power to do that? The demons are Satan’s henchmen. It wouldn’t be in Satan’s interest to have them cast out of anywhere. He’d be fighting against himself, shooting himself in the foot. The scribes haven’t got an answer for that, but his clever logic isn’t going to be enough to convince them that God is with him, because they’ve already made up their minds otherwise. As he discovers, you can’t defeat demonization with logic.
Essentially demonization is what Jesus goes on to describe as the “unforgiveable sin”. It’s the sin of calling good things bad, saying that the work of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, is the work of Satan. It’s unforgiveable not because it’s worse than other sins but because when we commit it we don’t see that we are doing anything wrong. How can God forgive us, Jesus is saying, if we don’t think we need forgiveness, if we’re blind to what we are doing wrong? It’s only when our eyes are opened, as Adam and Eve’s are in our Old Testament reading, when we see that we are naked, that God can start to set us right again. Until we come to that painful realisation, God can’t get anywhere with us.
The scribes demonize Jesus, and their demonization of him eventually sends him to the cross. But there’s a real danger when we read Gospel stories like this that we do exactly the same to them. Christians throughout the ages have twisted these Gospel stories, lumping together all Jewish people with the few who opposed Jesus, a Jew himself, of course. It’s true that scribes, Pharisees and other Jewish groups tend to get a rather bad press in the Gospels, and it’s understandable too. The Gospels were written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70. Bitter arguments broke out within Judaism about why this had happened and who was to blame. Some Jewish groups – the Pharisees in particular – blamed the Christians, still very much part of the Jewish faith, because they said they’d polluted the faith by admitting Gentiles to their fellowship. They expelled the Christians from their synagogues.
Tempers were running high and in the midst of all that, it’s not surprising that the Gospels don’t tell us much about the scribes and Pharisees who supported Jesus, or that those who didn’t weren’t necessarily bad people, and that even when they do, as, for example in the story of Nicodemus, we have often missed those details. In truth, many scribes and Pharisees cared deeply about their nation and their faith and were just concerned that Jesus’ revolutionary ideas would bring down the wrath of Rome on them. They wanted peace, just as the Christians did. They just differed in how they thought it would come about. In the bitterness of the argument, though, the nuances got lost, and what we’re left with is probably far more black and white than it should be.
That’s a pity, because it’s meant that Christians have often done exactly what Jesus warns us against here. Instead of looking at the issues, we look at the tribal markers. Other people are either “our tribe” or “not our tribe” and we declare them “right” or “wrong” as a result. We forget that we’re all, first and foremost, children of God, each of us flawed and failing, but all with something to say that’s worth listening to, part of the truth that we all need.
I’m going to be dashing straight off at the end of this service because I am going to take part in a march in London commemorating the hundredth anniversary of women getting the right to vote. As a woman priest, I know I wouldn’t be here in this pulpit if other women hadn’t lobbied and fought, often at great cost, to win me that very basic right. Looking back now, it seems like a no-brainer. How could people have ever thought it was wrong? But they very genuinely and sincerely did.
I came across a pamphlet written by Lord Curzon, entitled Fifteen Good Reasons against the Grant of Female Suffrage. It sounds very bizarre now. Argument number four, for example, reads:
“Women have not, as a sex, or a class, the calmness of temperament or the balance of mind, nor have they the training, necessary to qualify them to exercise a weighty judgement in political affairs.” It continues in a similar vein through all fifteen dreadful clauses. [https://suffragettes.nls.uk/sources/source-24,
Everything in me recoils from Curzon’s “Good Reasons”, but, but… if I take Jesus words seriously, it matters that I don’t just write off what he says as pompous twaddle, because behind his awful rhetoric, there were concerns that were legitimate have been concerns that were quite legitimate. For example, he thought that giving the vote to women would be the start of the wider emancipation of women, and that this would have an effect on family and community life. And he was right. It has done. Now that most women as well as men do paid work outside the home, the vast army of stay-at-home wives and mothers who once provided childcare, elderly care and all sorts of voluntary community work has shrunk almost to nothing. No wonder voluntary organisations and churches struggle so much for help now.
Of course, I don’t agree with his solution to this – keeping women chained to the kitchen sink, subservient and silent. The answer lies in men and women together figuring out a pattern of family life that is healthy for them, and all of us together taking responsibility for sustaining community life , but painful though it is for me to admit it Curzon’s anxieties about this weren’t wrong, even if he didn’t express them in a very helpful way. Refusing to listen to our opponents, just because they have opposed us, isn’t the way to find the wisdom we all need.
It’s always tempting to think “my family right or wrong”, “my faith, right or wrong”, “my country, right or wrong” but Jesus said “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” even if it’s someone who we’ve always thought was our bitterest enemy.
Christ calls us to look for the real issues behind the posturing, the real person behind the stereotype, to listen for God’s voice amidst the clamour of our rivalries. It’s a calling to humility, a tough calling, which is why we so often fail at it, but it’s only by doing this that we’ll escape the endless cycles of bitterness which poison our attempts to build the kind of world God wants, and we need. It’s only by doing this that we’ll find that we are all one tribe – his tribe, his beloved people.