Saturday, August 23, 2014

007-Misunderstood and Misinterpreted

Those in God’s family are the ones
who are open to doing his mysterious will.

Two major topics concern us in this passage:

  1. What is the unpardonable sin?
  2. Who is inside God’s family and what is a primary characteristic?

The two seem unrelated, yet Mark’s arrangement of rhetoric in these verses suggest that they are very much related. This is the first instance of a clearly arrange “sandwich” rhetoric. Verses 20-21 begin an episode involving Jesus and his family. Verses 22-30 interrupt the family story to interject a confrontation with the scribes. Verses 31-35 resume the family story interrupted earlier.

For the original audience of this text, this passage serves as a reminder that Jesus himself suffered rejection from his immediate family and thus it should not surprise his followers when they are too. It is an encouragement to understand that the new family composed by Jesus is not based on blood relations, but on behavior. (Wait! That sounds like salvation by works! No, behavior is the outward display of one’s heart condition. Heart and action are one unit.)

Family – Part One

imageJesus returns home to Nazareth (some say Capernaum, but I think Nazareth makes the best sense here). He is outside with the crowd, teaching, healing, and exorcising (though not mentioned specifically, we can assume his activities do not change from earlier). He and his disciples are so busy none of them even stop to eat.

The family thinks Jesus has become insane with his obsession. They are ashamed of his behavior. They are afraid of what the authorities might do in response to Jesus’ direct confrontations with them. So they act to intervene. They plan to forcibly seize Jesus and make him stop.

How often do we see God working in ways that contradict our traditions and desires? Do we want “seize him” and make him do what we want? Do we ever want to control God?


The scribes make a lengthy journey from Jerusalem to check out Jesus’ activities. The conclude he is possessed by Beelzebul and that his activities are a result of demonic power.

imageMark places the statement of the scribes close to “he is insane” statement by his family to show his audience that neither group believed in Jesus; that both statements have a degree of difference but in matter of faith they are identical.

When the scribes accuse Jesus of having Beelzebul and of using that demon's power to perform exorcisms, the audience would have understood that the charge was that of practicing magic. Magicians were believed to have gained control of spirits that they could call upon to do their bidding…[1]

Jesus’ family wanted to control Jesus. Who was really possessed?

Jesus responds to the second accusation (that he is working through demonic power) by a set of parables (argument from analogy). He points out how illogical their statements are. He concludes the series of parables with one about a thief and a strong man.

The clear implication is that Jesus is the thief who binds the strong man, Satan, in order to plunder his house. Jesus as thief! Jesus binding someone! Jesus plundering a house! I have never seen a stained-glass window featuring this as an image of Christ.[2]

The Unpardonable Sin

Jesus responds to the first accusation (that he is possessed by Beelzebul) by discussing the sin of blasphemy that cannot be forgiven. It needs to be understood that Jesus is not introducing a new concept, but simply pointing out that the scribes’ own traditions warns about blasphemy that cannot be forgiven.

This solemn warning must be interpreted in the light of the specific situation in which it was uttered. Blasphemy is an expression of defiant hostility toward God… The scribal tradition considered blasphemy no less seriously than did Jesus. “The Holy One, blessed be he, pardons everything else, but on profanation of the Name [i.e. blasphemy] he takes vengeance immediately.” This is the danger to which the scribes exposed themselves when they attributed to the agency of Satan the redemption brought by Jesus… In this historical context, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit denotes the conscious and deliberate rejection of the saving power and grace of God released through Jesus' word and act… The failure of the scribes to recognize him as the Bearer of the Spirit and the Conqueror of Satan could be forgiven. The considered judgment that his power was demonic, however, betrayed a defiant resistance to the Holy Spirit. This severe warning was not addressed to laymen but to carefully trained legal specialists whose task was to interpret the biblical Law to the people. It was their responsibility to be aware of God's redemptive action. Their insensitivity to the Spirit through whom Jesus was qualified for his mission exposed them to grave peril. Their own tradition condemned their gross callousness as sharply as Jesus' word. The admonition concerning blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is not to be divorced from this historical context and applied generally.[3]

imageThe unpardonable sin is one in which a person becomes so confused that good is evil and evil is good. It is the case where a person becomes so convinced of his “rightness” that nothing can convince him or her otherwise. The scribes were so convinced that their interpretations and traditions were correct that the only way they could explain away Jesus’ activities was to attribute them to Satan.

It is one thing to stick to one’s tradition. It is another to deny the possibility that God might have something new to say, even if it comes through your presumed enemy.[4]

In what ways might we be dismissing or wrongfully attributing acts of God to something evil? Are we so steeped in our Christian and denominational “tribalism” that we only see right within ourselves and cannot come to see God at work in other “tribes” out there, even ones that don’t claim to know Christ? Can our zeal for doctrinal purity lead us on the path toward the unpardonable sin?

Those who are most rigidly convinced they are right may be in the most danger of the unpardonable sin.

Family – Part Two

The family narrative resumes. Jesus’ family have come to where he is teaching, but they cannot make their way into the crowd. They are outsiders. Jesus, too, is on the outside but he is among his family. His family relay a message to Jesus. The crowd near him notifies him that his family is calling for him outside.

Jesus asks a question of the crowd, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and then proceeds to answer it himself.

And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother." (vv.34-35, ESV)

imageJesus is outside the confines of culture and tradition, but he is inside his family. All those who do God’s will are also his family. In contrast those who seek to control him or those who refuse to acknowledge the motivation and source of his activities are outside his family.

The idea of control and magic come back around and would have been understood easily by Mark’s original audience, but not necessarily so with us today:

The clinching argument against the charge of practicing magic is the claim that Jesus and his family "do the will of God." This was a common argument made by ancient miracle workers who were accused of being magicians… In the ancient world, the pious instrument of the gods distinguished herself or himself from the magician by insisting that whereas the magician forced the gods to do the magician's will, the pious miracle-worker did only the will of the gods. Thus, when the author of Mark portrays Jesus and his followers as those who "do the will of God," he is relying on commonly accepted modes of argumentation to make his point. Such a defense was a necessary component of any biography of a wonder-worker in antiquity because the person that one group claimed as a holy man would inevitably be regarded as a magician by competing groups…[5]

Jesus, the Feminist

Among the details of these last verses is often missed Jesus’ pointed rejection of patriarchal culture and religion, and instead his support for an inclusive, egalitarian community.

imageOut of nowhere Jesus introduced “sister” in verse 35. Not only does he add sister, but he never mentions “father” anywhere in his description of his new family, the church. What should we make of this? Is this just random familial relationships that Jesus picked blindly from a bag? Or is Mark using this specific statement to help us understand something greater and deeper in Jesus’ words? I believe it is this latter.

In a patriarchal society, to omit “father” from a description of family relationships would have been unthinkable. For Jesus to do so had to have been intentional and with a point. Jesus is saying that within his family, the only father is God himself. No one else in his family is granted the kind of authority that was taken as normal for fathers in their society. In other words, the kind of top-down, authoritarian, hierarchical authority has no place in the church.

Secondly, by including “sister” as well as leaving “mother” in the list of family members as he looked around his followers, he acknowledges the existence, value, and importance of women disciples in his family. They stand alongside the men as equal in all respects in his new family. The men are not to have special roles over the women and vice versa.

Whereas Mark’s context is a patriarchal one, through the use of “sister” and “mother” the writer declares the presence of women in the ministry of Jesus…

In declaring, “Here are my mother and my brothers” (v. 34), Jesus also does not mention “father.” First-century-CE society was rooted in a patriarchal (male-rule), patrilineal (male-descendency), patrinomial (male-naming), and patrilocal (male-placement) society. What an assault this is to concepts of family embedded in Mark’s society! Although the following quote is related to Luke’s community, it is still apropos in addressing the social hierarchy in Mark’s day just a decade earlier: “The status of a woman was tied to that of a male relative. Her identity and social belonging were situated outside of her self and her gender.” Mark’s Jesus attempts to reconfigure this gender order.

This group is not patriarchal. Mothers have a vital role to play. God is now the head of the household. This group is not male exclusively. It includes sisters who are on par with brothers in the work of Jesus.[6]

Closing Thoughts

God’s family consists of those who are curious and open-minded, who believe confidently yet are flexible to see God working in ways and through agencies that are non-traditional and not necessarily part of the approved “tribe.” God’s family consists of those who are ready to see family members wherever they may be found.

There is only one leader, father, and “head” in God’s family. It is God himself. Everyone else is an equal member.

Jesus deliberately and forcefully chose to confront not only spiritual misunderstandings and misinterpretations, but social and cultural ones as well. In doing so he raised the value and dignity of women and other marginalized people in his society.

Are we following Jesus’ examples and doing God’s will?
Are we inside or outside?

[1] Reading Mark, 3:20-35.

[2] Feasting: Mark, location 3837.

[3] NICNT: Mark, 3:28-30. Emphasis mine.

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 3751.

[5] Reading Mark, 3:20-35.

[6] Feasting: Mark, locations 4007, 4012, 4020.

Monday, August 11, 2014

006-Mixed Reactions

Gospel proclamation is not just words. It must free the oppressed and captives. If it doesn’t it isn’t the gospel.

In this passage Mark wraps up the account of Jesus’ first ministry tour around the Galilean region. Responses to Jesus are mixed, but rare is any kind of genuine faith and repentance that is expressed. The crowds are merely curious, the disciples are confused, and the establishment is hostile.

Healing and Killing (3:1-6)

imageJesus returns to a synagogue, probably in Capernaum, where the story began. The environment is decidedly hostile by this time. Jesus is given the silent treatment by all: by those who wish to snub him and by the rest who are fearful of expressing any opinions of their own in case they too, are targeted.

Jesus could have avoided all the controversy if he merely waited until after the Sabbath to heal. But the Kingdom of God does not wait. The Sabbath is a weekly invasion of the Kingdom into the world. Healing and restoration to wholeness of body, spirit, and relationships is most appropriate to take place on the Sabbath.

This story does not give any indication as to the man’s spiritual condition or his faith. Jesus’ compassion trumps all—he heals without question. There is nothing recorded of the man’s thoughts and actions afterward. Was there any kind of gratitude or repentance? The text does not say. Yet Jesus still healed.

This story is a challenge to us as modern Christians. Will we offer help to those who appear undeserving, who might merely be there to take advantage, to those who won’t express gratitude, to those who might even turn against us?

Doing good, caring for neighbor, trumps all regulations. What does that say to us today, whether we protest rules and regulations within the life of the church, or advocate for change in culture and politics? What trumps what? What priorities matter? Jesus’ fierce testimony silences the critics. Either they have decided already and do not seek debate, or they have nothing to say—or both. Either way, their silence both angers and saddens Jesus. Again, to what suffering and injustice is the church silent today?[1]

The irony is that the guardians of spiritual tradition go to plot the destruction of Jesus on the Sabbath day.

A Tour Summary (3:7-12)

imageMotifs from the opening stories are condensed in these few verses: withdrawal, wilderness, sea, the crowd, healing, exorcism, confrontation.

The news about Jesus’ deeds have spread far beyond Galilee and people arrive from a very large area to hear about him and experience his manifestations. Once more there is no mention of repentance, yet Jesus continues to heal, exorcise, and restore people. Jesus asks for nothing in return.

Jesus demonstrates what genuine compassion does.

Jesus’ compassion is not merely a feeling of pity; his compassion focuses on wholeness and justice on behalf of those in need. Real compassion entails actually getting to know people, understanding their needs and concerns, and sharing resources even at personal cost. Compassion may also mean shared suffering.[2]

Jesus demonstrates what the Kingdom of God looks like. The Kingdom is not primarily about a place, but about shared relationships in an environment of mutual acceptance.

Healing carried great weight in a society that viewed illness as punishment from heaven. The healings set off a chain reaction as word spread among the villagers of Galilee. Remember that healing touched more than the individual; it restored the family and kinship relations.[3]

Selection of The Twelve (3:13-19)

imageI see this as kind of a closing of the first unit and an introduction to the next. Jesus opened his ministry by announcing the arrival of the kingdom, calling people to repent and believe the gospel, and by calling some disciples to follow him. In this passage Jesus selects twelve to further the discipleship process: to observe Jesus in action and to imitate him in proclamation and exorcism. In the following chapters we are given snapshots of more of Jesus words and deeds.

It is important to understand that Jesus desired every disciple that is named here, including Judas Iscariot who would later betray him. But in a sense, all the disciples betrayed Jesus to one degree or another.

In whatever way Christians may theologize about Judas, then and now—predestined pawn, kingdom-hastening agent, mistaken militant, would-be powerbroker—even the earliest apostolic community included the presence and the reality of the demonic, a timely reminder for those who would attribute some mythic purity to the first-century church.[4]


Disciples of Jesus are to first learn what the gospel is. And they are sent out to proclaim and live it. The gospel is that the kingdom of God has arrived. It can only be entered through repentance, that is, by choosing to turn one’s steps toward drawing nearer to Jesus and to follow him. The kingdom of God is good news because it is a community in which all are accepted, where oppression and addictions finally end, where relationships are restored, and where wholeness is found.

But this kingdom is not yet fully here. We live in an in-between time where we experience some of what the kingdom promises but the evils of the world still affect the church.

Christ has great expectations of us and has no intention of lessening them. We disciples often fail to meet them, but that is no reason for despair, because all things are possible for God.[5]

[1] Feasting: Mark, location 3082.

[2] Feasting: Mark, location 3340.

[3] Feasting: Mark, location 3404.

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 3506.

[5] Feasting: Mark, location 3654.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Back from break

I’ve been away for a few weeks, which explains why it’s been quiet here. A new post on the next section from Mark should be up after this coming Saturday. In the meantime, if you’re interested, here is the sermon I preached at the Lutheran church today. It was on the Loaves and Fishes, something that we will be getting to in a few chapters during our travel through Mark.