Misunderstandings, Gospel, and Identity: (Late) Reflections on the Second Week of Pentecost

Note: Due to what Eugene Peterson calls ‘life, life, and more life’ (which can sometimes be a pain and a blessing at the same time) I’m still playing catch up on weekly lectionary reflections. These are from the second week of Pentecost. Hopefully the third weeks will be up Monday afternoon – depending of course upon on what ‘life’ throws at me.

The Gospel Text for Second Sunday after Pentecost, Mark 3:20-35 (CEB)

20 Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. 21 When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!”

22 The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”

23 When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? 24  A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. 25  And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26  If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. 27  No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized. 28  I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. 29  But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” 30 He said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”

31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”

33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.”

Gospel: Starting at the Beginning (of Mark)

To understand what’s going on in Mark 3, we need to go back to Mark 1:1, ‘The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son.’ Good news … gospel! But this isn’t gospel as most of us have probably learned about it – gospel reduced to individual forgiveness of sins and a ‘personal relationship with Jesus.’ No, this is the gospel of the kingdom and the reign of the Messiah, God’s Son, our liberating King Jesus. Working in Christian retail I can attest that the bulk of materials advertized as ‘gospel’ should more accurately be called the ‘plan of salvation’ (I’m with Scot McKnight on this!). In fact, there is even a book called The Explicit Gospel that is currently very popular. I want to root for it for no other reason that the author has local ties (not that I share his particular Calvinist bent). I won’t offer a full review of the whole book here except to say that the more I have read of it, the more I have felt it’s simply an extended treatment of the typical evangelical plan of salvation (not the gospel) with a Calvinist twist (See McKnight’s reviews here and here.)

But in Mark we don’t begin with individual, personal ‘salvation’ or benefit. Instead Mark starts with Kingdom and the fulfillment of scripture and the story of Israel in the reign of God’s Son, the Messiah. We find John the Baptist leading the way and saying that one ‘stronger than him’ would come and baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit (ie, Petecost). We then find that this Messiah, Jesus himself, is forced (or ‘pushed’ as the force of the Greek indicates) into the wilderness immediately following his own baptism. After his wilderness experience, in Mark 1:14, Jesus began his public ministry declaring that the Kingdom itself was at hand. Those wishing to defend the gospel merely as individual forgiveness of sin may object and point to the call to repentance in Mark 1:15 and the express forgiveness of the personal sin of the paralyzed man in Mark 2:5.  In reference to 1:15 we can note that while personal repentance is necessary for entrance into the Kingdom, nowhere is the gospel itself reduced down to repentance or individual forgiveness. In fact, the verse explicitly tells us to ‘repent’ and then ‘believe the good news (or gospel)’. Repentance here indicates how we stand in relation to the gospel – how we stand in relation to the Kingdom of God’s Son. And in reference to 2:5, we do indeed find that Jesus forgave the paralyzed man his sins. But Jesus can forgive sins because he is the ‘Son of Man’ (or ‘Human One’ in the CEB), a clear Messianic reference to Daniel 7. And the proof he had this authority and that the paralyzed man was forgiven was he got up and walked – he was healed! As always, the point of the passage here is about who Jesus is as Messiah. The liberating Kingship of Jesus is always the starting point of the gospel, not the individual forgiveness of sins. To be sure, forgiveness of sins is included, but only within the wider context of the Kingdom and reign of Christ.

(And as an aside: we should note that Jesus is able to forgive sins here even though he has not yet died on the cross. I am not here questioning the importance of atonement theories, even substitutionary ones. I do think however we need to recognize that Jesus forgives sins because he is Messiah or King. We do well not to separate cross from Kingdom and not to reduce the cross down to individual salvation as happens far too often.)

Satan is Strong … Jesus is Stronger

This gospel of the kingdom forms the context for where we find Jesus in this passage. There seems to be a familiar pattern: 1) Jesus does something he’s not supposed to do like forgiving sins, healing on the Sabbath day, driving out demons, etc. 2) The religious leaders murmur amongst themselves and/or charge Jesus with all sorts of wrongdoing and chicanery. 3) Then Jesus and the religious leaders have a confrontation further revealing his Messianic, kingly status and which in the end gets him in even more trouble. And this is where we find ourselves now in Mark 3. One of the main things that Jesus has been doing up until now, along with healing people and calling his disciples, is casting out demons (as he is doing here). It is striking that over and over the forces of evil get the identity of Jesus but those most studied in Israel’s laws and scriptures don’t – either that or they get exactly who Jesus is and feel their power and control threatened.

And it is also striking that Jesus tells those he heals, and he tells the demonic spirits, not to tell anyone who he is – not to reveal what he has done or that he is the Messiah. This is what scholars have called the ‘Messianic Secret’. This it seems is more like an ‘open secret’, but one that is easily misunderstood by the masses (perhaps one reason why Jesus exhorted silence from those he healed and the demons) who craved celebrity and one that seemed to frighten and threaten those ‘in charge.’ This is striking to me because in my experience in Christian retail I have seen how the Christian publishing ‘market’ is driven by celebrity and ‘developing a platform.’ I’m not saying its wrong or sinful to be a popular author, it just strikes me that most of the attempts to ‘promote’ the kingdom actually end up making a commodity of the kingdom. (And the celebrity driven nature of the Christian retail market has done nothing to raise the depth of material available. If what sells is an indicator of what our church leaders are reading then I am sad for the state of the church today (just being honest here!). Those items that truly deserve our attention (ie, Eugene Peterson, et al) languish on the shelf where I work.) We must contend with the fact that our Lord, the Messiah of Israel, the King of the universe actively resisted building himself a ‘platform’.

Yet, despite his resistance, he still attracted huge crowds interested in seeing what he would do next. And it seems that his family was not quite on board with what he was doing at this stage if his ministry since they thought he was mad. This leads us to the second thing in the pattern mentioned above. The religious leaders and legal experts sent down some representatives from Jerusalem to see if they could nip this Jesus thing in the bud. Jesus, they said, could drive out demons because he was in league with Satan himself! Jesus responds with a parable that makes two main points.

The first is to illustrate how ridiculous it was to say that Jesus cast out demons with the power of demons. A kingdom divided can’t stand. And no one can break into the house of a strong man without first tying up the strong man. The point here is simple: Satan is strong, but Jesus is the Stronger One. This draws on the wilderness experience of Jesus where he was ‘tempted’ by Satan and the subsequent casting out of demons, all which implicitly indicate the defeat of Satan by Jesus and the arrival of the Kingdom in the person of Jesus (ie, Christus Victor).

The second point is that the sin that can’t be forgiven is the sin against the Holy Spirit. Remember here that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit by which Jesus was moved along in his ministry. The Spirit is the Spirit of the Kingdom. To sin against the Spirit is to label a work of the Spirit a work of the devil. To do this is to cut oneself out of the Kingdom, since the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Kingdom of God’s Son. As usual there is a double meaning in Jesus’ words here: 1) those who ought to understand Jesus and the Kingdom the most oftentimes don’t (or are simply the most threatened by it), and 2) those who set themselves up as self appointed guardians of the ways of God should be careful lest they actually side themselves against God’s Kingdom. We do well to heed these warnings ourselves.

What (or Who) Defines You?

Then Jesus gets word that his mother, brothers, and sisters were looking for him. The setting is crucial here. In the context of these three audiences – the crowds looking for another miracle, the religious leaders looking to undermine him, and his own blood family who thinks he’s nuts – he cuts through another one of the traditional Jewish identity markers. And so, the statement that whoever does the will of the Father is the true family of Jesus, while not spectacular to Western ears, would have been downright disturbing to Jewish ones. Family bonds were right up there with Sabbath observance in terms of Jewish identity (and we see how that went for Jesus). These identity markers were supposed to be among the things that made the Jews a ‘light to the nations.’ These markers themselves were not bad, but had become over time barriers that cut the Jews off from the nations, and overall sources of legalism and pride.

Jesus has a way of slicing through the tradition, legalism, and pride in one clean cut. There is again a double message here: many, if not most, of those who think they are in on the Kingdom because of heritage or tradition really aren’t and those just along for the show won’t make the cut in the long run. Unless we read his statement in verses 33-35 as deeply shocking we haven’t gotten the message. I hesitate to use the word ‘radical’ since the word gets overused and domesticated so much these days, but what Jesus has to say here is in fact deeply radical in its context. Jesus is not simply a mildly interesting figure or merely a good teacher of morally therapeutic platitudes to help people live better lives. Following Jesus is an ‘all in’ sort of thing – one that can engender resistance, one that marks out the people of the King as rather peculiar, one that binds us to the paradigmatic cruciform Christ narrative. The radical thrust here is that in a world with endless ‘kingdoms’ bidding for our allegiances (and even more so since its an election year), in order to get in on Jesus’ Kingdom, to be a part of what Jesus is doing, one’s identity must be completely defined and centered around the liberating King himself. What, or who, defines you?

Prayer for the Second Sunday of Pentecost (Book of Common Prayer):

O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.