2. The Structural Sandwich
Our gospel lection is the first of several examples in Mark’s Gospel of placing one story “inside” another (see Mark 5:21-42; 6:7-32; 11:12-25; for examples). We will continue to watch for that technique in upcoming readings. “When Mark ‘sandwiches’ stories in this manner,” Hurtado writes, “it seems that he presents the two stories as related in some way; and this is probably the case here” (page 64).
Hurtado suggests that in this sandwich we find three groups: Jesus’ family who worry that he is “beside himself” and needs to be taken in hand; the scribes “who accuse Jesus of being a sorcerer in league with Satan” (page 64); and those who do God’s will and constitute Jesus’ true “family.” Hurtado notes that this third group, though not named directly, is likely made up of Jesus’ newly minted disciples. As we will see below, there is really a fourth and significant group – the “crowd.”
It’s not clear where this drama plays out. Mark’s Greek is rather generic in verse 20 – Jesus “went into a house.” This may be his adult home in Capernaum. It could be his childhood home in Nazareth, although that seems unlikely since his family members “come out” in order to take him in hand. It could simply be an unidentified, generic, house in the unnamed, generic village in which this all takes place.
Before we move on too quickly here, let’s pay attention to the whole text. One of my complaints about the NRSV, especially in the Christian scriptures, is the tendency to overinterpret in some translations. That overdetermining of a text then tends to obscure meanings which are only apparent with a lighter interpretive touch. The translation of “house” in verse 20 as “home” is, in my view, an example of that overdetermining tendency.
That translation reflects the translation of Mark 2:1. The NRSV renders that verse as “When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.” The Greek text is something more like, “And entering again into Capernaum some days later, it was heard that he is (was) in the house.” Again, it’s not clear if this house belongs to Jesus, that is, whether it is his “home.” It may be, but that translation makes it harder to hear the point that Mark is trying to make in chapter 3.
I am convinced that the translation in both Mark 2:1 and 3:20 should be “house.” Jesus entered a house – but perhaps not just any house. In a few verses we will hear the parable of “The Binding of the Strong Man.” That “strong man” is Satan, and Jesus is the “stronger one” who enters Satan’s house, ties up Satan, and then plunders Satan’s property. Mark wants us to see that in these controversies reported in chapter 3, Jesus has already entered Satan’s house and is releasing the hostages – even if that means dishonoring family and defaming the establishment.
In addition, we should remember that soon Jesus will enter God’s “house” in Jerusalem – the Temple. He will take charge of that house and in fact “plunder” it. More than that, he will describe that “house” as a den of robbers. When Jesus invades the Temple during Holy Week, he is robbing the robbers. Thus, the parable sets the stage for knowing that Satan has invaded and taken captive the very house of God! Jesus comes to release God’s people from that bondage and restore them to liberty.
That being said, I don’t want to entirely abandon the sense of “home” in this reading. As we will see further below, John isn’t the only one who can exploit the multiple meanings of words for theological purposes. Drew Holland reminds us that the “household” theme is a big deal in Mark’s gospel. It’s not so much that Jesus has an independent home in Capernaum as it is that Jesus establishes a new “household” of faith. That is, in fact, the punchline at the end of this reading.
Holland notes that Jesus invades and dismantles the “household” of Satan that holds the world and its people hostage. Exorcisms are signs of that invasion and triumph. He reminds us that the image of “household” is a politically charged idea in the ancient Greco-Roman world. “The real irony in Mark 3:20-30,” Holland writes, is that Jesus’ amazing miracles are not just displacing the minds of the crowd, but the very foundation of Satan’s household and the social institutions of the ancient world” (page 27).
Meda Stamper offers an even more sophisticated analysis of the structural sandwich in her workingpreacher.org commentary. She notes that the text has a chiastic structure – that is, it works from the edges to the center and out to the edges again in three concentric circles. Here is her analysis:
–verse 20 Crowd
–verse 21 Family
–verse 22 Scribes (Jesus is casting out demons by the ruler of the demons)
–verses 23-27 The parables of Satan’s end
–verses 28-30 Scribes guilty of unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (because –they have said that Jesus has an unclean spirit)
–verse 31f Family
–verse 32f Crowd
We should note that this analysis assumes the disciples as the audience for this exchange. There is some ambiguity in verses 20-21 about whether the reference is to Jesus’ family or to the disciples. The reference in verses 31f., however, is clearly to the family. That’s not an ambiguity that will make a difference in the end for our interpretation.
In the center of the sandwich is the battle with Satan. The scribes coming from Jerusalem are closest to that center and most deeply entrenched on the wrong side. Jesus’ family are not as close but still not on the side of the Kingdom of God. The crowd are furthest out but still, perhaps, “in the house.” That’s important to keep in mind as we go along. The “crowd” is on the margin in this structure and may be mixed in its assessment of Jesus.
Why the sandwich? What is the point(s) Mark is making? “The interruption of this story with the accusation by some teachers of the law,” Hurtado writes, “seems designed to show that the attitude of Jesus’ family, however understandable in one sense, is to be seen as a response like that of these critics” (page 65).
I can’t help but think about some of the responses from my own family, friends, teachers, and mentors when I announced that I was headed off to seminary. I even kept that information from some family members for a while because I was worried that they might seek to have me committed to an institution for the mentally unstable. That was much more of a commentary on my own wonderings than on the potential responses of my family members, but I was in no condition to make that separation at the time.
As we noted above, labelling “deviant” behavior is often a way to maintain a relatively comfortable status quo. When I switched (pretty abruptly) from heading to graduate school in philosophy to attending a Lutheran seminary, some of my instructors wondered about my mental stability. In fact, they should have wondered about that stability much sooner in the conversation but didn’t. What they experienced as deviant behavior was one of the few sane decisions I was making at that time. But I digress.
“What is being contested is the meaning of Jesus’ power and works,” Hurtado notes. “The reality of the miracles is not denied, but the charge that they are devilish negates them as signs of God’s kingly power” (page 65). In fact, Stamper notes that the word for “restrain” in our text is the same verb used to describe Jesus’ arrest in Mark 14. That seems highly significant (and not very flattering to the family).
Hurtado wonders if the image of the “stronger man” who plunders Satan’s house is an allusion to the language of Isaiah 49:24-25. Those in exile are described as the “prey” of the mighty and the “captives” of tyrants. The LORD promises to rescue those who are such prey and captives.
If the connection is actual, then Jesus is not describing himself as a thief but rather as a rescuer who releases hostages from their bondage. “If the allusion suggested is valid,” Hurtado argues, “then the plundering of Satan is also to be understood as a sign that the future rule of God promised in the prophets is being exhibited already” (pages 65-66).
That seems to be precisely what John the Baptist says about Jesus as well, that he is the “stronger one” who is coming. “When Jesus now speaks about tying up the strong man and plundering his house,” Tom Wright argues, “we are meant to understand that Jesus is now acting as the Stronger One, who has won an initial victory over the enemy (the temptation after the baptism) and is now able to make inroads into his territory” (Kindle Location 817).
How do people respond to this incursion? The closer to the center of the system, the less positive (and more aligned with Satan) is the response. The religious authorities react with rigid rejection and libelous labeling. The family focuses on social reputation and seeks to restrain Jesus, perhaps physically. The “crowd” reports on Jesus’ behavior.
But as Drew Holland notes, the word for “beside himself” in 3:21 has several meanings. It can also mean that the crowd finds him exciting and even amazing. You can read the extended analysis Holland brings to the text if you have the determination to dig. In short, the word may indicate that the crowd has a “split” assessment – some think he’s mad, while others think he’s astonishing.
How often is it that the people on the edge of the system see Jesus as he truly is? How often do those of us at the center of the power structure (with the most to lose by upsetting the status quo) regard Jesus as a wild and crazy threat? How often do we gaslight, persecute, punish, and ostracize those who see Jesus as he truly is rather than to sit with their destabilizing witness? How often do we reject the Good News of Jesus Christ because it comes from “unauthorized” sources?
References and Resources
Guijarro, Santiago. “The Politics of Exorcism: Jesus’ Reaction to Negative Labels in the Beelzebul Controversy.” https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/30239993/1999__Guijarro__Exorcism-Beelzebul.pdf?1353730298=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DThe_Politics_of_Exorcism_Jesus_Reaction.pdf&Expires=1622209905&Signature=ZVadoEoDb-kqMkfEwrdxjnnTeCLdTtkU0MwKpTCy4G3iEZGNcYSXFAZL033OpQBtWTr69blZOLxZ7wyOs4BY2TE7~QMjbhMb6uu9M~3NwS81Hj9cw2lOsOTrf8GilWS5CGAIclR9ntJHzpI39PohmVXeY3nNp~1TwkhxNif1-yPQjcM8cKbzTJpymVxvYGMyY4hMTOM4fkArz2qE7fEBaaSJit4QjhCBUB9-HBDd04-9JeU7dP57KYZYZQ8eUkVt5XH7jlgSDVbrOTdWf4MvVV04kaT-OoSdbqm-34EFO7JqSmNmq2ol-ur5PeVl2zpwyCbmJLEFzP4iSvTx82GGMw__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA
Holland, Drew S. “The Meaning of Exesthe in Mark 3:21.” The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 4/1:6-31 (Winter, 2017).
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
Griggs, Linda Mackie. “Gaslighting Jesus.” https://relationalrealities.com/2018/06/10/gaslighting-jesus/.
Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.