Was Jesus mad or simply going against the flow?

Fr Paolo Consonni, MCCJ

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Jesus came home with his disciples […] When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” (Mk 3: 20-22)

In the past months we have often seen newspaper articles about a growing mental health crisis in Macau, especially among young people.  The pandemic and post-pandemic social changes have increased the anxiety level of many people, exasperating inner fragilities and relational tensions, in particular within families.

Both Government and private agencies, including Caritas, are trying to increase professional services for the public in this area, but it is not easy for people in need to look for professional help because of the stigma that accompanies those with mental health issues. People with such problems are usually considered by normal social standard as dysfunctional, defective, broken, or, in the worse cases, mad. In any case, the expectation is that, after recovery, they might return to a “normal” life.

Everyone with mental disorder should seek proper medical attention and therapy. Nevertheless, sometimes I think that those who are perceived as “mad”, out of the normal, in some cases have an important social role to play because their difficulties to adapt to a more “conventional” way of life underlines the fact that, in some instances, what we consider to be “normal” is instead quite toxic, like the lack of love in some families, the high-stress working conditions, the unhealthy academic pressure, the injustices stemming from income inequality, the individualistic and materialistic priority over community, meaning and balance, the cultural spiritual void, and so on. Madness, in a way, is a wake-up call to reconsider whether our societies are healthy or not.

I am not surprised that, in this Sunday’s Gospel (Mk 3:20-35), Jesus was believed to be out of his mind and accused of being possessed by the Devil. History shows that to label as dysfunctional those individuals who bring forth new values and ideas is a strategy regularly deployed by those who want to discredit them in order to maintain the status quo. In the case of Jesus, they had plenty of reasons to do so. Jesus’ regularly exposed the hypocrisy and oppression at the heart of the social and religious establishment. He challenged the Pharisees’ legalistic interpretation of the law. He stood with those who were marginalized because of their poverty, sickness or moral status. Moreover, He blasphemously claimed to be of divine origin.

Even in the past two centuries, dominated by ideological scientism, the question of whether the historical Jesus was in good mental health has been explored by multiple psychologists, philosophers, and historians, mainly with the intention of discrediting his message. They deemed Jesus to be epileptic, paranoid, afflicted with hallucinations and megalomaniac religious delusion, even schizophrenic.  Pope Benedict XVI however remarked that none of this can be found in the Gospels’ text. These attempts to sketch the historical Jesus as pathological mirror the authors’ prejudices rather than historical-biblical reality. “The scriptural texts give us no window into Jesus’ inner life,” Benedict wrote. “Jesus stands above our psychologizing.” ( Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration ).

Jesus did indeed give another alternative reading of reality and of what constitutes the essence of our relationship with God. The logic of the Gospel, which is the logic of the Cross, constantly challenges our way of living and believing. The unity of divinity and humanity in Jesus made Him a character not easy to be deciphered, not even by His closest followers whom He considered as his new family. They too took time to absorb His message and adopt His way of life.

Yet, after the resurrection, these same followers did not become agents of disorder and destruction, as you would expect from someone following a “dysfunctional” leader. On the contrary, they contributed to restore moral and social values in a society that was in total decadence. Their way of life was indeed “abnormal”, for a contemporary point of view, yet, in retrospect, extremely healthy (generally speaking: there were surely exceptions!). They recovered the sacredness of marriage in a time when sexual promiscuity was common. They considered everyone as brothers and sisters regardless of their social status, even slaves. They shared their wealth and cared for those who were socially marginalized. When persecuted, they forgave their enemies, even their executioners, and never fostered hate while witnessing to their beliefs. They maintained rational thinking in pursue of truth when many other philosophical systems collapsed into cultural chaos.

We see chaos around us too, disguised as “normality”, in this period of history.  As members of Jesus’ new family, Christians today are once again called to go against the flow and show that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1: 21-25).