Proper 5 (June 5-11)
Texts: Mark 3:20-35;
Gen 3:8-15; 2 Cor 4:13-5:1
SAVING THE HUMAN FAMILY FROM SATANIC DIVISION
Today we begin the second half of our Church Year. In the first half, Advent leads up to Christmas and Epiphany; then Lent leads up to Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity. The beautiful banners and art in your sanctuary mark these seasons! Today we begin what’s often called Ordinary Time. And after an Easter season mostly in John’s Gospel, we return to the Gospel we feature this year, the Gospel according to Mark.
I call our attention to this because I want to make a bold claim: as we jump back into Mark’s Gospel with this strange passage today, we are hearing not only a key to understanding Mark’s Gospel but also the main message of salvation in the New Testament. Pretty bold? Let’s see if I can pull it off.
First, we need to notice a technique of Mark’s storytelling that we’ll see many times in the weeks ahead. We might call this technique “sandwiching.” Mark likes to sandwich stories within stories to underscore the point he is making. (For another obvious example, see Mark 5: 21-43 where the healing of the woman who has been bleeding for twelve years is inserted into the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter.) In today’s reading, Mark begins to tell a story about seeming tensions within Jesus’s own household. People are saying that Jesus is out of his mind, and his family doesn’t react well. They don’t defend him; they try to restrain him. The passage ends with Jesus seemingly getting back at them, by looking at the crowd around him and saying, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35). Wow! Is that hostility? What was going on within Jesus’s own family?
Before we can really make sense of this exchange within Jesus’s family, we need to consider the story that Mark sandwiches in-between. Some scribes from Jerusalem are in the crowd, and they’ve apparently heard reports across the miles that Jesus is casting out demons. They piggy back on the negative comments about Jesus, by saying themselves, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” Prior to Mark giving us Jesus’ response, he uses an important word for the very first time, the word “parable.” “Jesus called them to him,” writes Mark, “and spoke to them in parables”:
“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.”
The word “parable” is an important clue. The first part of Jesus’s response seems straight-forward. The scribes from Jerusalem have invoked Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, to put Jesus on the side of evil, on the side of Satan. Jesus seems to respond, ‘That doesn’t make logical sense. If I’m casting out demons, I can’t be on the side demons. Why would the ruler of demons cast out demons? Why would Satan cast out Satan?’ Seems straightforward, right?
But then why does Jesus go on with all this stuff about kingdoms and households being divided against themselves, implying that that would mean the end of Satan’s reign? Didn’t Jesus in fact come to bring an end to Satan’s reign? Didn’t Jesus in fact come precisely to dupe Satan into a divided kingdom or household so as to bring about Satan’s end? Do you see why Mark labels Jesus’s answer as a parable? Because it’s not as straight-forward as it seems. The second part of the parable seems to be predicting the end of Satan. And how does that happen? Jesus tells us in the first part: by Satan casting out Satan so that he becomes divided against himself. So now the parable is anything but straightforward. It’s downright confusing.
To continue sorting it out, we need to add one more layer from what comes next. In Mark 4, Jesus will go on to tell the Parable of the Sower and several other parables, but most interesting and important is Jesus’s answer to his disciples about why he speaks in parables. He quotes Isaiah 6:9-10. Do you remember Isaiah 6:1-8 from last week on Trinity Sunday? The LORD calls Isaiah, and he responds, “Here I am! Send me!” But the reading breaks off before we hear the message. Jesus’s answer about parables, a few verses after today’s reading, quotes what the LORD tells Isaiah to say to the people of Israel. If we had continued last week with Isaiah 6, verses 9 through 11, we would have read,
And the LORD said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate. . . .”
Quite bizarre, right? Aren’t you glad we didn’t read that last week? But this week we need to face the fact of what lies behind the loaded word parable. Mark tells us that this is the first time Jesus is speaking in parables, and a few verses later Jesus will tell his disciples why: to carry on Isaiah’s message that will confuse people — a message that the average human being will have a hard time hearing and fully understanding.
So let’s sandwich this parable in between Jesus’s exchanges with his family and see if we can hear and understand Jesus’s message to us through Mark’s exquisite story-telling. And let’s get right to my bold claim about the importance of this passage. I believe that in this reading Jesus is giving us a fundamental and true anthropology. He is explaining a deep truth about who we are as human beings that we don’t want to hear. Since our beginnings as a species we have been a divided household because our way of maintaining group cohesion is to play ourselves off against other groups. In our communities and groups we are forever the good guys casting out the bad guys. Jesus, in naming that as ‘Satan casting out Satan,’ is inviting us to see this tendency as a bad thing — the thing that keeps us forever divided.
So the last thing Jesus says to his family and the crowd is, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Here’s what I think this passage — and the whole Gospel — are really all about: God’s will is about sending Jesus to heal and bring together the divided human household. We are true brothers and sisters of Jesus when we, too, seek to unite the whole human family. Mark surrounds this parable about a divided humanity with a story about Jesus’s literal household, which he then turns into a metaphor about the true human family living together in harmony with God’s will.
So why the parable in the middle? Because we human beings have a hard time hearing and understanding about the ways in which the human family is perpetually a household divided against itself. Take a look at the current state of the world. The entire globe is battling a pandemic. Every person in this world has been circumscribed by the COVID-19 virus into one human family. Scientists tell us that the best way to beat this virus is essentially to act as one family, everyone helping each other through this crisis by playing their part. Together, like one family, we are to follow the science in obeying the prescribed practices for keeping the virus at bay, and then finally eradicating it through a global vaccination program. But what has happened instead? Politics of division have intervened. Even something as basic as wearing masks has become an issue dictated by the political divide. And even as this country struggles to get everyone vaccinated, with our numbers finally going way down, many other places in the world have barely begun to vaccinate; and the pandemic rages on there, threatening to come back to our shores in more deadly strains. This pandemic should be the opportunity to prioritize coming together as a human family. The way to beat this virus is by everyone working together. Instead, it has been just another occasion for highlighting our deep divisions.
Jesus names this divisiveness in his parable as Satan. “Satan” is not a person; it is Jesus’ name for the power in human kingdoms which keeps us divided, a power which persons continue to follow — like in our current politics. When Jesus asks, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”, he’s doing much more than refuting the scribes’ accusations against him. He is giving us the opportunity to finally hear and see and understand something about our fallen way of being human that he came to save us from. Human communities have precisely played the game of Satan casting out Satan that keeps us a household divided against itself. Our current politics are but the current manifestation of how we define our group boundaries over against other groups. We see ourselves as the good guys, who stand for what’s right over against those other peoples. If any bad guys encroach on our space, then God wants us to cast them out. We see ourselves as doing God’s work when we cast out those we deem as enemies.
That, for example, is what the scribes from Jerusalem had just tried to do to Jesus. They had tried to label him as on the side of Beelzebul, the side of evil, as a prelude to casting him out. By the end of Mark’s story, they will cast him out to the cross on Golgotha. But they think they are doing God’s work — that God’s will is for the good people to cast out the bad people, like this trouble-maker Jesus. Meanwhile, Jesus is inviting his listeners see how we’ve twisted God’s will for our own purposes, to justify our own violence against enemies. When Jesus asks, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”, he’s actually saying, “This is what you human beings do all the time! You think you are doing God’s work. But you’re not. It’s the will and rule of Satan to cast people out falsely in God’s name — so much so that humankind has forever remained a house divided.”
And in parabolically showing us this, Jesus begins the process of bringing an end to Satan’s reign. God’s will is to bring the human family together. Only those who follow Jesus in that mission are truly part of his family, a family which seeks to bring all people into one. Instead of casting anyone out, Jesus will let himself be cast out to expose the sin and begin to forgive it. It is a new age marked by forgiveness and reconciliation. All sins can be forgiven except the sin of insisting on playing the satanic game of dividing the human family. To insist on our group’s innocence over against those bad guys is to remain stuck in the old age of sin. [Note: I had changed the usual translation of v. 29 about the “eternal sin” to what I think is a better translation, “‘but people who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit have no place in the new age of forgiveness but are trapped in the old age of sin.’”]
That we love to insist on our innocence is a key to hearing “Satan casting out Satan.” Consider for just a moment the Black Lives Matter movement. What has been the typical reaction of white people to this movement? We want to keep believing in our innocence, right? We say, ‘People in the remote past are responsible for the racism which continues to divide us. Not us.’ But our brothers and sisters of color are trying to get us to all work together to understand the continuing legacy of racism and how it continues to divide us — a message for which we have eyes and ears but don’t want to see and hear. We don’t want to talk about racism. We don’t want to see and hear and understand about this ugly satanic reality which continues to keep us divided as a human family.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, do you see how important this is? When we look at our tragically divided politics and world, this is the Good News: Jesus came to save us precisely from being divided against ourselves. He came to show us how to live in the new age of forgiveness and love, so that we might begin to heal all our divides. He pours out his Spirit on us so that we might not only carry this Good News into the world but begin to live into it. Like Isaiah last week, the trinitarian God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And we say, “Here am I; send me!” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Mt. Hope Lutheran Church,
West Allis, WI, June 6, 2021
Video version: https://youtu.be/N2I8xU0aiRE?t=489