You don’t have to do much to get labelled as a troublemaker, a subversive, or even an enemy of the people. No matter that you may have done nothing wrong, or even if you have done something for the wider good – just rock the boat a little bit, threaten the status quo, and in goes the knife, and before long as far as some are concerned you’re an enemy of the people.
Henrik Ibsen’s famous play of that name is about an ordinary man, Dr Stockmann, who discovers that the expensive new spa in his home town is using poisoned water. He naively thinks people will want to know. But his brother, the mayor, thinks otherwise – and points out that the town could be bankrupted if the news leaks out. The truth isn’t important – the vested interests of the town’s business people carry far more weight.
And so the mayor leans on the editor of the local newspaper and the editor, rather than repeat the truth, vilifies Dr Stockmann as an enemy of the people, to the extent that at a public meeting he is almost lynched. All he did was tell the truth – an important truth – that the water was poisoned.
But such vilification happens in real life too. A certain national newspaper in the UK picked up on the title of Ibsen’s play in 2016 for a headline. In dramatic tabloid style they vilified three high court judges who in a case brought by a member of the public ruled that the law was clear – Parliament needed to be consulted before the government could trigger Article 50 which would set in motion Britain’s EU withdrawal. They had done nothing wrong, simply do what they are appointed to do by ruling on a point of law without being swayed by the views of the public or the press. But the newspaper in question was angry and ran the headline – as big as it could manage – enemies of the people! And then on its website it called into question the sexuality of one of the judges, as though that was something for condemnation as well, in an attempt to discredit them. The newspaper’s actions were widely condemned, particularly by religious leaders including the Chief Rabbi and the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, our own former bishop.
Two examples – one from fiction, one unfortunately not – that highlight how people can respond to the truth when it challenges their position, when it challenges what they hold dear.
How do we respond to the ministry of Jesus? How did the religious and political leaders of the time respond?
Today’s gospel reading is the point in Mark’s gospel where Jesus is condemned as being an enemy of the people. He has done nothing wrong – well, he’s made some sick people better and told people to be nice to each other – but that’s more than enough for those in power. He’s rocked the boat. He’s disturbed the order of things. And so he is condemned as an enemy of the people who needs to be got rid of, even though he has done nothing wrong.
At this early point in Mark’s gospel Jesus has just called his disciples. His public ministry is just getting going. But already some people are getting concerned and are starting to label him. The Jewish leaders are worried because he’s upsetting the natural order of things. He is labelled a troublemaker. And so they accuse him of being possessed.
His family are concerned. People are starting to label him as someone who is not quite right in the head. “He’s gone out of his mind!” some are saying. So his family arrive to see what’s going on.
Note that no-one is disputing the powerful reality of Jesus’ miracles. The issue is how they respond to his ministry. As Jesus’ identity as God’s Messiah begins to emerge some people, particularly those who hold power, want to contain him; the religious officials see him as a threat and want to destroy him. And so – even though Jesus has done nothing but good – the decision is made that he must be got rid of. And in an attempt to discredit him the religious leaders start saying that the only way he can be healing people is by the power of the devil.
Like Dr Stockman in Ibsen’s play, like the high court judges vilified by the press – tell the truth and if it upsets the wrong people then you become an enemy of the people. No matter whether they themselves recognise the truth when they see it – if it upsets their vested interests then you must be stopped at all costs.
And this is what happens with Jesus. The religious leaders have heard what Jesus is saying, they’ve seen what he’s doing, and despite the fact that they like everyone else can see the good that results they want him out of the way. And so they say that what he is doing is because he has the devil in him.
Their accusation arises from the threat Jesus poses to their high position within the religious status quo rather than any honest motive. They know that making people better, they know that teaching people to love each other, they know that telling people to stand up for justice, is good – and in reality can only come from God. Their Scriptures were full of God’s desire for love, for healing, for justice. That’s what the Law was about.
But Jesus they saw as a threat to their own position. And so their response to the ministry of Jesus is outright rejection.
And they in turn are rejected by Jesus. For Jesus goes on to say that while all manner of sin can be forgiven, all manner of blasphemy can be forgiven, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven. What does he mean by blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? It’s simple – the religious leaders have seen the work of God, they know what is going on, but they are unwilling to accept what God is doing. For them Jesus is an enemy of the people and so they say it’s the work of the devil, of Beelzebub, not the work of God, and he has an unclean spirit. To sin against the Holy Spirit is to attribute to the devil the work of God – to say that the truth is evil.
And so their response to Jesus’s ministry has the consequence for them, according to Jesus, the reality that they can never be forgiven. Not ever! A deeply troubling prospect for those who actively reject the work of God in our world and refuse to accept the truth that is the love of Jesus even when they know deep down it is real.
How do we respond to the ministry of Jesus?
Fortunately our positive response to the ministry of Jesus also has a consequence.
If we are able to see the ministry of Jesus in our world;
if we can recognise that Jesus is at work to bring healing and love and justice;
if we can respond positively and seek to follow him and join in his mission to make our world a place where God’s work is seen for what it is:
Then Jesus has something deeply profound to say to us. For he doesn’t just welcome us as his followers. He doesn’t even call us his friends. He goes as far as saying we are his family. Our gospel ends with Jesus being told that his mother and sisters and brothers are asking for him. ‘And who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?’ he says – ‘those who do the will of God.’
What greater reward can there be but to have Jesus reach out to us and say ‘welcome to my family’.