This Sunday’s gospel (Mark 3:20-35) opens in the middle of a sentence… and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.
When Jesus’ family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”
People couldn’t figure Jesus out. The crowds of ill, injured and possessed people knew him as a healer, a good person. They crowded around him so much so that he and his disciples couldn’t eat. But his extended family and the scribes thought that he was out of his mind.
The events surrounding this conversation have to do with exorcism and strongly suggest that by driving out demons Jesus had attracted the crowds and his family. Mark uses many different synonyms for demons… Beelzebul, ruler of the demons, Satan, and earlier, unclean spirits…. hinting by the many references, that their power had been the subject of much discussion.
In Jesus’ culture and the gospels, demons were seen as the source of sickness and injury as well as anti-social behaviour. Demons appeared often in Mark, beginning with Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the desert, (Mark 1:13). Jesus cast out many demons in the first chapters of his gospel…. when the man with the unclean spirit came to him while he was teaching in the synagogue (Mark 1:21-24), while he was at the house of Simon’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:24) and in his early preaching ministry in Galilee (Mark 1:38 and 3:11). Just before the beginning of this morning’s gospel he had given his disciples the power to expel demons when he sent them out (Mark 3:14-15).
And he called them (his relatives and the scribes) to him, and spoke to them in parables, “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 will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.
Jesus appealed to people’s sense of logic in rejecting the Scribes’ charge that he was a demon. His comments may also have been a direct reference to Herod Antipas who divorced the daughter of the Nabatean king Aretus and married Herodias, the wife of his brother. (It was opposition to this marriage that led to the beheading of John the Baptist.) Then Aretus attacked Herod’s army and eventually defeated it.
This was a “house divided” playing out in contemporary time. Jesus had current events as well as logic on his side. He stumped his accusers.
Next, Jesus turned the tables on the scribes and accused them of blasphemy, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for 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”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Several interpretive notes may help decipher these words.
The introductory word, truly, signalled Jesus’ intent to make a solemn statement.
Humans (or people), not just Israelites, will be forgiven their blasphemies. Jesus extended the reach of his kingdom beyond the lands of the Jewish people. His word was all-embracing. The expansiveness was more than geographic. By associating with the sick, crazy and marginalized of his society, Jesus put himself outside the polite world of the scribes and his own family. He said that these outcasts and sinners would be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.
The word blasphemies, as used here, refers to abusing or insulting the Holy Spirit, not just the narrower sense of invoking the divine name for trivial or dishonest purposes. Broadly speaking the Holy Spirit is one with Jesus’ spirit of love and forgiveness. His acts of curing and driving out demons were acts of compassion arising from the power of the Holy Spirit. To insult Jesus was to abuse his Spirit of care and refuse to share his concern for the least in society.
More significantly, Jesus and the Holy Spirit shared a baptismal identity and history. Jesus came from Nazareth … and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:8-10) To say, as the Scribes did, that Jesus had an unclean sprit, was to deny his personal history and the source of his power as God’s own.
A paraphrase of this passage might be “Listen carefully. Any person can be forgiven their sins, no matter how grievous, except for the one who denies the healing compassion and power of Holy Spirit to forgive these marginalized people … the Spirit and I are one in the Father. If you reject me, you reject God and his Spirit.”
These days we incline towards psychologizing demons and the behaviours they elicit. Psychiatrists who have looked at the biblical descriptions of demon-possession think they see evidence of epilepsy or schizophrenia in some of the gospel characters whom Jesus cured. They dismiss the idea of Satan as an uninformed misunderstanding of a pathology.
At the same time we profess belief in the Holy Spirit as a person. It is only a ‘short distance’ from denying the devil to denying the Holy Spirit. Both exist in the bible and the spirit-world, which we believe in.
Think of it this way: disease and the devil might be “co-morbidities”, one more obvious, but both contributing to the observed distress of the person. He frequently, though not always, cured body and soul. Jesus’ cures defied not only historical understandings but also the fact that the medical science that we enjoy did not exist when he healed.
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they … called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
While Jesus’ reference to his mother and brothers seems discontinuous with the discussion about the source of his power, it is in keeping with the Spirit of God, whose will is to bless those who are poor, who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst, the merciful and the pure in heart. Jesus experienced a closer relationship with those who share his Spirit than those who are blood relatives, but who stumble on account of me. (Luke 7:23)