This text contains disturbing, violent, and triggering images and stories. Jesus’ family thinks he’s mentally ill. Religious bigwigs from headquarters in Jerusalem try to gaslight Jesus into silence. Jesus points to an “unforgiveable sin” which has caused Christians burdened with tender consciences no end of agony. Jesus rejects the rejection of his given family and describes the makeup of his chosen family.
This text should come with a content warning!
I haven’t yet mentioned that Jesus describes his mission as what we would call a “home invasion.” He declares, in cryptic imagery, “Rather, no one is able, when entering the house of the Strong One, to plunder thoroughly his property unless he first ties up the Strong One, and then he can plunder his house” (Mark 3:27).
It seems that Jesus describes his mission as breaking and entering, unlawful restraint, and grand theft. Is the Kingdom of God a criminal enterprise?
Let’s leave that question hanging for a bit and try to understand what Jesus says in this text. We’ll do that by working from the center to the margins and back again.
It’s clear that the “homeowner” in Jesus’ imagery is Satan – the Evil One who claims God’s good world for demonic ends. Jesus’ mission of forgiveness, life, and salvation is an invasion intended to release the cosmos, and each of us, from the oppression of Satan’s rule.
The scribes from Jerusalem may have gotten it all terribly wrong. Or, more likely, they are using a tried-and-true strategy to bring a rogue rabbi to heel. They don’t deny the reality and power of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms. Instead, they accuse Jesus of being an agent of Satan rather than an opponent.
This strategy could be taken from today’s headlines. Insurrectionists in the United States capitol were not white supremacists. No, they were anarchists, antifascists, lunatics prosecuting a false flag operation in order to destabilize the status quo. Overwhelming evidence to the contrary does not seem to undermine such conspiracy theories. Instead, that evidence is taken as proof that the rot goes to the core of the federal tree.
Jesus dismantles their gaslighting logic with surgical precision. If Satan is indeed casting out Satan, isn’t that proof that Satan’s rule is disintegrating? If there is a Civil War in Hell, how can that reign continue? Jesus’ healing and exorcisms are not evidence of his own demonic possession. They are proof that a new regime – the “Kingdom of God” – has begun.
A close reading indicates that Jesus is thinking about words from Isaiah 49, verses 24 and 25 (NRSV). The prophet speaks Good News to those in the bondage of Babylonian Exile. They are kidnap victims longing for release. What can be done about their condition? “Can the prey be taken from the mighty,” the prophet asks, “or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?”
“Yes!” the prophet declares. The LORD says, “Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued; for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children.”
Jesus isn’t describing a home invasion. He’s mounting a hostage rescue.
And we, among others, are the hostages! Jesus comes to set free everyone in the story today – the crowd, his family, even those theological police sent from Jerusalem.
Some of us regularly confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. I’m not sure how much we really believe on Monday what we confess on Sunday, but there it is. I rejoice that when I feel most restrained, when I am sure there’s no way out, when I see the walls closing in and the ropes tightening around my wrists, Jesus brings the Holy Spirit’s forgiving word from God to set me – and you – and the cosmos – free.
That’s the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It’s good news for me. I hope it might be for you.
The closer we are to the center of this story, however, the harder it is for us to hear the good news. Because the closer we are to the center of this story, the more invested we are in the way things are. If you have stuff in the house, a hostage rescue might look a lot like a burglary. I think that’s how it looked to the religious authorities from Jerusalem.
Justice looks like theft to the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied. Equity feels like loss to such folks. Jesus destabilized the status quo and upended the power structure. The people in charge saw the reality and responded as the powerful often do. They named the problem as the solution and the solution as the problem.
Martin Luther described this tactic as the “theology of glory.” In the theses for the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, Luther wrote these words. “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is” (Thesis 21). A theology of glory will say whatever is necessary to keep the powerful in power.
That includes calling the work of the Holy Spirit demonic. That’s what is going on in verses 28 through 30. This is not about some mysterious or general sort of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” This is not about experiencing doubt or even despair, as some theological traditions would have it. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit calls the liberating work of God a crime and regards the continuing bondage of the cosmos as the good work of God.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is calling evil good and good evil – and doing it to stay in power.
This description does not even require a theological framework. Describing effective election systems as filled with fraud is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Describing legitimate questions at a traffic stop as criminal resistance is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Describing structural poverty as laziness is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Describing systemic racism as a mirage is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is, to use the technical language of Harry Frankfurt, “bullshit.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the power panic and be taken in. Jesus’ family members are worried about their clan’s honor and Jesus’ safety. Those are legitimate concerns, but they cannot be ultimate concerns. Jesus brings the Good News invasion into the very heart of Satan’s home. Neutrality is not going to be an option. We can be part of Jesus’ chosen family – or not.
It’s interesting to me that Jesus does not talk about “faith” as a mark of being in that family. Instead, he says in verse 35, “Whoever shall do the will of my Father – that one is my brother and my sister.” The will of his Father, as we can see in this reading, is the release of the hostages held captive to Satan and Satan’s allies.
I take a number of things from this reading.
First, watch for the theme of “invasion” in Mark’s gospel in the coming weeks. Today’s reading is a kind of mission statement for Jesus in Mark. He continues to enter the house of the Strong One and release the captives. Hold that in the background as you read and reflect on texts in the coming days.
Second, expect to be released! Pray for it and look for openings. Whatever holds you in bondage to sin, death, and the devil is not part of God’s will for you, me, and the cosmos. Release may require relinquishing some pretty familiar props for our lives – stuff we hold and stories we believe. But the freedom is worth it.
Third, expect resistance. Whole human systems are built on the basis of Satan’s home economics. Those systems do not surrender without a fight. And they keep returning in new disguises. For example, every time we make antiracist progress, as Ibram X. Kendi observes, racism pushes back with a kind of equal and opposite progress. That’s part of the struggle, not a sign of failure.
Fourth, remember the crowds. I haven’t forgotten that outermost “ring” in the concentric circles of this text. The liberating work of Jesus is indeed Good News for many of us who live lives of quiet (and sometimes noisy) desperation.
The report from the crowds in verse twenty is often translated as “He has gone out of his mind.” That’s a fair translation, and it informs the response of Jesus’ family. But it can also mean, “He is astonishing!” I suspect that both sentiments were present in the crowds that followed Jesus – that some thought him mad, and others found him marvelous.
I find it far too easy to listen to the “mad” crowd and to ignore the “marvelous” crowd. But there at the margins, at the edges of respectability, on the boundaries of belief – there we can find conversation partners willing to hear something new and different. Life is always there at the boundaries. And we Christians need to spend as much time on the boundaries as we can, if we want to re-hear the Good News for ourselves.
Is the Kingdom of God a criminal enterprise? It is if you want things to stay the way they are. If, on the other hand, you know that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near” in Jesus, then the Kingdom of God is best news ever.
So, what do you think?