Monday, June 10, 2024

Deviant Accusations


Mark 3:20-35

Proper 5 / Year B

I trust our children today still learn the adage “sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt me.”  It has been around at least since the early 1800s and serves as an effect reminder not to let the words of bullies get you riled.  The only problem is names actually can hurt you, at least according to sociologists who research what they call “deviant accusations” or “negative labeling” and examine how it can undermine a person’s status in the community.  Think about how peoples’ lives were changed in the 50s by being tagged ‘pinko’ or ‘commie.’  Does it make a difference in school if you are labeled a ‘shining star’ or a ‘trouble-maker’?  You bet it does.  I remember the first time a person called me a ‘snowflake.’  I had never heard the term before, but knew inherently it was not a complement.

In first century Israel, labels had a devastating effect on how a person was perceived and treated.  How often in the gospels is a person referred to as being a ‘sinner’ and how often is Jesus criticized for associating with them?  Being labeled ‘unclean’ got a person barred from social gatherings.  Being known as ‘barren’ became a horrifying stigma. 

This morning, we read of Jesus being the recipient of two deviant accusations; each coming from a source which carries a lot of weight.  The first comes from his own family, his mother and siblings.  They show up at a public gathering where Jesus is the center of attention; intending a kind of intervention because they believe Jesus has lost his mind – literally gone crazy.  It is early on in his public ministry and they don’t know how else to make sense out of what he is saying and doing. 

The other deviant accusation comes from religious authorities; respected and admired community leaders.  They assert Jesus is demon possessed.  It is how they make sense of his power and attempt to explain his deeds.  The accusation of sorcery, if made to stick, would be nearly impossible to shake.   

Sticks and stones, right.  Wrong.  The accusations hurled at Jesus are potent social weapons holding the potential to undermine his public standing and reputation.  If accepted, they will destroy his credibility with the very people he is trying to touch with God’s love.

So, labeling theory holds people view a person or a group differently once they have been labeled.  Think how your perception of a person changes when, for example, they have the word ‘criminal’ attached to them.  The label changes how we see them.  But it also changes them.  Once they are tagged with ‘criminal’, they see themselves differently.  It will reshape and perhaps even overtake their own self-identity.

The phrase “looking glass self” was first coined by Charles Cooley in 1902.  It describes how a person’s sense of self is dependent upon how one believes he or she appears to others.  He based this theory on his observations of childhood social development:

First, we imagine how we appear to others.

Next, we imagine how others are judging us based on how they appear to response to us (this is where deviant labeling fits in).

Finally, we imagine how others feel about us based on the judgments they make.

Cooley emphasized each one of us has the ability to decide which judgements to accept when forming a sense of self and which to reject.  How much weight do you give to your supporters and how much credence do you give to your detractors?

Having your family say you’re out of your mind and having religious leaders accuse you of being demon-possessed must have been unsettling to Jesus.  He dismisses the second accusation by asserting you cannot work against something while at the same time being for it – “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” 

He mitigates the first deviant accusation by redefining how he experiences ‘family’ in his life.  Yes, he has a mother and siblings and, based on today’s story at least, we can assume there are some interesting dynamics at play in their family.  We tend to romanticize the family unit; positing it to be a place of complete peace and harmony.  Some are.  Most are not.  Something is amiss with Jesus’ family of origin.  We don’t know what it is, but in those who gather around him, who seek to know and do God’s will, Jesus finds a family even closer than his biological relatives – just as each of us here this morning comes from our own interesting family of origin and finds in our wider faith community a new kind of family.

I suspect Jesus, upon being labeled crazy and possessed, recalled another time he was labeled.  It was the time he rose out of the waters of the Jordon River and heard God’s voice proclaim, “You are my child.  I love you.  With you I am well-pleased.”  It is the same label we received at baptism and it is irrevocable.  I suspect Jesus leaned heavily upon how God responded to him.  I suspect it helped him to sort through the deviant accusations he endured.  And I hope you will always, always, always lean on your baptismal label as being the foundation of who you are.