In today’s Gospel reading, some scribes accuse Jesus of being possessed by an unclean spirit. The “evil spirits” or “unclean spirits” mentioned in the Scriptures are not related in any way to the evil spirits that are featured in modern fictional literature and scary movies. Beelzebul, mentioned in today’s Gospel, was a primary god in Canaanite pagan religion; Beelzebul had power over wind, flies, and illness. The scribes had accused Jesus of curing illness by appealing to the power of a pagan god who caused illness. This occasioned the saying, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” (Mk. 3:24)
The scribes’ accusation resulted from Jesus’ solicitous behavior toward sinners, the sick, and outcasts. The scribes and the other religious leaders in Jerusalem had a judgmental, fundamentalist understanding of good and evil. They thought that it was easy to distinguish between good and evil based on a person’s appearance; the sick, suffering, and burdened were judged to be evil on the basis that evil afflicted them.
Jesus had a very different viewpoint. Jesus understood physical and moral evil (sickness and sin), to be afflictions that burdened people who were basically good. His healing ministry was intended to release those people from the burdens of illness and sin. The scribes accused him of being evil because he felt so much compassion for the suffering and the marginalized. Go figure.
Unlike the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus did not think that physical appearance was a reliable indication of good and evil. For Jesus, good and evil were discoverable in a person’s actions rather than a person’s appearance. He said, “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mk. 3:35) According to Jesus, “good” people are those who accomplish God’s commands to love God and neighbor. “Evil” people, therefore, are those (like the scribes and Pharisees), who pass judgment on others.
Our daily experience corroborates Jesus’ viewpoint. Some things that appear good can be bad, and some things that appear bad can be good. Fast food, laden with salt and fat, can appear to be very good until you’re face down in a greasy burger wrapper after a heart attack. The sharp needle on a syringe can appear to be bad, even though the injection might save you from the flu, shingles, pneumonia, or something worse. In these, and all similar, cases, good and evil is not a matter of appearance; rather, it is a matter of actions, results, and effects.
Jesus ridiculed the idea that poverty, sickness, and suffering were deserved punishments visited upon the unrighteous. He considered it an act of ultimate faithlessness to avoid the poor and the outcast because of one’s fears. This ought to make us examine our values and tacit assumptions.
What is good? What is evil? Jesus said that goodness is seen where people are healed, lifted up, restored to normal relationships, and brought into closer communion with God and one another. In a similar manner, evil is that which burdens people, divides them from one another, and robs them of their dignity.
Please note how Jesus’ definition of good and evil differs from conventional definitions today. Today, in this country, it is considered perfectly acceptable to burden someone else in order to avoid burdens in one’s own life; much of the clutter on my desk landed there in order that a desk at the Chancery can remain uncluttered. Our culture says that maintaining strict divisions between classes, races, and nations is good; Jesus thought such behavior betrayed a lack of faith. We live in a culture that tells us to prize our own dignity regardless of the cost to others; Jesus made forgiveness possible by not holding onto his own divine dignity.
The next time you come across a person, thing, or experience that you judge to be good, ask yourself why you made that judgment. Did you see the good effects of giving appropriate worship to God and appropriate dignity to people? The next time you come across something you consider to be evil, ask yourself why you made that judgment. Was it because you saw the effects of burdening, ostracizing, or denigrating someone?
Considering oneself a member of Jesus’ circle of friends does not guarantee that it is so. Only those who accomplish the will of God actually live in Jesus’ company. (Mk. 3:35) With regard to sickness, poverty, and suffering, it is God’s will that we do all within our power to alleviate the burdens of others.