If I had a mentor in college, it was a philosophy professor named Wilbur Mullen. I followed him on a journey of wonder from the ancient Greeks through those medieval Christian and Muslim and Jewish thinkers to the wisdom of the 20th century. Especially formative for me were excursions with the mystics, the pantheists, and the existentialists. But Dr. Mullen was also an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene. I will never forget the offhand comment he made in class one day. He said, with real feeling: “I wish I could read the Gospel of Mark for the first time.” I heard him to mean: read it anew. Read the Gospel of Mark the way a first century Christian community might have. Without expectations. The expectations of modernity and the supposed Christian culture of the United States. Expectations built up over 2,000 years of Christian tradition and its handling or mishandling of Jesus’ message and meaning.
Well, what about tonight’s reading from the Gospel of Mark? I wonder how it bumps up against our expectations? And I wonder if there’s an invitation here and now to read for the first time?
As happens throughout Mark, the gospel writer introduces one story, then embeds a second story line, and finally returns to the original story. So, first, Jesus’ family members align with the religious authorities to try and restrain their son and brother and fellow Jew (Mark 3:20-22). Then come piled on top of each other all those words about casting out demons by the power of the ruler of the 2 demons, about Satan and houses divided, about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (3:22-30). And then back to Jesus and his family: Looking at the crowd, he says: Here is my family! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother (31-35).
Three features of this gospel reading might strike us as unexpected.
The powers that be both in family and society want to restrain Jesus because they think he is out of his mind. Beside himself. Beyond the conventions of family, let alone the religious establishment. Ec-centric: on the margins and away from the center in all that he was doing and saying. What if they’re right? The Jesus of Mark’s gospel is out of his political and religious mind, beside himself as he comes alongside those he had no cultural or economic or hygienic reason to be with in community. Jesus may be out of his mind, but he is hardly alone. His house is not divided. Jesus’ house is crowded with people he had healed and forgiven and liberated from demonic possession and social oppression. They all find themselves sitting inside Jesus’ house of eccentric solidarity and compassion, while family and authorities stand outside looking in.
There’s another house in our gospel reading. A strong man owns it. Satan. Satan’s house is full of valuable property, full of human beings. But his is a house divided. A house where people hide themselves for shame: I was afraid, because I was naked (Genesis 3:10). A house where people lash out at others with blame: the woman you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree; the serpent tricked me, and I ate (3:12-13). Just turn on the television or radio or your cell phone to see Satan’s house both full and divided. Full of celebrity suicides and 3 those of ordinary military veterans. Brown-skinned immigrant family members separated at the southern border. White, opioid-addicted parents in Ohio neglecting their children. Jesus, however, aims to break and enter Satan’s house and plunder it – removing the valuable property, the people, who never belonged to Satan in the first place. Would you have expected your Christian calling to consist of being an accomplice in burglary? Jesus must first tie up Satan the strong man – then his house can be plundered. But how do you bind the strong man without adopting his own tools and tactics, which would just redouble his strength?
Growing up Nazarene, there was some morbid fascination with what we called the unpardonable sin. What it was and whether I had committed it. Maybe blasphemy against the Holy Spirit turns out to be unexpectedly simple, banal even: to refuse to welcome with joy the liberation brought by Jesus’ universal, non-tribal, non-ethnic, non-familial human solidarity. To dismiss or deride Jesus’ crowded and inclusive house as demonic rather than divine. Unpardonable in so far as one finds oneself standing outside looking in at community.
Now I wonder what you are hearing in tonight’s gospel – or in any of our scripture readings – as if for the first time?
I especially wonder about binding that strong man and being accomplices with Jesus in plundering Satan’s divided house.
I invite your responses.