Jesus and your Confirmation Bias

Bertrand Russell once said, “Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so.” A recent research study at the University of Iowa, seems to confirm that. Researchers found that people are reluctant to change their minds and adapt their views, even when new information has been presented. This holds true even if they stand to lose money.

The phenomenon is called “confirmation bias” and apparently operates at a subconscious level at all times. The new research confirms numerous previous studies which show people invariably stick to their original viewpoint even when new facts contradict those beliefs.  When faced with facts that don’t fit, we tend to ignore or change them to fit our beliefs.[1]

In our gospel reading this morning, Mark 3:20-35, we see confirmation bias at work. Faced with the same facts, people reach very different conclusions about Jesus.

Three questions: First,

  1. How was Jesus Perceived?

Surprisingly the demons were astute.

1.1 The Spirits Recognised Jesus was Divine

“Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” But he gave them strict orders not to tell others about him.” (Mark 3:11-12)

What ever people thought of Jesus, the spirit world were terrified of him.  They quaked in fear as he delivered people from their control. The spirits, were it seems, the only ones who recognized Jesus was divine. What about those who knew him best of all, his family? If the demons thought Jesus was divine,

1.2 His Family Thought Jesus was Deluded

“Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”” (Mark 3:20-21)

Jesus family knew him well, or so they thought. He had given up his trade as a carpenter, left his family in Nazareth behind, move to Capernaum, become an itinerant preacher and healer, and depend on the charity of other to live. And at times he was too busy to eat and care for himself. He must be mad they thought.  The spirits recognized Jesus was divine. His family thought Jesus was deluded.

1.3 The Teachers Insisted Jesus was Demonic

“And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” (Mark 3:22-23).

The teachers of the law in Jerusalem were the religious and judicial experts. Their considered opinion was that Jesus was satanic. They didn’t deny his ability to perform exorcisms, merely that He was using black magic to do it, in league with Satan.

And their language was obnoxious and offensive. Beelzebub means “Dung god”, a derogatory name for the “Fly god” worshipped by the Philistines. So the people who met Jesus came to three very different, mutually exclusive, conclusions. Jesus was deluded to some, demonic to others and to a few he was divine. What had Jesus to say for himself?
How does he answer these claims?

  1. How did Jesus Respond?

2.1 Jesus Silences the Demons

What does Jesus say to the evil spirits? Notice he does not correct them. Instead Jesus insists they do not tell anyone who he was. Why?  Why did Jesus give them strict instructions not to tell others?  Because Jesus would choose whom to entrust that task.  The very next verse tells us,

“Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” (Mark 3:13-15)

The lines were drawn. The demons were control by Satan. Jesus would give authority only to those who submitted to his authority. Only when the disciples understood who Jesus was and why Jesus came, could they become his ambassadors. Jesus silences the demons.

2.2 Jesus Rebukes the Teachers of the Law

“So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand… Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.” (Mark 3:23-24, 28-29)

Jesus demolishes their foolish arguments, their inconsistent logic. “If I am delivering people from Satan how can I be working forSatan?” So Jesus warns them, ‘continue to think like that, you are going to hell’.  What is the “unforgivable sin”?

Put simply – it is to refuse God’s forgiveness. It is to resist the convicting work of the Spirit leading us to repentance and faith. Refusing God’s forgiveness is unforgivable. Jesus silences the demons and rebukes the religious leaders. Thirdly,

2.3 Jesus Chastises his Family

“Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.” (Mark 3:31-33)

The religious leaders had maligned Jesus because he threatened their authority.  But his own family thought Jesus was delusional too. So his mother and brothers came to take him home to Nazareth. They thought Jesus was suffering from Messiah syndrome.

“Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”. (Mark 3:34-35)

Mark Galli observes, “We tend to romanticize such sayings”. Some make them fit preconceived notions about Jesus meek and mild, learnt in Sunday school.  Others think Jesus justifies their individualism. No, Jesus will not conform to our romantic Sunday school memories nor endorse our rebellious nature. Jesus words are both sober and reassuring.

“It is not a coincidence that before Jesus defines the family of God, Mark notes that he looked “at those who sat around him” (Mark 3:34)… It is only then that he says “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”. (Mark 3:34-35). The context is … the people of God, gathered together round the person of Christ, seeking together the will of the Father.”

So, Jesus does not despise his mother, but reminds her of, and points her to, her God, his Father. For she too needed a Saviour. And it seems his ‘tough love’ worked because Mary and several of his brothers, like James and Jude, eventually recognised Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. So, Jesus rebukes the leaders and chastises his family but adopts all who trust in him, into his family. We have considered how Jesus was perceived and how Jesus responded.

Time for application.

  1. So What do you make of Jesus Christ?

This passage makes it very clear that opinion on Jesus was divided. And it seems Jesus did not make it easy for people to become his followers. It was then, it is now. Jesus is not interested in superficial commitment. He calls us into a deep and lasting family relationship. “Whoever does God’s will, is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35).

And the closer we identify with Jesus, the more likely we are to be maligned or misunderstood, but the closer we will grow to his family. Why be a member of a local church, when it is as fallible and fallen as our natural families?  “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). Among these two or three, or two or three thousand, Jesus will be found. We gather because we know the dangers of trusting our own judgment in spiritual matters. We gather because we need the wisdom handed down in church tradition. We gather because we want our reading of scripture to be shaped by the larger reading of the community. We gather because we know it is in the community gathered around Jesus that we will hear, with ears to hear, more fully God’s will for our own lives.  So let me ask you again, what do you think of the Jesus revealed in today’s passage? Deluded, demonic or divine? Which is it to be? The stakes are high. Which is why these perceptions of Jesus and responses by Jesus were recorded for our benefit, for we too must make up our minds. C.S. Lewis observes,

“Either this man was and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

So what do we make of Jesus Christ? Perhaps it is not so much a question of what we make of Jesus but rather of what he makes of us. Lets pray.