Deciding where you stand

Pentecost 2 – 2012

Mark 3:20-35

Marian Free

In the name of God who asks us to look beyond the obvious to what lies beneath and to discover the presence of God in unlikely places. Amen.

I wonder what you noticed, or what stood out for you in today’s Gospel. Was it the fact that Jesus’ family thought that he was mad? Or was it the accusation that Jesus belonged to Beelzebul? Are you puzzled or even feeling anxious about the mysterious and unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit – if you don’t know what it is how can you be sure that you won’t break it or that you haven’t already broken it? Perhaps it was the last section that leapt out at you – Jesus’ apparent rejection of his family.  It is possible that something completely different had significance for you this morning. I have only listed those things that have remained in my memory. There is so much in this short passage that it is easy to become distracted by just one small part of it. Of course, we will all have heard this reading so many times before that we are familiar with each of its component parts. However, at different times, different phrases or sub-sections will have caught our attention.

There is a lot of apparently disparate information in these few verses, but the fact that the passage is book-ended by comments about Jesus’ family indicates that the material has been deliberately placed together to make a point or to draw out a lesson. Living at a time so distant from the writing of the text, we are at a disadvantage when it comes to interpreting it. Not only does Mark seem to have gathered together a number of distinct sayings and events, but the way in which he has done so also creates some confusion in the reading. The elements of this passage do not fit easily together. For example, the criticism about Jesus casting out demons by Beelzebul is out of context. Jesus has not performed an exorcism in the immediate past. There are other anomalies – Jesus’ family appears out of nowhere, disappears and reappears without explanation. The scribes come all the way from Jerusalem simply to accuse Jesus of being a servant of Satan.

None of this matters to the author of Mark who has structured this section of the gospel very carefully. A clue to its meaning occurs in the previous verses. Immediately before this passage Jesus has chosen his disciples. Of the twelve, Judas, the one who will hand Jesus over, is the last to be named. Coming on the heels of Jesus’ controversy with the authorities, and their threat to destroy Jesus, the mention of Judas is ominous, especially when it is followed by an accusation that Jesus is a servant of Satan!

The author’s intention, it seems, is to demonstrate not only that Jesus is in conflict with the authorities of his day, but also that he is at the centre of a battle with the forces of evil which hold the world in their thrall. The situation is so serious that even Jesus’ own family do not understand him or what he is doing.

In this section of the gospel, the pivotal point is the parable of the binding of the strong man. In direct contradiction to the accusations of the scribes, Jesus makes the claim that rather than being the tool of Satan, he, Jesus will be the cause of Satan’s downfall and defeat. When Jesus casts out demons he demonstrates that he is not on the side of, or servant to Beelzebul, instead he is the means by which Satan will be bound and his dominion brought to an end.

The point is tightly and succinctly argued. In response to the accusation that he is casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, Jesus points out that this would be ridiculous. If this were indeed the case, it would demonstrate that the powers of evil were divided against each other and would fall. In fact, Jesus points out, so far from being on the side of evil, he will be the means by which evil is destroyed. So in trying to discredit Jesus, the scribes have succeeded only in discrediting themselves. By refusing to recognize him, by identifying Jesus with Satan, the scribes have committed the one sin for which there is no forgiveness – the sin against the Holy Spirit. They have succeeded in identifying themselves, not Jesus, with the forces of evil. In so doing, they have put themselves beyond the reach of God. They have placed themselves outside the extent of God’s love. In this way they, not God, have chosen where they stand. That is, they have taken a stand against God.

According to this version of events, Jesus’ family have also chosen where they stand. At the beginning of the passage they have gone out to seize him. Now they are standing outside (outside the house and outside Jesus’ mission) and they are calling him to join them. In the first instance they, like the scribes, demonstrate their failure of imagination. Instead of recognising the good that he is doing, they accuse Jesus of being “out of his mind”. As the scene closes, they are depicted as calling him away, distracting him from his mission from the task that God has given him. In this way they are making it clear where they stand. They stand for the status quo, for the current situation in which the world is in Satan’s clutch. They are not yet ready for the defeat of Satan and the inauguration of God’s kingdom.

In the end, this is what today’s gospel is about. Where do we stand? On whose side are we – that of God or that of the world? Are we so firmly grounded in this world that we cannot see or feel the presence of God? Are our imaginations so limited and so poor that we think that anything out of the ordinary is necessarily bad? Are we so concerned to be seen in a good light that we spend our time trying to discredit others? Are we so rule-bound that we refuse to allow for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the world?

It comes down to this: Do we want Jesus to be more like us, or are we wiling to find out what it means to be more like Jesus?


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