Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 10), Year B

Alfred Gorvie

BOUND AND FREE: A GOSPEL DRAMA

 

Mark 3:20-35
Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 10), Year B
Analysis by Matt Metevelis

20 And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”  22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”  23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?  24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.  27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
28“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter;  29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” – 30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.   32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and  your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

From Canva

“Forgiveness, wholeness, life, salvation arrive for us like a conquering army through these promises that Christ is making.”

DIAGNOSIS – A Heart Divided

Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem): A Starving Crowd
The arguments Jesus has with the religious authorities around him are well known. Jesus’s barbs and comebacks would be perfect as hash-tags in a twitter spat:

#rendertocaeser #mercynotsacrifice #signofjonah #devil’schildren.

Today’s text is no exception. It’s a master class on how good and evil actually works and exactly where the lines are drawn.

But before dwelling on this it’s worthwhile to note the first verse of the text.  While this argument is going on there is a great crowd so jostled and packed together full of people who cannot eat. Accusations against Jesus are flying where there is a great multitude of starving people. While Jesus and the religious authorities are arguing about evil in a hypothetical sense there is actual evil gnawing at the bellies of people around them. Good is impotent while people point fingers about who is on God’s side or not. It’s a tragedy that has recurred time and again in the history of the church.

Polemics about righteousness often ignore the people who hunger for and need it the most.

Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem): Take Another Little Piece of My Heart
We don’t hear the cries of the needy because we’re stuck on ourselves.

Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian novelist, wrote in his masterwork The Gulag Archipelago:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

We are deeply committed to finding some outside source for the evils that we face and the sufferings that we experience. As Jesus puts it we hunt scrupulously for specks in the eyes of others to distract ourselves from the planks in our own eyes (Matthew 7:1-5). Political discourse is full of malefactors at the other ends of our accusing fingers. In our private lives we tend to do this as well blaming our own faults on others. As a species we tend to aggregate this in terms of seeking in-groups to join and out-groups to identify against.

Imagine for a minute that somebody from a particular group that you detest does something wonderful. A large gift to a worthy charity. A public policy that truly benefits many people. What would your attitude be? Wouldn’t you think there was an ulterior motive? Would you be angry? Could you even make sense of it? You’d be up against some intense psychological programming. Any evil must come from the other group. Any good must come from us. As Solzhenitsyn with his novelist intuition points out this comes from our most basic survival instincts against the evil that resides within us. Luther might say it comes from the drive to locate righteousness between our own ears. We are deeply committed to washing our hands of the crookedness of our hearts by protesting that the real evil is lurking outside.

Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem): Mistaken Identity
For the religious authorities Jesus could not have been doing good because he was not on their side and doing things their way. They called the spirit that was driving out evil spirits “unclean” because it wasn’t from them. Only these religious authorities had the power to know what is good and how to promote it. They refused to pay attention to what was clearly before them. It had to be a trick to fool others. But they could see right through it.

This is the form that religion often takes a refusal to see what’s clearly present and assume some hidden dynamic at work. God must be on our side, the thinking goes, so anything we do must be good. And anything someone from the other side does must be bad. Any data that we get is clearly put into these categories with easy labels of “clean or unclean.” And these dynamics continue today as different groups urge boycotts or counter-boycotts of products based on advertisements and the culture war values of company executives. Religion under our natural urges becomes a mere contest in which we think that God is deeply invested in our own madness of picking the right side.

When an advisor to Abraham Lincoln quipped that he was glad that God was on the side of the union Lincoln disagreed. “Sir,” he said, “my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

We can be wrong. But God is always right.  God’s goodness exists outside our own claims toward it.  The law makes us responsible and answerable to it.   And this law is a good thing because it comes from God and not from us, even if the truth it reveals about us can be painful.  God’s goodness does not depend on what group you belong to, what status you try to claim for yourself, on anything remotely related to an identity you claim for yourself or a label that others smear upon you. Our friends don’t get to say who is good.  Our enemies don’t. We don’t. Only God can. This is the root of Christ’s warning not to start “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” or to shoot at the poor bird to bring it down to our level.  God is utterly free from the mess and madness of the pitiful little games we play.

From Canva

PROGNOSIS – With a Savior United

Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution): A Free God
Yet this freewheeling and fiercely righteous God is the only one who can help.

Yes, God is always right. But the gospel comes in where the ‘rightness’ of God buckles down and gets to work. Jesus isn’t just pointing out faults in the logic against him here.  He’s in the business of making promises. Evil can’t stand. Satan’s end has come. The strong man is bound up and now the house is being plundered. And all this is because outside of our own faults, our accusations, our doubts, our fears, our divisions, and our pains, this free and righteous God has come to claim us. The religious authorities can’t see it because they can’t attribute it to their own powers. But this does not stop it from happening.

Yet evil’s strength is overcome in the cross of Christ.  Christ takes the battle to the enemy and defeats it.

Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution): A Free Heart
And this means that not only the evil that we imagine “out there” but the enemy within us, the pieces of our heart that bring us shame and try to twist the image of God out of us – all of this is  defeated and plundered too by the promise of Christ.  In Christ God not only stops playing our games, but in his cross he crucifies the board and gives us a new heart that plays by God’s rules set down in faith. Forgiveness, wholeness, life, salvation arrive for us like a conquering army through these promises that Christ is making. While we are afraid of tearing up our hearts Christ gives us new ones. While we are perpetually worrying about the evil on the horizon, the goodness of God in Christ chases after us, sneaking past our defenses, and roots the evil within us root and branch.

Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution): A Free and Fed People
At the end of our texts that same crowd that was starving is now gathered around Christ. While the religious authorities ignored them Christ came into their midst. And even when his family, his own “side” came up and tried to claim him, Jesus insisted instead on his holy freedom staying with the people who needed him. The will of God, and not the whims of human beings – even his worried mother – created a new and indissoluble bond for a new “family” in which Christ will always be united with people who hunger and are starved for righteousness. This is the world we now live in. A world where evil is bound up and good reigns supreme because the king of all righteousness has a throne in our hearts and in our neighbor’s needs.