What kind of a house do you live in? I’m not asking whether your home is a flat, a villa, a semi or something else. I’m not interested in whether your dwelling is neatly organised, a tiny bit messy or a total coup — or whether what we’d see on Zoom calls reflects the rest of the room! Nor am I concerned with whether it’s a stylishly furnished pad or an eclectic jumble or whether you stocked it from Ikea, John Lewis or the charity shops. No, I’m interested in something deeper.
What kind of a house do you live in? What is the character of the relationships it holds? What is the direction in which your interactions point? Is it a house full of gripes and recriminations or full of love, forgiveness and healing?
Ultimately, these questions point us towards the heart of today’s readings from Genesis and the Gospel of Mark. In essence, they ask: what sort of people are we? What sort of a person are you? Not what sort of a person you think you are or you want to be or be seen as but what kind of a person you actually are. Where do your allegiances lie? When it comes down to it, what do your words and actions show?
Our reading from Genesis shows that oh-so-human tendency to shift the blame for our actions on to others. Regardless of whether we find it comforting or distressing to be told that this trait has been there from the very beginning, there is a lot of baggage in the interpretation of this passage of Scripture.
Not the least of this baggage is the interpretation that tries to focus the blame for sin on Eve and, through her, on all women throughout all history to the present. That understanding, surely, just falls into the same mire as Adam. It misses subtle but crucial points in the dialogue, primarily that Adam blames God: “the woman you gave to be with, she gave me fruit”. Adam fractures his two most intimate relationships at once: he blames Eve and, even more so, he blames God for his own failure to follow God’s command.
Eve, however, is less evasive: she puts the blame on the serpent but doesn’t say anything about God having made it, as she could have done. Given the way that parallelism is used in the Hebrew Scriptures, I think it’s quite telling that she doesn’t mirror Adam’s evasion. Moreover, in admitting that she was tricked, she perhaps admits more fault in herself than Adam has the guts to do.
This tendency to blame others for our own actions is an attempt to find a way out of our own responsibility. If we’re not to blame, we don’t have any work to do; we don’t have to change. We don’t have to repent. Falling into this pattern is one of the most destructive things we can do to ourselves and our relationships because it twists our actions, motives and sense of self out of shape.
The Gospel reading shows this impulse at work in a different way: both Jesus’ family and the Jerusalem scribes try to avoid their responsibility to listen, to change, to repent by blaming Jesus’ disruptive actions on insanity or Satan instead of allowing themselves to see and admit that God is at work in what he is doing.
It is telling that these groups seem to be outside the house where Jesus is. That is, they are distant from Jesus, from the presence and action of God in Jesus. That distance doesn’t help them to see what is really going on.
On the other hand, they are only doing what’s expected of them. Jesus’ family is trying to keep him safe from himself and perhaps to keep their own reputation intact. The scribes are trying to defend the tradition against this maverick who eats, as chapter 2 of the Gospel tells us, with tax collectors — in other words, collaborators in the Roman oppression — and sinners. The tradition and the family are the spaces in which God was understood to be at work. But the fault of those outside the house is assume that God cannot be at work beyond those spaces and that any good done outwith them must come from an unhealthy or even evil source.
Whereas Adam attributed to God the work of the serpent, the scribes attribute to Satan the work of God. The scribes and Adam both end up outside the house, turning reality on its head. But, whereas Adam and Eve are banished from Eden, Jesus calls the scribes to him. He invites them into his presence to teach them. He does not exclude them but gives them the opportunity to understand, to see that God is at work in him and in the motley crew of misfits gathered round him.
Yes, God is at work on the margins. Yes, God is at work outside the boundaries of what is respectable. But God desires as much as ever to welcome in those who struggle to see beyond those boundaries. For, the traditional boundaries, such as those of family relations, are burst open by the coming of God’s Kingdom, as Jesus makes plain in his response to the arrival of his family.
So, what kind of house do you live in? Or, to put it another way, what kind of heart, what kind of spirit do you have?
- Are you, like the scribes in this passage, so focused on trying to serve God in the way with which you’re familiar that, when God breaks those boundaries, you end up not only rejecting God but painting yourself into an absurd corner you can’t escape?
- Does God’s unruliness make you feel uncertain and scared, like Jesus’ family perhaps was?
- Or are you open to the surprising ways that God works on the margins, outside the boundaries, beyond the pale? Are you inside the house with Jesus or at least clamouring at the back to push your way through to where you can see him?
This is the challenge of the Gospel for today. And it is a challenge that rings out in each of our own lives as much as it does in the wider community. Are we open to God working on the margins, outside the boundaries, of what we find acceptable not just about others but about ourselves? For that is where God longs to bring healing and wholeness and that, in my experience, is where our most profound encounters with God can be born. Encounters that can help to shape us into people who bring God’s wholeness and healing to those around them.
To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have believed and have come to know that you are the holy one of God.