Gospel reading is for today’s Eucharist (Mark 3:19-30).
And then Jesus went home. And a crowd gathered, pressing in on him so that he and his friends couldn’t eat, or more accurately, eat their bread. Bread was so important that the daily bread was the way you said your daily food. I sometimes wonder how we will hold on to the bread of life in a world of low carb and gluten free diets. Some things are important. And we forget them at our risk. And his family had come out to where he was gathering a crowd. They are alarmed. Family, or from the Greek, those who belong to him. The bonds of family, those who belong to each other, in this case as we learn later Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters, were the glue which held society together. And the family came to restrain him. The Greek, κρατῆσαι (kratesai) is not restrain, but to seize, bind, take into custody. Jesus rejects them and will ask who are his family? These doubters? Or those who abide in him. So much for honor your mother, but he could have answered he was honoring his father. But he was saying his Father was God. And that is crazy talk. People were saying that Jesus was out of his mind. And a nice family couldn’t have that stain on them? There were unmarried sisters. How can they find husbands if there is a demoniac in the family. Drag him home. Lock him up. Now the Jerusalem scribes have turned up and claim that Jesus is casting out demons by Beelzebub who must have entered him. And we know what happened to demoniacs. Cast out to some cave somewhere. Or worse. Because this person is obviously a sinner. Unclean.
Jesus answers back. How can I cast out demons and be infested with a demon, and in fact Satan? A house divided against itself would fall. And yet here is Jesus turning the world upside down opposing, even rebelling against his family and the normal structure of society. And then that ambiguous statement about the strong man. “But 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 (Mk 3:27).” Who is the strong man? Satan? Who is being tied up? Satan? But it was Jesus who was being threatened by being tied up, locked up. Or is this another Jesus twist and turn? Is he, or rather he empowered by the Holy Spirit, the strong man? That is possible given that Jesus turns and tells the scribes and crowd that all sins will be forgiven (that itself is a major confession about his true role) except those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, and the implication is that when they accuse him that he has Beelzebub within him, they are calling the Holy Spirit Beelzebub. If we had not realized it before, Jesus was not only God but a troublemaker. Because major change can’t happen without some shaking up.
Yes, this whole reading makes me uncomfortable, not only because of the family squabble. Remember that we are only a few weeks from the long winter holidays with the invasion of family, some welcome, but also some difficult, expensive, and anxiety making. But this is an attack on Jesus. Even stepping back from the passionate relationship most of us have with him, Jesus is a man being falsely accused. That is what bearing false witness is all about. Not just lying about someone, but invoking a preconceived judgement based on convention or personal likes and dislikes. It has only been a few decades since outspoken women and girls were humiliated and abused, being imprisonment in psychiatric hospitals for “unnatural” behavior, and enduring electroshock to “fix” them. And consider the suffering of LGBTQ+ people. Say or do something out of line and you are crazy. And what of the prophets, old and new. Some of the things they are told by God to do or say are dangerous. And it is as true of our modern prophets. Those who witnessed the evils of slavery. Of dictators. Those who proclaimed the the equality of those of color, gender. But also those who speak out in school, church, business against an injustice, and there is danger in this. If the Spirit wills, and we have practiced discernment on how to hear the Spirit, we all may have moments of being God’s voice in the world. And each time we proclaim the Gospel by word or deed we are being Jesus, and in many times and places that carries a cost. The least of which is being judged crazy. There is also the Cross. So yes, this reading makes me uncomfortable for all the times I have crossed the line of nice to the side of right. And for all the injustice against all of us who have stepped up in courage, even in fear and trembling.
Yes, it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit when we hurt or attack or bind each other. Who is the strong (wo)man? Perhaps the answer must always be the Holy Spirit who can defeat the Evil One. If the Spirit lives within, she cannot be bound or driven out so no one can enter and plunder our house. And perhaps that is also the answer to the question which will be asked, “Who is my mother, etc.” Those who carry the Holy Spirit within them. Is it our family only so long as it doesn’t fail to hear the voice of God as we do? By calling prophets crazy? And yet we also must recognize there is sadness in this. I’m sure Mary was hurt by her son’s attitude. And as sure that the brothers were angry, protective of their mother, and the daughters shocked and shamed. The scribes are firmly convinced that they are protecting the faith handed down to them by God and through their ancestors. And then there is the needy crowd who want healing and comfort. And yet Salvation history was moving on. It was God’s will.
Today we face many scenes such as this, perhaps more global thanks to the modern magic of electronic media. There is the impeachment of the president, an impeachment based on some of the most basic issues of ethics and service and in support of a system of government which has every possibility to be enacted within the Christian doctrine. There are the complex and often horrific endless wars in the Middle East, peopled by the three peoples who know and pray to the Holy One first revealed to the Jewish people. There is the deep mistrust of people of other culture and color which drives wars and genocide. And we know that in the churches the new understanding of human sexuality has caused good people who truly believe they are following Scripture to tear our hallowed Body apart. And I have heard as many angry and unforgiving accusations from the left as from the right. We should take this reading into our hearts, letting all the sadness and stumbling blocks exposed in the narrative touch us, and deeply pray for wisdom to recognize and live through all those moments in our lives. Because there will be many.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is currently at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.