Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Jesus, Family, Satan, and Freedom (Mark 3:19-35)

In the second gospel, Mark presents us with a very interesting sandwich of passages in the second half of chapter 3. He starts (1) by talking about the family of Jesus coming to him (3:19b-21), (2) interrupts this story with enemies of Jesus accusing him of being in league with Satan (verses 22-27), (3) has Jesus responding creatively to this accusation (vs. 28-30) and then (4) to his family (vs. 31-35).

Then [Jesus] went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind” (3:19b-21 New Revised Standard Version, here and following).

Both Greek and Latin Christian traditions have developed a rich and glowing understanding of Mary the mother of Jesus. This rich and glowing tradition, however, does not come from the biblical witnesses themselves. It comes from other later sources. The biblical witnesses themselves speak very little about Mary outside of the story of the birth of Jesus. Today we will simply attempt to understand the meaning and application of what Mark actually does say about Jesus and his family.

Earlier in chapter 3 we learn three things about Jesus in this early period of his public ministry. One, he already has powerful enemies who want to destroy him (3:6). Two, lots of people are crowding around Jesus to benefit from his preaching, teaching, and healing (verses 7-10). Three, Jesus has chosen twelve men to participate more fully in his work (vs. 13-19).

In today’s reading, so many people are still crowding around Jesus and his twelve companions that they have neither time nor food to eat.

From this crowd, some gossips take word of the ministry of Jesus back to his family. These slanderers apparently missed the meaning of his preaching, teaching, and healings. The sum of their response: Jesus is out of his mind, crazy, mentally ill.

Sadly, his family believes these malicious words. They go to Jesus, not to learn from him, not even to take food to him, but to restrain him. Doubtlessly imagining they have only his welfare in mind, they intend to drag him home.

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” (3:22).

Theologians from Jerusalem then claim that Jesus is not simply mentally ill. Doubtlessly imagining they have only the welfare of the people in mind, they assert that his condition is much worse: he’s possessed by Satan.

What’s a savior to do? How might Jesus respond creatively to his family’s misguided intention to restrain him and to his enemies’ malicious intention to destroy him?

And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand…And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come” (3:23-24, 26).

What is Jesus’ creative response to his challengers? First, he criticizes their argument. Satan wouldn’t be casting out Satan through him. That would mean suicidal internal division within Satan’s kingdom and signal his end has come.

But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered (3:27).

Second, Jesus tells these theologians and legal experts about a reality they are ignorant of despite their authority and expertise. While his family might want to restrain him, Jesus tells these experts that he himself has tied up Satan and even now is plundering his house. Jesus points out that he is liberating people from the control of Satan and would happily free them too.

Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit” (3:28-30).

Third, Jesus warns them of the destructive consequences of their behavior. If they persist in regarding the Holy Spirit as evil and Satan’s spirit as good, then they will never be able to participate in their liberation from Satan made good by Jesus.

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (vs. 31-35).

Finally, Jesus responds creatively to his family’s misguided plan to rescue him. He tells his family and the rest of us that being close to him isn’t a question of genetics but of spirit. He dismisses the norm, common then and now, that his family has authority over his witness to the one odd god of truth, freedom, love, and vitality. Later Paul the apostle would similarly and rightly reject the authority based on kinship which James, the brother of Jesus, presumed to have over Paul and churches he started.

Every organized social group has a set of beliefs, values, and norms which its members must know and to which they must conform. Group leaders reward conformity to this set of ideas and punish nonconformity. Even colleagues will spontaneously punish nonconformity to advance themselves.

The mother of Jesus believed she understood best what the best interests of Jesus were. She brought her other boys to enforce the conformity of Jesus to that understanding.

We know that commitment to Jesus isn’t genetically determined. It doesn’t even depend on one’s religious upbringing. It’s always solely a question of spirit: of the relationship between one’s own spirit and the Spirit of Jesus. We always solely commit as Christians, and particularly as prophetic witnesses, by God’s grace alone. While other members of one’s family may share this commitment, they may not and increasingly do not.

The organized social groups of Olympia all share an Olympian set of ideas to which they require conformity. Sadly, this includes the churches of Olympia. Over time, unless ceaselessly renewed, all churches drift towards conventionality; that is, they all drift towards being Christian in name but thoroughly Olympian in spirit.

Jesus invites us today to continue living as Christians committed to witnessing unconventionally to him. He invites us today to respond creatively to opponents by dismissing their authority if they seek to limit our witness, by criticizing their arguments against the spirit of our witness, and by cautioning them about the destructive consequences of their behavior. Most importantly, Jesus seeks to daily refresh our freedom from the six gods of Olympianity and, through us, the freedom from those very destructive gods of our opponents as well.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.