This is the ninth installment, comprising Act 2. Scene 2, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I will blog on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the eighth installment here which contains links to the previous installment and from there you can link to all of them.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Then he went home; 20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons." 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, "How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 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. 28 "Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"— 30 for they had said, "He has an unclean spirit." 31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." 33 And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." (NRSV)
With Act 2. Scene 2 Mark pushes us to consider, at least for a moment, that perhaps the Herodians and Pharisees were on to something, challenging us to reconsider our immediate and current notions of who Jesus is and whether we have properly understood him and made sense of Jesus and his mission. The good man, the teacher, the healer, the exorcist – is he perhaps the Messiah, the King? The crowds think so, for after Jesus returns from appointing his 12 envoys, representatives of an exiled Kingdom, or tribes in waiting, the people crush him and his followers “so that they could not even eat” (3:20). What about the religious officials and Jesus' family? What do they think?
We are introduced to the most curious reading of Jesus’ actions and behavior thus far in Mark, as Jesus’ family “went out to restrain him” since members of the crowd “were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” (3:21). The verb used here “gone out of his mind,” existemi, does mean to be “displaced” or “out of one’s senses,” but there is no sense of why this claim is being made regarding Jesus or what he supposedly has done. The situation itself is left vague, although his family goes to restrain him. Is the family's move in response to Jesus’ actual behavior, though, or is it in response to a report about his behavior? The two are not the same thing and subsequently the Scribes from Jerusalem, not local, Galilean Scribes, ratchet up the charges by claiming that Jesus’ authority comes from Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons - a form of the original name of a Philistine god - and not from God.
This charge is a natural and essential move for Jesus’ opponents because if they do not believe that Jesus’ teaching, healings or exorcisms derive from God’s power and authority, there is clearly some authority present as the reality of the deeds, as Mark has presented them, cannot be denied. How will his opponents explain his acts and mission? Jesus acts, they say, through the power of Satan. Later, in 3:30, Jesus is accused of having “an unclean spirit.”
“How can Satan cast out Satan?” is Jesus’ initial question. It is a question that Jesus appears to ask of the Scribes specifically, though it might include the whole crowd, but as he continues with his explanation he clearly shows that if he has cast out demons, he cannot represent the power of evil or, if he did, it indicates the end of evil. Moreover, Jesus says, to conquer a “strong man,” presumed here to be Satan, you have to tie him up before you could plunder his house, that is, cast out his minions and representatives, the unclean spirits. Jesus' actions indicate a power greater than evil and opposed to, not in league with, Satan.
Jesus moves from an explanation of the genuine source of his power, by a process of elimination, to a defense of his ministry and a challenge to his opponents to discern correctly what is taking place in their midst. In his defense he proposes that the stakes are high for judging well: “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (3:29). What is meant by this? Is the claim that Jesus has an unclean spirit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Is a negative response to Jesus an eternal sin? Why? Does it indicate a general inability to discern the will or presence of God? Or is it the unwillingness to see God at work, doing something new, in Jesus? Granted all of that: why is it “eternal”? Mark has juggled many dramatic motifs as he has introduced Jesus and his mission, but even more than the initial conflicts over Torah interpretation, this event has make known to us the depth and roots of the conflict: Is Jesus from God? If not, who does he represent? If so, what does it mean to reject his mission?
Just then Jesus’ family, announced at the beginning of the Scene, finally arrives – and one can see them pushing through the crowds, the Scribes and the Apostles to get to Jesus, in order to rescue or support or protect their family member, as he is engaged in his clash with the Jerusalem Scribes. Jesus’ mother and brothers cannot get to Jesus directly, so they send a message to him. But when the message is passed on - "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you” – Jesus appears to blow off his family and draw the crowd who surround and clamor for him ever closer emotionally and spiritually. “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” (3:33-35).
Authority belongs to God; those who follow God are Jesus’ family. Not only does Jesus reject the Jerusalem Scribes and their authority, now he rejects the authority of his family. The challenge of Jesus’ call is becoming more apparent: the religious authorities reject him; his blood family is considered ephemeral; will you give up everything to follow him?
John W. Martens
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