10 June 2018

Choosing Sides

Mark 3:20-35

Third Sunday after Pentecost

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry with an exorcism in a synagogue on the sabbath, releasing a man from an unclean spirit. Then Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law who was ill with a fever; he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; he healed a man of leprosy and soon people were coming from everywhere to be healed; he healed a paralytic and offered forgiveness for his sins.  The religious authorities were furious because Jesus was effectively undermining their power and influence.  Jesus rebuffs religious custom.  His disciples don’t fast.  They pluck heads of grain—a form of work—as they walk along a field on the sabbath.  Then Jesus heals again on another sabbath.  “Stretch out your hand,” Jesus said to the man with the withered man. We’re told that whenever the unclean spirits saw Jesus they fell down and shouted, “You are the Son of God” (Mk. 3:5). 

In the early chapters of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus offends everyone: religious leaders, the unclean spirits (although they quickly yield to him).  Jesus offends the Roman occupiers; it’s veiled, but it’s there, especially when Jesus heals a man named Legion who was tormented by demons, demons of imperial tyranny (Mk. 5:1-20). And then, after appointing the twelve disciples, sending them out with a message and giving them authority over demons, Jesus returns home.  Word spreads that Jesus has arrived home.  Even before they had a moment to share a meal together, the crowds show up at the door.  And then Jesus has an argument with his family.  Now his even household is offended.  And it’s only the third chapter of Mark!

“He has gone out of his mind” (Mk. 3:21).  His family is worried, concerned, angry.  People are saying, ‘He’s gone out of his mind.”  When they hear the demands of the crowd, Jesus is ready to go, but, the text says, “they went out to restrain him.”  That’s a remarkable image.  His own family was trying to restrain him, hold him back from his calling; they thought he had gone too far with all this talk about the kingdom of God and healing and battling demons. 

They weren’t the only ones alarmed. Who should appear right at this time?  Scribes—religious scholars—sent by the authorities in Jerusalem on a fact-finding mission, sent to investigate this radical rabbi.

Their verdict?  Jesus has a demon.  And not just any demon.  He has the ruler of demons in him, “he has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (Mk. 3:22).  That was their conclusion, with mind-numbing logic.  Who was Beelzebul? His name is derived from a Philistine god.  It’s associated with the Canaanite god Ba ‘al.  Beelzebul means “Lord of the flies.”  He’s the ruler of the demons.  In Jesus’ time, he would also be known as Satan.

So you can imagine how Jesus felt when he heard the religious scholars say that Jesus was the one possessed, accusing him of being a servant of Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons!  Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus responded to this ludicrous claim.  Jesus goes right into a parable.  But I can easily imagine at that point Jesus doubling-over in laughter. You’ve got to be joking! Oh, that’s a good one!

We shouldn't be surprised by their response. Jesus wasn’t surprised. He was ready with a parable.  Jesus knew what we need to know: There is something in us that often prefers to "demonize" God's work in the world, instead of experiencing and embracing God's redemption, liberation, and healing.  This is a tough to hear, tough to acknowledge. There is something in us that resists the work of God in the world, pushes it away—especially when the work or will of God is a threat to our authority or autonomy, when it’s a threat to our power or privilege, when we have something to lose.  Just watch what happens when anyone tries to take on the oppressive powers, watch them swarm all over you like flies.

That, essentially, is what these exorcism stories are all about in the Gospels, especially in Mark: liberation from oppressive powers. The kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim and embody was about liberation from the oppressive powers, by an even greater power.  The exorcisms are not really about being possessed by literal demons; exorcisms are symbolic actions. The demon is not really a demon but points to something else.  The demon could be disease (especially the poor social conditions that produce disease), ideologies that oppress and tyrannize, political oppression, economic oppression that keeps people poor and impoverished and sick; demons could be abuse, violence, misogyny—a whole host of forces. Demon possession was common in traditional societies.  And do you know what?  It’s just as common today; we are just as possessed by all kinds of forces and ideologies and falsehoods and lies that oppress and tyrannize and dehumanize and push against God’s will for our lives, for families, communities, religious institutions, nations.

In anthropological studies of demon possession, in earlier times, it was common for those in power to impugn exorcists—Mark paints Jesus as an exorcist—especially when they take on a positive, active, even militant role.  Anyone who questioned those in power were called “witches,” in an attempt to disempower and discredit them.  It was not uncommon for these exorcists, “these upstart controllers of spirits” by virtue of their power over the spirits, to be charged with causing what they cured.[1] The ruling class often operates this way.  That’s what the scribes were doing.  They believed themselves to be God’s representatives; because Jesus chose to operate beyond their control, he was obviously in allegiance to Satan.

So, Jesus throws down a parable.  Without mincing words, holding nothing back, he asks, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mk. 3:23b-25). 

In our American context, this verse is often associated with Abraham Lincoln’s (1809-1865) famous “A House Divided” speech, given on June 16, 1858, in Springfield, Illinois, on the occasion of accepting the Republican Party’s nomination to the U. S. Senate.  This speech and campaign culminated in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.  The question up for debate was the future of slavery.  But, with all due to respect to President Lincoln (my favorite president), his allusion to this text in his speech actually distorts the radical nature of Jesus’ parable.

In talking about a “divided house,” Jesus wasn’t trying to convince the scribes, “I’m essentially on your side against Satan.”  His parable cuts deeper.  He undermines the scribes’ us-vs-them duality, he blows open their self-serving arrogance, he calls the scribes out for essentially being on the wrong side.  They are divided in their dedications, they are at odds with themselves, and they are at war with God. Jesus is taking on the scribal authorities, the religious institution, the abuses of the Temple in Jerusalem, whose leadership was collaborating with the Roman Empire.  Jesus then says, “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” (Mk. 3:27).

This is a peculiar analogy.  The “strong man” is the scribal establishment, the religious leaders.  Jesus will come to overthrow the “strong man,” tie him up, and plunder his property.  Jesus is like a thief who comes in the night (see Mt. 24:43).  It’s a remarkable parable—and if we have problems with this image of Jesus as a thief, find it shocking, offensive, perhaps that says something about us, especially if we move through society in the social dominant class with power and money and privilege, determined to uphold a philosophy that reinforces and protects our worldview, that looks to religion only to protect and “bless” our hold on things.

And then, as if all of this isn’t enough, Jesus drops the mic: “Truly—listen up—I tell you, people will be forgiven 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” (Mk. 3:28-29).  If Jesus initially laughed at the scribes, he wasn’t laughing now—because now he’s deadly serious.

Forgiveness and mercy abound for all kinds of blasphemies, apparent heresies, moral failings, mistakes, sins.  But to resist God's work is to "blaspheme against the Holy Spirit" (Mk. 3:27), which, Jesus tells us, is unpardonable.  “Holy Spirit” here doesn’t refer to the third person of the Trinity.  Holy Spirit refers to the spirit of God. The religious authorities, the demonic spirits, the political authorities, even Jesus’ family were all threatened by the one who comes like a thief in the night to bind the strong man. 

In talking about the scribal establishment and religious authorities, we have to be extra careful that we don’t view Jesus’ parable against Judaism, because then we as Christians would be guilty of demonizing Judaism (which has happened, sadly, far too often in our history).  Jesus was not a Christian; he lodged his criticism of Second Temple Judaism as a Jew.  The issue at stake here is not exclusively a Jewish problem, but one that both Christian and Jew are complicit.  Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, “Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy.  He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix.  Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform.  Beware those who cannot tells God’s will from their own.”[2]  

When we confuse the two, God’s will and from our own will, we stand in the way of God’s ongoing redemptive work to save, to heal, to liberate God’s children, to liberate humanity. When we resist the work of God, when we are stand in the way or hinder the liberation of God’s people, when we stand in the way of healing and forgiveness and reconciliation, we are not only blaspheming the Holy Spirit, we’re also anti-Christ.  And sometimes the most blasphemous are religious institutions and church leaders that, like the scribes, claiming spiritual authority, are quick to charge people as buddies of Beelzebul, only to stand in the way, obstructing the kingdom of God. The scribes are more concerned with keeping things the way things are, maintaining the status quo, preserving their power, with little regard for those who suffer from their selfishness.  They have little interest in the kingdom of God. They mistake the work of Holy Spirit for Satan. 

Juan Luis Segundo (1925-1996), Jesuit priest and liberation theologian, beautifully wrote, "The blasphemy resulting from bad apologetics [and bad theology, I would add] will always be pardonable…. What is not pardonable is using theology to turn real human liberation into something odious. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with 'theological' joy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one's very eyes."[3]

In his extraordinary commentary on Mark’s Gospel, Ched Myers reminds us, “To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization—is to be bypassed by the grace of God.”[4]

We’re always being asked to choose sides.  Are we aligned with God’s purposes? Are we brothers and sisters of Jesus seeking after God's will, doing God's will? Or are we, unknowingly, buddies of Beelzebul?  Whose side are we on?

Image:  Georges Rouault (1871-1958), "Christ and the Apostles."

[1] P. Hollenbach, “Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 49:4, Cited in Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1988), 165.
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Truth to Tell,” in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough Publishing, 2003), 85.
[3] Juan Luis Segundo, “Capitalism Versus Socialism: Crux Theologica,” in Frontiers of Theology in Latin America (Orbis, 1979), 240ff, cited in Myers, 167.
[4] Myers, 167.

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