This week we begin the post-Trinity season and the lectionary returns to the Gospel of Mark, Mark 3.20-35. It is not an easy passage to grapple with.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
It feels a bit like moving from the sublime to the ridiculous. Last Sunday we were reflecting on God as Trinity with the help of the profound cadences of the Gospel of John, this coming Sunday we are uncomfortably dropped one of the less obviously inviting passages of the Gospel of Mark – uncomfortable both because of its cultural and theological assumptions about satanic forces and because we are made privy to the difficult dynamics that seem to have existed within Jesus’ earthly family.
An interesting comparative cross-link between the two passages has occurred to me, though I suspect it is unintentional as far as the lectionary compilers are concerned: the contrast between the loving and giving nature of Jesus’ relationship with his Father, in Trinity Sunday’s Gospel reading of John 3.1-17, and his apparently less ‘warm’ relationship with his mother here in Mark 3.20-35. It is also interesting to observe the link between the expression, ‘binding the strong man’ (the traditional translation of Jesus’ comment about Satan in Mark 3.27) and the great Trinity hymn, ‘I bind unto myself today, the strong name of the Trinity’. Though we may be much more comfortable with the second expression rather than first, both reflect a world-view that was prevalent in biblical times in which human beings believed they inhabited a binary world that was also peopled by powerful unseen forces, good or evil, that they needed to control, ‘bind’, and get on side.
One of the debts that we owe to the biblical scholar, Walter Wink, author of the ‘Powers’ trilogy (Naming the Powers, Engaging the Powers, Transforming the Powers), is an understanding that we ignore that world-view at our peril. If we try to do so it has ‘power’ to rise up and bite us. We may need to ‘translate’ it into contemporary idiom, but human beings are very foolish if they think that total ‘power’ in our world rests with conscious humanity. The choices we make gradually nudge us, individually and collectively, into one direction or another, good or evil, so that eventually we wake up and discover which and whose ‘kingdom’ we are now part of. If I am brutally honest I think there are shades of this in what is happening in our continent of Europe at the moment.
I remember how as a young teenager I spent time worrying whether I had accidentally committed the unforgiveable sin of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ (Mark 3.28-30). Eventually I decided I probably hadn’t! – but ever since then I have been interested to try and pin down what exactly is meant by this phrase, given that I think its misuse could in fact be an example of what is actually unforgiveable. My current understanding would be of a situation where a person or a group is so dominated by the force of an ideology that they can no longer distinguish between what is good and what is evil.
The Gospel of Mark (perhaps par excellence among the four Gospels) inhabits the world of the ‘powers’. Jesus’ baptism, followed immediately by his temptation, is the time when he defeats the demonic forces, so that the ‘kingdom of Satan’ is vanquished and Jesus’ ministry can begin with his proclamation that ‘the kingdom of God is drawn near’. As Jesus has plunged into the dark river of his baptism it is understood as him taking on a cosmic but victorious struggle with the watery chaos monsters, those ‘powers’ we read of in the Old Testament such as ‘Rahab’ who are both mythological creatures yet also identified with the political empires of the time who oppressed the people of the Old Testament (see e.g.Isaiah 30.7). His ‘victory’ is then visualised by the splitting open of the heavens, so that the power of the Spirit can rest upon him in his role as regent in the Kingdom of God. The Spirit then ‘immediately’ drives Jesus out into the wilderness to challenge Satan, with his sojourn among the ‘wild beasts’ and the ministry of angels both intended as ratification of his victory. As far as the demonic forces go, the rest of Mark’s Gospel is simply a ‘mopping up’ operation making apparent this initial definitive victory.
This is what an Orthodox priest, Father Stephen Freeman, offers on the topic:
‘In the Eastern Church, the Baptism of Christ takes up … Old Testament references of struggle with the watery chaos. Christ’s entry into the waters is understood as a foreshadowing of His entrance into Hades. It is a defeat of the hostile powers. The same theme runs throughout the sacrament of Baptism itself. The destruction of the demons is easily the strongest theme within that service. …It is not a hymn of payment, or punishment, but of going into the strongman’s kingdom, binding him and setting free those who are held captive. The heads of the dragons are crushed, the heads of Leviathan are broken in pieces, Rahab has been cut apart.’ (When Chaos Ruled the World – Part I – Glory to God for All Things (ancientfaith.com)
The great Ulster New Testament scholar Ernest Best expounded what was essentially this thesis in a book The Temptation and the Passion. He argued that the definitive victory of Christ was (as far as Mark’s Gospel is concerned) won at the beginning of his ministry, at the baptism and temptation. (It has occurred to me that the title of Best’s book offers a bit of a hostage to fortune, and I have wondered if any purchasers of it were disappointed when they did not get the X-rated novel or movie they might have been expecting!)
But if the kingdom (rule) of God and ‘victory’ of Christ over demonic forces is assured from the beginning – witnessed for example in how ‘easily’ Jesus vanquishes both the demon of the storm and the demons of illness – what is the reason for the sense of conflict which looms large, especially in Mark’s Gospel?
It’s the people, stupid! Human beings. Mark’s Gospel is quite clear that unlike the demonic forces Jesus cannot control or compel human beings, their faith or lack of it and their responses to him. It’s that ancient gift (or curse!) of free will. In fact this can make human beings particularly dangerous to Jesus, as Satan, like a bound and wounded animal now deprived of his usual army, can entice humans to act on his behalf (see e.g. Mark 8.33). It is not the demons that will eventually put Jesus to death – it is human beings.
This I believe is the context of this week’s Gospel passage. It is often noticed how Mark ‘wraps’ one incident inside another, as a clue that we are intended to interpret each in the light of the other. The most often quoted example of this comes in the account of the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of the fig-tree. We do however have the same feature apparent in these verses, which begin (3.20-21) and conclude (3.31-35) with a reference to Jesus’ family which wraps itself round the verses referring to casting out Satan (3.22-27). It is a signal that we need to read the two together.
Harsh though it may sound to our ears the implication is that Jesus is comparing his family’s efforts to restrain him from his ministry with Satan’s misguided but ultimately ineffective efforts to stop him. Indeed the verb the verb translated here as ‘restrain’ (3.21), which describes Jesus’ family’s attempts to control him is itself sinister. In this form it appears several times later in Mark’s Gospel to speak about the authorities efforts in ‘arresting’ Jesus.
And there is one other verbal note that draws together the various parts of our Gospel reading, the word ‘house/home’. We begin by reading of Jesus going ‘home’ (verse 20), then we hear four times about Satan’s ‘house’ (verses 25, 27), and finally we learn that his mother and brothers cannot or will not enter the house where Jesus is sitting. It all adds up to a sharp sense of alienation in which Jesus is no longer ‘at home’ with his family.
But it is a question of wheels within wheels, or stories within stories. For this set of wrapped-around verses is itself as a whole inserted within a further layer or wrapping of Mark’s narrative. We are intended to ‘read’ Mark 3.20-35 within the wider context of the earlier verses of chapter 3 and the parables of chapter 4.‘ You need to look back to Mark 3.9 where Jesus asks his disciples to ‘have a boat ready for him because of the crowd.’ At the beginning of chapter 4 that image is picked up again as we hear, ‘Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there’ (Mark 4.1). And then follows the great parable chapter of Mark’s Gospel, which perhaps has been foreshadowed by the first time the word ‘parable’ appears in Mark 3.23. And tellingly, in the cryptic verses Mark 4.11-12 which are intended as the key to the nature of parables, we hear, ‘for those outside, everything comes in parables, to order that they may look, but not perceive… so that they may not turn and be forgiven.’ Those outside’?; back near the end of chapter 3 we had learned that Jesus’ mother and brothers were ‘standing outside the house’. We can make our own links and draw our own conclusions.
Mark is certainly not an easy Gospel for those who seek a comfortable, familial faith. The ‘way’ that Jesus will take his disciples – and us – on in the coming chapters will take us, and Mark’s first readers, far away from any easy notion of ‘home’. It will be a roller-coaster ride. Are we – you – me – willing to take on the challenge? What does it mean in our day? I have quoted these lines from Revd Chris Burdon previously, but they also seem appropriate to use to end this week’s reflection: ‘In the end, there are two ways of dealing with the Gospel according to Mark: either we throw the book away and opt for a gentler religion, or we act on it and attempt to follow this man (Jesus) through glory and through terror.’ (Chris Burdon, ‘Stumbling on God’)