St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
I Samuel 8.4-15; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1; Mark 3.20-35
“When Jesus’ family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” How many of you found comfort in the fact that Jesus had family problems? He truly was one with us! All families have problems – these family problems can sometimes be useful. People like to say, “You see, I am not to blame, for I was raised in a dysfunctional family!” This reminds me of the middle schooler who brought home his woefully inadequate report card. His parents asked him to explain. He looked at them, and replied, “I don’t really know if it is due to my heredity or my environment!”
What is it that made Jesus’ family think he was deranged? Perhaps we should begin by noting the comment regarding his family comes between a reference to the crowd pushing in around Jesus and his disciples and the comments of the scribes to the effect that he could do these things because he was in league with the demons. Let’s back up a bit and look at the fuller context.
Last week the reading focused on to events which took place on the sabbath: Jesus’ disciples unlawfully plucking heads of grain as they were making their way through a grain field and Jesus’ healing a man in the synagogue who had a withered hand. The message – the loving care of others sets aside the rules of the sabbath. In the first instance, Jesus told the Pharisees “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2.27-28; NRSV). This was considered blasphemous. After healing the withered hand, the Pharisees began to plot Jesus’ destruction with the Herodians.
As word of Jesus’ teaching and healing spread, such crowds began to form that he asked his disciples to have a boat ready so he could teach on the lake and not be crushed by the crowds. Earlier in Mark 2 we encounter the story of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof due to the press of the crowds. Mark writes, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” (Vs. 5-7; NRSV).
Attracting such crowds was bad enough, but claiming to be lord of the sabbath and pronouncing absolution of sins was too much! It is hard for us to appreciate the uproar this would have caused in the leadership of the Jewish community. Who does this man think he is – God? The very idea!
Mark is careful to note Jesus’ special status. Immediately after the account of healing the man with the withered hand, Mark tells us that whenever the unclean spirits saw Jesus, “they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he sternly ordered them not to make him known” (Mark 3.11-12; NRSV). Mark further tells us Jesus went up the mountain with his disciples, and “appointed the twelve, whom he named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3.14-15; NRSV). And this brings us to the events of today’s reading.
Mark portrays Jesus’ interaction with the various parties by means of a chiastic structure: crowd, family, then scribes followed by scribes, family, then crowd. Jesus’ interaction with the scribes is sandwiched between the references to his family. Let’s look more closely at this interaction.
The crowd pressed upon Jesus to such an extent that he and his disciples were unable to eat. When Jesus’ family heard what was happening, they went out to restrain him, “for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” (Mark 3.21; NRSV). Remember, honor is exceedingly important in Middle eastern cultures – this madness is damaging the honor of Jesus’ family. Then Mark tells us the scribes come down from Jerusalem; they explain Jesus’ ability to cast out demons by saying he is in league with Beelzebul, the prince of demons. Jesus asked them, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Using a parable, he reminds the scribes that a kingdom or a house divided against itself cannot stand; “if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” Jesus further says if one is to plunder a strong man’s house, one must first tie up the strong man. By implication, Jesus has bound Satan, and may now plunder Satan’s domain.
Having set forth this parable, Jesus then pronounced: “’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’” (Mark 3.28-30; NRSV).
Although the scribes, the leaders, had accused Jesus of blasphemy, the scribes were the ones truly guilty of blasphemy for they failed to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit operating through Jesus, and had attributed the actions of the Holy Spirit operating in and through Jesus to the presence of an unclean spirit. One who blasphemes the work of the Holy Spirit has divorced himself or herself from the source of love, and in so doing, has removed himself or herself from the domain of forgiveness. In such cases the heart is so hardened, so calcified, it is beyond forgiveness. Our God is a loving and forgiving God who is always ready and willing to forgive – God longs to grant forgiveness, but one must be capable of recognizing the need for forgiveness, be repentant and capable of receiving forgiveness. The attributes of God include love and justice. Grace is always given to a contrite heart and spirit, but grace cannot be given apart from contrition.
Mark then turns his attention once more to family matters. The family has come, but Jesus is surrounded by the crowd. Word is sent: “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you” (Mark 3.32; NRSV). Jesus undoubtedly knew their intention to restrain him. He thus responded, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Looking at those who sat around him, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3.33-35; NRSV). Jesus was pointing to God’s larger family.
On occasion, I have had people who are troubled with this story ask why Jesus would reject his mother and brothers. They have expressed their sorrow for Mary. Mark does not tell us whether Jesus ultimately saw his family; that is left an open question. Mark is pointing to our membership in God’s family. When I have explained the context of Jesus’ interaction, and pointed to the family’s intent, they begin to see the larger picture.
What can we glean from our consideration of this text? First, we should note that a house divided cannot stand. This is one of the dangers of destructive conflict in any church. Some conflict is constructive and should be welcomed – it can help us to grow, to move into new ministry, or bed more effective in ministry. On the other hand, destructive conflict would serve to diminish our ministry and effectiveness. Destructive conflict must be addressed appropriately by meeting with the parties to the conflict and working toward resolution.
Second, our reading conveys a warning about blaspheming the Holy Spirit, a sin which is unforgiveable, not because God is incapable of forgiving the sin, but rather because one has chosen to remove oneself from the realm of redemption.
And last, we need to remember that we are adopted into God’s family – all who do the will of God are our brothers and sisters.