The starting place for understanding the growing conflict between Jesus and the often well-intentioned conservatives (those holding on to the value of established traditions) is Mark 2:21-22. Until now, Jesus has offended them by healing the paralytic and claiming the authority to forgive sins which has already set them against him.
They can handle the preaching of John because it is about repentance and personal holiness but there is nothing in it that would threaten their system. John and his disciples are likely as strict with themselves as the Pharisees. Preaching a message of social justice, ethics and treating people fairly is not seen as threatening. In fact, making religion a little more demanding might even be a good thing. They missed the point of John’s preaching and how disconnected they had become from the people. The reformation goes in front of the revolution.
”A revolution without a prior reformation would collapse or become a totalitarian tyranny. A reformation means that masses of our people have reached the point of disillusionment with past ways and values. They don’t know what will work but they do know that the prevailing system is self-defeating, frustrating, and hopeless. They won’t act for change but won’t strongly oppose those who do. The time is then ripe for revolution”. Saul Alinsky
John was the reformation and Jesus is the revolution. “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
We quote that verse freely without thinking much about what it means if someone in our own time takes it seriously. We are all in favor of Jesus changing the Jewish laws but we would not be if we had the responsibility of making and keeping laws for the good of society. Without the accepted laws everything would fall apart.
If you follow politics you are probably familiar with the sudden rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or AOC for short. Her origins are murky and no one is quite sure where she is from or how she suddenly became the darling of the far left. It all happened overnight – just like it has with Jesus.
Things she says about capitalism and socialism are disturbing to conservatives especially but even fellow Democrats.
“And so I do think that right now we have this no-holds-barred, Wild West hyper-capitalism. What that means is profit at any cost. Capitalism has not always existed in the world, and it will not always exist in the world. When this country started, we were not a capitalist [nation], we did not operate on a capitalist economy.”
”During a hearing, the freshman lawmaker created a game in which she pretended to be “a really, really bad guy” who wants to abuse the system as much as possible. Then, in a series of questions, she exposed the world of payoffs, dark money, PACs and more. She even revealed how it was perfectly legal for a lawmaker to invest in an industry, then write laws to benefit that industry.”
”She has shown some unusual skills… that seem to be driving Republicans absolutely nuts. Despite the occasional misstep, she seems earnest and even joyful (a rare quality), and has become a social media star… Not only is she not afraid of being attacked by Republicans, she’s eager to advocate policies like single-payer health care and dramatically higher taxes for the wealthy despite the fact that she knows Republicans will react in horror… Conservatives are appalled by her for much the same reason progressives love her…”
What was Jesus saying about old garments and wineskins? He was not talking about mending or adapting. He was talking about a total and complete change. I am sure there were some progressive scribes and Pharisees who had similar feelings about changing the system and bringing in reforms. I can imagine their taking him aside and saying, “Let’s go slow on this and not create so many enemies. Let’s build trust with those who might align with us. Stop isolating and alienating people we need. We are trying to get the needed reforms as well but these things take time. Try a little compromise. Smile more.”
What does Jesus do to help heal the rift he has created with the important people he has offended? Does he co-sign a bill? Does he step across the aisle in a gesture of bi-partisanship? Does he lay low for a few weeks and stay out of sight.
No, he goes up against one of the most sacred beliefs of every Jew – observing the Sabbath. Is it intentional? Is he just tweaking their noses or is he self-destructive? He is bent on making them hate him by intentionally breaking their rules. Not only their rules but their beliefs about God and his relationship to us. He is not just a rule breaker – but a heretic, a traitor, and a threat to society. He questions the unquestionable. But the crowds continue to follow him. In fact, they continue to grow. None of them seem to be concerned about his theology, his breaking the rules, his leading others to break the rules. They are not interested in these things because they are responding to authority and miracles. It is only the ones who are detached from the crowds who are concerned about what he is saying and encouraging others to think. The crowds could care less.
”Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future.” Saul Alinsky
Even when the evil spirits call out that he is more than the Son of Man but the Son of God the crowds do not question him.
And then he takes the next step. He is no longer a lone miracle worker and single voice challenging the deepest values of his country and church. He calls disciples. He goes up into the hills and sends for the individuals he has selected. He picks twelve and, of course, that is a significant number for any Jew. That is the number of the tribes of Israel before the fall of Israel and the Babylonian exile. That is a dangerous signal to the leaders. “He has something in mind and it is more than a band of followers. He is beginning to organize.”
Movements can only go so far as unorganized crowds following a charismatic leader. At some point, to accomplish their ends they must organize. There must be leadership and structure and not simply roving crowds.
The Pharisees knew that. They knew what it meant when Jesus picked 12 disciples. It meant he had something more in mind. But they also knew what it could mean to them when Jesus not only created an organized following and structure but, more importantly, he gave them the power to do miracles. “He appointed twelve – designating them apostles – that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.”
What would it mean to have twelve men with the power to do what one man until now had been doing? Jesus not only gave them extraordinary powers like his but he had already begun to shape their minds to have the same dangerous attitudes toward the rules, the traditions, and the need for new wineskins. What would the crowds be like a month from now? No wonder the leaders were now serious about getting rid of him. A man like Jesus multiplied twelve times would be unstoppable. A blasphemer like Jesus followed by others with extraordinary power could turn the crowds any way they liked. After all, the crowds were open to believing anything – true or false. Even Jesus had said they were like sheep without a shepherd. And they were. What do crowds know? What does the man on the street know about anything other than getting what he thinks he deserves and has been denied him? What does a crowd know about history, theology, political theory, economics, or justice? Crowds are content with miracles and making fools out of the disconnected rulers. Crowds need leaders who will think for them.
“In times of such commotion as the present, while the passions of men are worked up to an uncommon pitch, there is great danger of fatal extremes. The same state of the passions which fits the multitude, who have not a sufficient stock of reason and knowledge to guide them, for opposition to tyranny and oppression, very naturally leads them to a contempt and disregard of all authority. The due medium is hardly to be found among the more intelligent. it is almost impossible among the unthinking populace. When the minds of these are loosened from their attachment to ancient establishment and courses, they seem to grow giddy and are apt more or less to run into anarchy.”— Alexander Hamilton; letter to John Jay (Nov. 26, 1775)
Clearly, this was a cult now and no longer simply a popular figure with enthusiastic followers. Of course, if you look at the characteristics of a cult we might think the same thing. What are they? There are at least five that are relevant – at least from the viewpoint of the Pharisees:
Authoritarian leadership. The followers accept the authority of the leader.
Exclusivism. The cult views itself as the single means of salvation on earth.
Isolationism. Members are encouraged to renounce and break off associations with parents and siblings.
Fear of losing membership: People are urged to remain faithful and not leave.
Threats of Satanic attack: Opposition from the outside and fear of committing the unpardonable sin on the inside.You can understand why the family of Jesus was concerned about him enough to come and try to take him home. Clearly, the move from Nazareth to Capernaum had not been a good one. Somehow, Jesus had been radicalized and was out of his mind. He was not himself any longer. He needed to come home.
Isn’t that what families do when their children join cults? You can imagine what his family was thinking when they believe their son has become the center of constant controversy, heresy, cultish behavior, rule breaking, claims that only God can make, and now organizing for some unknown reason.
Even the teachers of the law recognized that he was out of his mind but they had another explanation for it. He himself was demon possessed and the power he possessed and the hold he had on the crowds was Satanic.
His family and the teachers of the law were agreed. For his own good they needed to stop him before he did something destructive. They needed to stop him before he took the next step and started a genuine revolution.
It was too late, wasn’t it?
By the end of this chapter I am very uncomfortable with this Jesus. I might even agree with his family. He is beside himself. He has something in mind that is further than I want to go. We all want the same thing in the end – reform and a gradual move toward improving things. We don’t need a revolution. With the right tools we can make the patch work without tearing up the garment. We can figure out a way to put new wine into old wineskins. We don’t need to make everything go through radical change. We can shoehorn the new into the old.
Through a search I learned out of more than 31,000 verses in the Bible, the five most popular for Christians are these:
Jeremiah 29:11; “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Psalm 23:4; Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Philippians 4:13; I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
John 3:16; For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[i] have been called according to his purpose.
They all have something in common in that they are encouraging and comforting. They are hopeful and assuring. They are inspirational. However, they are not the whole truth of Scripture because they do not reveal by themselves the deepest things about God or our human condition when we take them out of context and make them stand alone.
They do not turn the world upside down and that is what the earliest Christians were accused of doing. This is what happened in Thessalonika after Paul preached:
”But the Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.”
The right side up order of the world is now ours, isn’t it? Perhaps it is us who are now afraid of those who would turn it upside down. It is us who want to take Jesus home because he has become dangerous to himself and others. It is us who are confused when he says there are more in his family than us. It is us who are most anxious to correct, protect, and control.
Why can’t Jesus stay in the box – orderly, rational, sharing my values, one of us?
He just doesn’t. He never will.