Judy and Cate – Br. Mark Brown

Hebrews 2:5-12/Psalm 8/Mark 1:21-28

I find it difficult—impossible, actually—to think in first century terms.  Casting out unclean spirits or demons is something that simply does not relate to anything in my experience or worldview.  At least as it’s presented in the story.

I might say, however, something like, “I’ve really been struggling with my demons lately.”  Speaking metaphorically.  I am well aware from experience that we human beings can find ourselves under the sway of forces beyond our control.

That evil exists, that human beings do evil things is fairly obvious.  Why we do such things is much more complicated.  The precise nature of guilt is elusive; culpability is a murky thing.

A recent film “Notes on a Scandal”, showing now locally, is a fascinating reflection on evil and culpability.  Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett are brilliant in their roles as two school teachers.  There is no “demonic possession” per se—but there is crime and there is evil and two people caught up in forces neither one is able to overcome.  Something possesses them; something has hold of them and evil actions are the result.  Dame Judy is nasty; Cate is pathetic.   They each have their “demons”.  When these demons get tangled up, a lot of people get hurt.

But the more we see of these two women, the more we realize that they themselves are victims: victims of their own wounds, victims of the pathologies these wounds have created. Victims of forces they did not create and that they cannot control.  As the story unfolds we see more and more of this context.  In one case, a profound and unbearable loneliness.  In the other, an emotional frailty exacerbated by a failing marriage and the stress of raising two difficult children.

Some movie reviewers have called the Judy Dench character evil.  What she does is evil.  But what the film does so brilliantly is make real to us the context that breeds this evil.  The Cate Blanchett character is more sympathetic, although, strictly speaking, criminal.  For both characters, however, life spins out of control.

The question left hanging at the end of the film is “just how guilty are these two women? They commit crimes, but how culpable are they?”  The point is, we don’t really know.

And so it is.  We want to know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are (or gals).   But the more we look, the more we see.  All around us we see context.  We see that evil has a context.  The more we see about peoples’ lives, the more we see people under the sway of forces they did not create and that they often cannot overcome.  A pathology can be organic (as in the way some people’s body chemistry handles alcohol or drugs).  It can be relational (as in the way we live out of the deep wounds to our humanity).  A pathology can be organic and relational at the same time.  Our “demons”.

An uncomfortable fact of human existence is context.  Uncomfortable because we can’t completely control our context or understand it.  And contexts we can’t control or understand breed forces we can’t control or understand.  We may have some measure of control, but it can quickly disintegrate under stress.

Most of us have been socialized not to be blatant evildoers. But we do find ourselves crossing that line between good and not- good.  And crossing that line is almost never something we do intentionally with full awareness.  Usually, we become aware that—oops–somewhere, back there, we crossed the line.  In the moment, the line was not clear.    Only hindsight shows us that we transgressed.  “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Maybe this is why Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Maybe it’s why he said, “Judge not…”  Maybe it’s why he said “You who are without sin cast the first stone.” Maybe it’s why he said, “forgive 70 times 7 times.” A Christian approach to sinful behavior surely should take Jesus’ own words seriously.  The more we understand about the context of a person’s behavior, the more we are inclined toward generosity of spirit.  The less we are inclined to judge.  The more we are aware of our own inner “demons”, the more we are inclined to be understanding of others’.

Jesus must have understood much.  What else could have made him so eager to forgive our sins, so willing to be himself the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  He must have possessed what we today would call a keen psychological insight.  I think he must have seen the fear that infects our souls: fear of death, fear of failure, fear of loss of dignity, fear of loneliness (as in the film), fear of not being loved.

We are so prone to fear.  Fear may very well be the mother of many demons.  The most unclean of unclean spirits. (To speak metaphorically.)  And there are more:  poverty, physical and mental illness, cycles of abuse…  The context of our sins—your sins and mine.

I think Jesus must have understood context.  He understood, he forgave.  In love with us, he forgave.  And still forgives.  His love, in us, inclines our hearts to do the same.  His forgiveness, in us, inclines our hearts to the same generosity of spirit.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us—especially when we have little mercy ourselves. Help us to see as you see; help us to understand as you understand.  Help us to forgive as you forgive.

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  1. Ann on February 6, 2016 at 10:21

    Thank you.

  2. Margaret Dungan on January 31, 2016 at 15:10

    This ‘Word’ makes me think of the ‘treasure found in the field’ A treasure that I hope I will always remember.The comments were pretty special also.
    Thank you Br.Mark.

  3. Michael on January 31, 2016 at 12:57

    As you stated, doing the eveil is far more complex than seeing the evil, yet we still need to forgive ourselves for what we often perceive as something unforgivable. Never easy, but still we must push forward and continually try, Someone said, if God has pushed us to it, he will also push us through it. In the midst of the chaos, sanity is hard to find,but it helps to hold on to the notion that God never deserts us. We can walk away from God, but God will not walk away from us, even when we believe we are unforgivable

  4. Maureen on July 21, 2014 at 17:48

    My judgments often are attempts to assure myself that I’m not too bad:
    – That woman weighs far more than I do.
    – He is nastier than I in his emails.
    – She exercises even less than I do.
    – I’m not jealous of people worth more than I am, but I’ll bet I pledge more than they do.
    I judge actions and perceive faults and limit the whole of people to this judgment.

    Thank you for this reminder to let go of the fear and acknowledge people the people who reside alongside their demons.

  5. Greg Schultz on July 21, 2014 at 10:59

    The more we understand about the context of a person’s behavior, the more we are inclined toward generosity of spirit. The less we are inclined to judge. The more we are aware of our own inner “demons”, the more we are inclined to be understanding of others’.
    -Br. Mark Brown

    What a beautiful statement on the nature and grace of “understanding.”
    I believe that understanding is a gift of the mind,
    whose partner is compassion, a gift of the heart.

    May our understanding and compassion broaden and deepen today and everyday.

  6. Polly Chatfield on July 21, 2014 at 09:56

    Thank you, Mark, for the wideness of your merciful thought. It is often hard to step back, when in the midst of a situation, and feel why someone is acting as he or she does. But listening first, listening and being slow to respond often gives one time to understand more and judge less.

  7. Joanne Wilson on January 28, 2013 at 09:29

    An empathic reminder that we “take ourselves on before the age of reason”..and perhaps why we continue to feed the bear that chases us.

  8. Anders on January 28, 2013 at 06:26

    Thanks for bringing up evil in the context of physical and mental illness and cycles of abuse. As Christians we need to recognize how the Bible is a book that addresses social injustice. We need to help create and maintain the conditions where physical and mental health prevail and cycles of abuse are short circuited. This includes basics such as the environment, health care and education at the heart of things.

    Our role as Christians needs to be an active and political one in society. Sure, we can disagree on some details because there are no simple answers. We are so quick to fragment our society and commoditize people, the politics of “reduce reuse and recycle” humans with demographic levers. Instead of forgiving our enemies, we create new ones to have someone to blame and lose sight of our siblings and our own frailty and humanity.

    Jesus taught us to love one another. Such love makes us all both co-culpable and co-creative in this gift of life in society and the world we are given.

  9. julianna sand on January 16, 2012 at 19:47

    I think this is an extraordinarily beautiful, necessary & integral insight into loving others, indeed loving ourselves. As was noted by Brother Almquist not long ago, it’s all about mercy. Love has infinite power to forgive, to return us to a life as it was created to be.

  10. jane goldring on January 16, 2012 at 15:02

    thanks mark for your sermon it makes you think we should look at ourselves deeply and see how we can improve before we start making coments about other things. as long as we try and to the best with what we have received in this life and look to God for the help we need. jane

  11. Jean Ann on January 16, 2012 at 12:13

    Thank you, Brother Mark, for this perspective on evil and forgiveness.

  12. Ron Hyde on January 16, 2012 at 12:09

    Thank you for these powerful words. It is easy, at times, for me to feel as though I am the only one struggling with these issues of fear, and sinfulness. I am encouraged as I broaden my perspective and am reminded, that we all struggle with our demons and our efforts to live a holy life. God bless you.

  13. George on January 16, 2012 at 08:44

    Forgiveness is something i preach alot about in my ministry. The use of the film above, which i saw several years or so ago, is instructive. We judge so often, so quickly, so visceral and finally. What a gift Jesus gave us in his forgiving heart and mind, and how well he taught us…if we would only listen. That includes me, too, of course. Thank you for the message.

  14. Lynn Harrington on January 16, 2012 at 08:03

    This is a beautiful and very accurate meditation on mercy,forgiveness and sin. Thank you

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