Last revised: June 1, 2021
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PROPER 5 (June 5-11) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 10
RCL: 1 Samuel 8:4-11 (12-15), 16-20 (11:14-15); 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35
RoCa: Genesis 3:9-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
I’ve come to see this as one of the most important passages in the Bible. It is Mark’s — and thus the Gospel writers’ — first “parable.” It is the clearest example of Jesus reinterpreting a “higher power” in purely anthropological terms. The worldview of ancient religions is largely that of a “polytheism,” a belief in the existence of a panoply of various deities and “spirits.” Even in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have continued a tendency to view entities such “Satan” or “Powers and principalities” as higher powers that have some sort of existence independent of human beings. We see Satan as some sort of higher power unto himself. Or, in modern worldviews, an example might be seeing the “free market” as some sort of benevolent natural force having independence from human interaction (see last week’s Opening Comments.)
Here’s why it is so important to recognize Jesus in a passage like today’s as demythologizing an entity like “Satan”: our human “polytheism” is part of the original sin of not taking responsibility for the consequences of our complex collective actions — that is, the things we do together in community that create higher powers which are transcendent of us as individuals. Many of these are good. Participants in Alcoholic’s Anonymous, for example, experience the working of the healing Twelve Step community as a “higher power” that helps them defeat the higher power of alcohol in their lives.
According to Mimetic Theory, the original higher power of human beings is the collective accusation and murder/expulsion of a scapegoat which grants the community an experience of temporary peace. It is a collective action that must be religiously repeated to maintain the peace. And as collective human actions evolve into human institutions and cultures, the collective accusation and murder/expulsion of a scapegoat is embedded as a structuring principle, a “Logos” which, as Heraclitus proposed, is the ‘father and king of everything.’ And the big payoff: by interpreting our collective violence as gods, we don’t have to accept responsibility. We collectively kill a human being on an altar and it’s because the gods commanded it.
The Gospel unveiling of our mythology is exemplified by this first parable of Jesus. In a riddle, Jesus is exposing Satan as our own collective accusation and expulsion of those we label as an evil higher power. It’s what the scribes from Jerusalem have just done to him, accusing him of being in league with Beelzebul — a process of collective murder that will be completed on the cross. Jesus has come to expose our original sin, and this riddle about Satan casting out Satan is the first glimpse.
A crucial element of a New Reformation is to further the demythologizing of our collective violence that remains as strong as ever in our institutions and cultures. (Once again, a good example is the myth of the “free market” addressed last week.) Here are further comments/explication of the day’s passage:
1. “The Parable of Satan Casting Out Satan” of Mark 3:23-27 is a pivotal text for Mimetic Theory. It is the first biblical text I heard René Girard speak on (in the early 90’s); he first wrote on it in ch. 14 of The Scapegoat (1982). For those not familiar with Girard’s take: when Jesus asks, seemingly rhetorically, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”, Girard essentially answers, ‘It happens all the time. In fact, that’s what human culture is founded on. Our anthropology can be summarized by the phrase Satan casting out Satan.’
According to Mimetic Theory, our species survived because the satanic accusation and expulsion kept the peace when hominid groups were imploding through intra-community violence. The dominance hierarchies of other mammals were no longer keeping the peace among our ancestors. We were too embroiled in mimetic rivalries, and we were learning to use lethal weapons (clubs, rocks, etc.). The mechanism that entered the void is a “scapegoating mechanism,” an accusation turned into collective violence against an accused. The all-against-one violence brings peace to the majority. And the superhuman aura surrounding the victim (who was both blamed for the conflict and appears to have caused the peace) becomes the beginning of the experience of the sacred. The ensuing hierarchies of human culture are based on the dualism of sacred and profane and were religious from the very beginning of our species.
From earliest ancient near east sources, Satan is the Accuser. Subsequently, “Satan” also became a general name for the Evil One whom we want to cast out. So Satan the Accuser seeks to accuse and cast out Satan the Evil One. In short, “Satan casts out Satan” is the briefest description of a gospel anthropology unveiling the mechanism which has ordered human community since its beginnings. It describes the sinful ordering of our origins; it names our Original Sin.
2. In Mark’s account, there are two crucial clues to the truth of this reading. Mark introduces it with the first use in his Gospel of the word “parable,” which has the meaning of “riddle” in his portrayal of Jesus. “Can Satan cast out Satan?” is thus a riddle, not a straightforward rhetorical question. Second, and even more important, the context itself is a classic instance of Satan casting out Satan. The scribes from Jerusalem are accusing Jesus of being in league with Beelzebul. They, of course, think they are doing God’s work of accusing an evil one and then working to cast him out (which they will eventually succeed in doing). But Jesus’ riddle names them as doing satanic work by virtue of their accusing.
The truth that Jesus means us to see, then, is in the stated consequences: a house divided against itself cannot stand. The human way of trying to keep a house together will never ultimately work because it always relies on expelling someone, or being over against someone. Jesus comes proclaiming the kingdom — the household — of God, which will build a household on the stone the builders rejected. Jesus will let himself be cast out under the satanic accusation and build God’s household on forgiveness. Jesus concludes, “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” Satan’s reign is at an end precisely because his age-old game is that of Satan casting out Satan, resulting in a house divided that cannot stand.
3. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has recognized the key role of Satan in the Gospels. In Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright dedicates a significant section on “the Satan” at a crucial point in his argument (section entitled “The Real Enemy Identified: not Rome, but the Satan,” pp. 451-463). Jesus cannot be seen as the victorious Messiah unless we know who is the enemy defeated. Yet Wright’s analysis of “the Satan” is still somewhat underdeveloped in light of its centrality to his argument. What kind of power and authority does Satan have? Girard’s answer is swift and clear: Satan’s power is anthropological — that is, it derives from the ways in which human beings organize themselves into community and culture. If we were to organize differently, Satan’s power would disappear. Jesus came inaugurating that different way of organizing, around forgiveness rather than accusation, and his unveiling of the satanic powers have dealt them a death blow. Satan is losing his transcendent powers; he has fallen from heaven like lightning. Thus, Girard’s anthropology of grace can greatly enhance our understanding of Satan in the Gospels — especially the book in which he makes it central, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.
4. There are important ontological matters at issue here. In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, chapter 3 on “Satan” is crucial, but there is another important passage (at the end of ch. 5 on “Mythology”) that speaks to the ontology of Satan:
Why do the Gospels, in their most complete definition of the mimetic cycle, have recourse to a figure named Satan or the devil rather than to an impersonal principle? I think the principal reason is that the human subjects as individuals are not aware of the circular process in which they are trapped; the real manipulator of the process is mimetic contagion itself. There is no real subject within this mimetic contagion, and that is finally the meaning of the title “prince of this world,” if it is recognized that Satan is the absence of being.
Satan is not at all divine, but in naming him we allude to something essential that I mentioned briefly in my chapter about him [ch. 3], a matter of great interest in this book: the origin of primitive and pagan gods. Even if Satan’s transcendence is false, totally without reality in a religious sense, on the worldly plane his works are undeniable and formidable. Satan is the absent subject of structures of disorder and order, which stem from rivalistic relations among humans. When it’s all said and done, these rivalries both organize and disorganize human relations.
Satan is mimetic contagion as its most secret power, the creation of the false gods out of the midst of which Christianity emerged. To speak of the mimetic cycle in terms of Satan enables the Gospels to say or to suggest many things about the religions perceived by Christianity as false, deceptive, and illusory that they could not say in the language of scandal, the reconciling power of unanimous violence.
The peoples of the world do not invent their gods. They deify their victims. What prevents researchers from discovering this truth is their refusal to grasp the real violence behind the texts that represent it. The refusal of the real is the number one dogma of our time. It is the prolongation and perpetuation of the original mythic illusion. [Girard uses “myth” in the specialized sense of telling a story of reality from the perspective of perpetrators of scapegoating violence. Conversely, “Gospel” is telling the story of reality from the perspective of the Forgiving Victim of scapegoating violence.] (pp. 69-70)
Girard is saying that Satan has no real substance outside of our human relations. He is the name ancient peoples gave to those structures of human relations themselves. So when modern people declare the gods of ancient peoples to be unreal they throw the baby out with the bathwater. We no longer name those real structures as satanic, as having to do fundamentally with accusing and expelling. Jesus in this passage shows that he understood the anthropology behind the name Satan and continued to use the name in order to speak to the thinking of his time. We may choose to use other nomenclatures for the anthropological reality, but we must not throw out the anthropological insight or we risk perpetuating the perpetrators’ mythic version of reality.
5. There is another ontological danger, which an underdevelopment of “Satan” risks. If we don’t carefully define Satan’s power anthropologically, the danger is Manichaeism, or some brand of cosmology where the powers of evil have some form of ultimacy to rival God’s power of good. I think that N.T. Wright, in his more recent book Simply Jesus, walks the tightrope of this danger. I couldn’t agree more with his overall point and the move he makes to get there, when, at the end of the chapter on the cross, he once again gets to the crucial question. He writes:
Somehow, Jesus’s death was seen by Jesus himself, and then by those who told and ultimately wrote his story, as the ultimate means by which God’s kingdom was established. The crucifixion was the shocking answer to the prayer that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. It was the ultimate Exodus event through which the tyrant was defeated, God’s people were set free and given their fresh vocation, and God’s presence was established in their midst in a completely new way for which the Temple itself was just an advance pointer. That is why, in John’s gospel, the “glory of God” — with all the echoes of the anticipated return of YHWH to Zion — is revealed in and through Jesus, throughout his public career, in the “signs” he performed, but fully and finally as he is “lifted up” on the cross.
How can this be? How can the horrible, ugly, and brutal execution of a young prophet be the means of establishing God’s kingdom? What does it mean to say, as we have done throughout this book, that the point of the story is that God is now in charge, if the means by which that is accomplished is the death of the one who had gone about making it happen?
There is of course much more that could be said on this subject. But, trying to boil it down and keep it simple, I think we can and must say at least this. In Jesus’s own understanding of the battle he was fighting, Rome was not the real enemy. Rome provided the great gale, and the distorted ambitions of Israel the high-pressure system, but the real enemy, to be met head-on by the power and love of God, was the anti-creation power, the power of death and destruction, the force of accusation, the Accuser who lays a charge against the whole human race and the world itself that all are corrupt and decaying, that all humans have contributed to this by their own idolatry and sin. The terrible thing is that this charge is true. All humans have indeed worshiped what is not divine and so have failed to reflect God’s image into the world. They, and creation, are therefore subject to corruption and death. (pp. 185-86)
I suggest that the “much more that could be said on this subject” needs to be anthropology, namely, Mimetic Theory, which makes accusation and the Accuser central to our understanding of what generates and underlies all human culture. Otherwise, phrases like “anti-creation power” can be read like the Dark Side of the Force in Star Wars. The following passage is so close to how a Girardian might speak of the cross, as Wright amplifies his own image of the Perfect Storm:
In addition to the gale of Rome, the high-pressure system of Israel’s distorted ambitions, and the cyclone of the returning purposes of God, we perhaps need a downward vortex, a giant whirlpool, that threatens to suck down into the black depths all who sail too close to it. One might even tie the themes together and suggest that the gale and the pressure system are themselves driven by the same forces that are dragging down the dark waters: Rome and rebel Israel are the unwitting tools of the Satan, the Accuser, the great force of anti-creation.
And one might suggest that Jesus, precisely because he believed that in his public career “the time was fulfilled,” believed too that all these powers of evil were gathering themselves for one last battle, one last attempt to thwart the good purposes of the creator God, to pull the cosmos and the human race down into the depths. The only way, he believed, by which this great anti-creation power could be stopped and defeated would be for him, Jesus, anointed with God’s Spirit to fight the real battle against the real enemy, to take the full power of evil and accusation upon himself, to let it do its worst to him, so that it would thereby be exhausted, its main force spent. (pp. 187-88)
It is so close to the insight of MT’s anthropology, and yet the last line also teeters dangerously on the brink of Manichaeism. The way in which to avoid giving evil an ontological status that rivals God is to give it an anthropological one. We interpret the powers and principalities as embedded in the social DNA of our species, that is to say, as embedded in the way we have always organized ourselves into community based on accusations against scapegoats. That is why Satan is the Accuser with a capital “A.” But, on the other hand, it is also why Satan has no firm ontology. Satan disappears if human beings come to organize themselves in another way — for example, the alternative way that Jesus has come to offer us by letting himself become the one accused and cast out. Jesus is the Forgiving Victim who is now the new basis for human community and culture. As such he is the inaugurator of God’s Kingdom, God’s new culture. He is the first born of a new anthropology, the Son of Man, the New Adam. He rescues us from the deadly and sinful powers of the old anthropology and offers us a new way to be human, a new anthropology, a life lived in the Spirit instead of in the flesh.
Another example of falling into the trap of not anthropologically demythologizing the satanic powers is Gregory Boyd‘s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, especially Part VI, “The Principle of Cosmic Conflict” (which allows for many powers in the Bible without performing Jesus’ anthropological reading). It’s an enormously important book, as an evangelical pastor demythologizes divine violence through the lens of the cross — perhaps the most crucial element of a New Reformation. But such a huge project will not be fully completed without a demythologization that finds an anthropological interpretation of the Satanic powers. Human responsibility will once again be let off the hook.
6. It is unfortunate that Mark 3:20-35 falls in the netherworld of Ordinary Time such that it only is read in years when Easter comes early. Hence, what is central to Mark is not read every three years along with the rest of Mark’s Gospel.
1. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 7-8. This book, which develops the day’s Gospel as a way of understanding Satan, opens with the Tenth Commandment and a reference to Genesis 3:6 as the basis for understanding mimetic desire:
In the bible, and especially in the Gospels, there is an original conception of desire and its conflicts that has gone largely unrecognized. In order to grasp how old it is we must go back to the Fall in Genesis or to the second half of the Ten Commandments, which is entirely devoted to prohibiting violence against one’s neighbor.
Commandments six, seven, eight, and nine are both simple and brief. They prohibit the most serious acts of violence in the order of their seriousness:
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
The tenth and last commandment is distinguished from those preceding it both by its length and its object: in place of prohibiting an act it forbids a desire.
You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him. (Exod. 20:17)
Without being actually wrong the modern translations lead readers down a false trail. The verb “covet” suggests that an uncommon desire is prohibited, a perverse desire reserved for hardened sinners. But the Hebrew term translated as “covet” means just simply “desire.” This is the word that designates the desire of Eve for the prohibited fruit, the desire leading to the original sin. The notion that the Decalogue devotes its supreme commandment, the longest of all, to the prohibition of a marginal desire reserved for a minority is hardly likely. The desire prohibited by the tenth commandment must be the desire of all human beings — in other words, simply desire as such. (pp. 7-8)
2. Genesis 3 is one of the more commented-on passages in Girardian literature. Here are several of the references: Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, p. 137; Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 90-97; Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, p. 68, Banished From Eden, numerous places; Jean-Michel Oughourlian, The Puppet of Desire, pp. 21-27, 68-72, The Genesis of Desire, numerous places; Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, pp. 141, 173-74; Sandor Goodhart, “The End of Sacrifice,” Contagion 14, pp. 59-78; Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice, pp. 70-74; Cesareo Bandera, The Sacred Game, p. 114ff. Commented on with even greater frequency is the companion story of Cain and Abel in Gen. 4.
3. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. I separate this reference out since Gen. 3 could not be overlooked in a book on original sin such as this one. It makes a crucial appearance, for example, in the same place as the Babel/Pentecost pairing of three weeks ago, where Alison is explaining NT interpretation of the foundational narratives in Genesis: “In order to understand the positive sense of the self-giving up to death of Jesus, the apostolic witness makes use, in different places, of four quite distinct stories from Genesis, all of which are interpreted in the light of the Cross and Resurrection.” The first of those stories is the desire of Adam as interpreted in Romans 5-7:
The essence of the sin described in this passage is one of mimetic desire. An object (the fruit) became desirable when it became a way of appropriating something proper to someone else (the knowledge of good and evil proper to God). It was only when the object was seen as a way of appropriating what was proper to someone else that it became desirable. Hence the temptation was ‘to become like God’. The temptation was not resisted: the object was appropriated, but more important than the object, desire thereafter functioned in the mode of appropriation, and relationality with the other became formed rivalistically. The other (whether human or divine) could only be perceived as a threat or rival. The immediate result of the appropriation was that good and evil became defined not according to God, but according to appropriation, which means that the self was not accepted as given, but had to be appropriated by forging itself over against some other considered as evil. The beginning of the forging of an identity ‘over against’ is the self-expulsion from the Paradise of receiving the self gratuitously. For the story to work in Genesis there has to be an initial prohibition: the story could not have worked if God had not made available a way of entering into rivalry with himself by forbidding the eating of the fruit of the particular tree. The story could not have worked unless there were already an element of ‘imitate me/ do not imitate me’ built into the relationship between God and man ab initio. The possibility (though not the necessity) of double-bind is thus already present, before the originating act, as emanating from God. However, this is entirely dependent on the story being a projection of an originating act that flows from a certain understanding of salvation: the Jewish understanding flowing from the covenant and the giving of the Torah. Yet Paul showed extensively that the problem with a salvation based on the Law was that it locked one inextricably in a double bind. Salvation by Christ has come to replace salvation by the Law. So, in our christological projection we should do without the element of an explicit primal prohibition against eating from the tree. To be fully christological we need understand there to have been no primal prohibition, but instead of the law, a person….
This re-reading of the Genesis story is strictly dependent on only one piece of ‘demythologization’, and it is a piece of ‘demythologization’ which the New Testament carries out anyhow in a slightly different context: the substitution of salvation by Christ crucified for salvation by the Law. This leaves us with a person rather than a fruit, and a positive divine creative design bringing into being people who might love each other, rather than a prohibition. God is thus constantly calling us into a positive likeness of himself “be like me, imitate me” without any double bind of the sort: “but do not be like me or imitate me in this one area.” (pp. 246-247, 248)
4. Raymund Schwager, Banished From Eden; I also separate out this book as one on original sin that has a lot to say on this passage. In 2018 I am studying this book more closely for the first time and am finding it immensely rewarding. Since this passage is about the punishment for disobeying in the garden, let me share a brief snippet on punishment:
The mimetic theory holds that multiple forms of rivalry stem from acquisitive imitation. This is precisely what one finds in the primal history. On the one hand God, as held up for imitation by the serpent, appears as a rival of human beings. Yet on the other hand the fall leads immediately to disturbed relations among humans (experience of nakedness, the man ruling over the woman) and to perversion of the relation of mankind and nature [deadly rivalry between the woman and the serpent, the man’s heavy toil with the soil]. That God does not directly punish Adam and Eve with death certainly does not mean in this context that he has set aside or withdrawn the threatened punishment. Rather, how punishment and death follow from sin will be concretely narrated through the theme of rivalry.
The narrative of fratricide is far more than an appendage to the Eden story. It has, on the one hand, the character of an origin narrative in its own right, for it recounts the beginning of the practice of blood revenge, the founding of the first city, and the first sacrifices. On the other hand, it coheres seamlessly with the garden narrative through the theme of rivalry and death. We see that the death God has threatened as a consequence of the transgression becomes a concrete reality in Abel’s death at the hands of his brother. So punishment, from the standpoint of the primal history, is not a measure taken by God which comes from without, but is an inner consequence of an evil deed. This is a consequence that can befall a person who is not directly guilty, but who nonetheless stands in close relationship to the guilty party. Whoever falls into covetous imitation is immediately seduced into a rivalry that easily grows in various ways into a violent act. The inner consequence of these mimetic dynamics in no way entails an absolute necessity, for Eve is able, at least at first, to resist the serpent. Also, after rivalry is fully awakened in Cain, God himself addresses him and tells him to become once more the master of the sin lying in wait. Although there is, therefore, no necessity to commit sin, the latter obtains its full form on account of the inner consequence of covetous imitation, and this mimetic force is simultaneously the process of punishment. God does not slay evil-doers with his own hand but he delivers them over to their own deeds, which lead with severe consistency to sorrowful dispute in social relations and to violent death. The death of all humans is to be seen in light of the death of Abel, who dies as the first man, and because of this real death in a world of anxiety and violence is shown to be a consequence of sin. (pp. 18-19)
Reflections and Questions
1. Gen. 3, by my reading of it, gives insight into both the Girardian roles of the devil/Satan: (1) the one who tempts us into our constant fall of mimetic desire into rivalrous desire, and (2) the one who makes the fascinating accusative gesture that lures us into scapegoating. Verses 1-7 tell the story of the fall into rivalrous desire. Man and woman are in a non-rivalrous relationship with God, modeling God’s love for creation and sharing in its stewardship. But the serpent tempts them into rivalry with God; they model the desire for the forbidden fruit as expressed by the serpent.
Our passage for this day gives insight into the role of Satan that’s at issue in the Gospel: pointing the finger of blame that leads to a casting out. The man blames the woman, and the woman blames the serpent. Interestingly, if the serpent is cast in the role of Satan for the first part of the story, the man and woman play the role of Satan in part two, and the lection ends with a curse on the serpent. Is this an example of Satan casting out Satan?
2. Crucial is to see that is that there is no hint in this story of a supernatural being other than God. Even if we do project a personified force of sin (i.e., Satan) into this story, it must be with creatures of this earth. I prefer not to make such a projection. For the problem in the first part of the story is that the woman and man listen to a fellow creature rather than to God. In Girardian terms, an “external” triangular relationship of desire becomes an “internal” triangular relationship of desire. The appropriate ‘distance’ between the model (God the Creator) and the modelers (the creatures) is leveled out into a modeling relationship between creatures that quickly turns into rivalry.
Human, creaturely responsibility in the second part is even more crucial. It is the woman and the man who point fingers of blame that lead to a casting out. Satan as the personified power of accusation which casts out is only meaningful as rooted in human action and responsibility. The value of the symbol Satan is to express the power of accusation — the scapegoating mechanism, if you will — as a power that does transcend the power of any single individual, but an anthropologically rooted power nonetheless. Satan becomes a dangerous symbol if he is simply another supernatural being for human beings to blame, absolving them of responsibility. The latter is clearly an instance of Satan casting out Satan.
3. There is another possible item in need of de-mythologizing (in addition to the one suggested above by James Alison): the end of the story implies God casting out the man and woman from the garden. Does this place God in the role of Satan casting out Satan? The Passion story is more careful to make it clear that it is we human beings who do the casting out.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 177-179, within the wider section “The Church as a Structure of Agape Based on the Imitation of Christ Crucified.”
1. Vv. 19b-21 are one of the rare instances in which Luke and Matthew do not carry these verses from Mark in any form. Apparently, Jesus’s family saying Jesus was ‘beside himself’ was a bridge too far for them.
2. Mark 3:22-30 is paralleled in Matt 12:22-32 and Luke 11:14-23; 12:10. The differences are instructive. Here are the parallel passages (NRSV):
3. V. 23, “parables”; Mark is the only Synoptic evangelist to describe Jesus’s response as a parable. It is his first use of that word, introducing it just prior to his entire chapter of parables in Mark 4. So the question is, “How important is this first parable to interpreting those which follow?”
4. V. 29, NRSV translation: “but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” There are multiple problems with this translation (and many similar translations). “Never” and “eternal” translate the Greek word aiōnion, which does mean “eternal” in the context of Greek philosophy, but we need to remember that this is a Jew speaking to other Jews. They thought in more temporal terms of an old corrupt age marked by sin and corruption, and a new age brought about by God which would set right what humans have corrupted. The two uses of aiōnion in this sentence reflect that Jewish thinking as well as the immediate context of Jesus’s challenge to the scribes. This present age is characterized by the human sin of sacred violence and keeps the human family a house divided. The new age of God which Jesus is inaugurating will be characterized by forgiveness. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is to resist the coming of the new age of forgiveness and thus remain stuck in the old age. So a better translation of this verse would be something like, “But whoever may blaspheme towards the Holy Spirit holds no place in the new age of forgiveness but is trapped in the old age of sin.”
One more thing must be emphasized: the translation “eternal sin” brings to mind the common notion of eternal damnation in hell. This could not be further from the truth, since Jesus is specifically exposing the sin of human divisiveness. The whole scenario of eternal salvation versus eternal damnation plays right into that sin! It is not the Gospel; it is anti-Gospel. The Good News is that Jesus inaugurates the new age of forgiveness such that God is ‘creating one new humanity in place of two.’ It would be anti-Gospel to instead hold that God in Jesus Christ is cementing a dual humanity of saved-vs-damned for all eternity. The latter would be a prime example of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
1. René Girard, The Scapegoat, ch. 14, “Satan Divided against Himself” is a brilliant analysis of this passage — an extremely important one to Girard. He continued to comment on this passage widely in his writings on Satan: “Are the Gospels Mythical?” (available online). Also, see The Girard Reader, ch. 13 entitled “Satan,” p. 195 (link to excerpts). Girard’s recent book (Orbis, 2001) I See Satan Fall Like Lightning furthers his elaboration on Satan as a crucial Christian symbol depicting the false transcendences of human cultures (see excerpts above in the Opening Comments).
2. Paul Nuechterlein; my explanation of this passage in “My Core Convictions.” Here are the most relevant paragraphs:
5 We have thus arrived at one of Jesus’ basic insights which, by Mark’s account, was expressed in his first “parable,” or riddle. When Jesus is accused — Satan’s basic principle of power — of having his power come from Beelzebul, he turns their accusation into a riddle:
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, 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.” (Mark 3:23-26)
5.1 Jesus is not here denying that Satan does cast out Satan, as is the usual reading of this riddle. No, Satan casting out Satan is precisely what the scribes from Jerusalem have just tried to do to Jesus — though they, of course, don’t see it that way. The scribes see themselves as doing God’s work, not Satan’s work. But, in charging Jesus with being of Beelzebul, which is another of Satan’s names, they are manifesting the mechanism of “Satan casting out Satan.” They are acting out the ultimate principle of satanic power, namely, the joint accusation they bring against Jesus, as an attempt to cast him out by identifying him with one of Satan’s names. They think they are doing God’s work, but Jesus’ riddle is cleverly suggesting otherwise.
5.1.1 What Jesus is trying to help us to see with this riddle is that “Satan casting out Satan” is precisely the shape of all our unholy human communions since the foundations of our worlds. Jesus is not challenging the reality: Satan does cast out Satan. The mechanism which generates the peace of human community is that the majority do the work of Satan by accusing a minority of being the satanic trouble-makers, the tempters, and so they cast them out. And the traces of violence by the majority are veiled to them by the idolatry of seeing their satanic casting-out as commanded by God. Whatever the accused perpetrated is seen as a violence against the community, but the violence of the community against the accused is seen as a righteous or sacred act in obedience to higher powers.
5.1.2 Thus, rather than challenging the reality, Jesus is affirming the reality of Satan casting out Satan and challenging the outcome: this mechanism will never result in a lasting peace as we think, but always in a divided house that cannot stand. And, in the cross and resurrection, Jesus’ obedience to his Father will challenge the idolatry: what we see as God commanding us to cast out Satan is actually Satan casting out Satan. The God of Jesus, the God who is Love, would never ask us to base our communions in acts of force. But Satan tricks us into thinking that he is God, and so we continue to play his game.
5.1.3 The outcome of “Satan casting out Satan” needs challenging because humankind has unwittingly put its faith precisely in these unholy communions based on accusation and sanctioned violence. We have remained blind to seeing our form of communion as based on Satan casting out Satan. Through his riddle Jesus is inviting us to recognize our unholy communions as unholy — as commanded by Satan not God — and as always doomed to fail, always doomed to end in division. All our attempts at culture and community are, at their foundations, based on a being over against someone else, so that all our human communities ultimately end in division. Calling attention to how these satanic powers have operated is thus the first step in their reign coming to an end. Satan falls from heaven like lightning (Luke 10:18).
5.1.4 God’s Holy Communion in Jesus Christ, the coming of God’s reign based on love, thus comes not through yet another form of sanctioned violence, namely, just another chapter in the age-old satanic game. God’s reign comes through its opposite, that is to say, through a suffering of righteous violence at the hands of humanity in the cross of Jesus Christ, only to reveal the vacuous power of such violence by raising this Jesus from the dead.
3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 31, 59, 86, 113, 117. The final citation here comes in an important conclusion to the “Third Act: The Bringer of Salvation Brought to Judgment,” a section excerpted here entitled “The Self-Judgment of Sin in the Judgment of Jesus”:
The particular character of the third act in the Gospel drama results from the connection between the behavior of the opponents of God’s kingdom, the activity and suffering of Jesus, and the actions of the heavenly Father. After Jesus in the second act proclaimed the judgment of God as the self-judgment of people hardening their hearts, we can now see this process of hardening of hearts beginning. If Jesus declared the justice of the Pharisees (and Israel) to be wholly insufficient and warned them above all against judging, on the grounds that the standards which they laid down would become the norm by which they themselves were measured, the Jewish authorities in their behavior toward him insisted stubbornly on their existing form of judgment. The cooperation with the pagans and the ridicule directed against Jesus crucified, in which his good deeds were thrown back at him in scorn, illustrate how the process of hardening of hearts progressed. However it was decisive that the people who acted in this way were not aware of the process of self-judgment in themselves. There was a great gulf between their evaluation of themselves and their actual activity. They thought that they were only (with right on their side) judging Jesus, and not themselves, and it escaped their notice that their judging of him was in truth a ganging together against him. The third act reveals things in such a way that self-judgment is not direct self-judgment. Those judging intended to judge another and not themselves. But in the light of Jesus’ love for his enemies which came from the heavenly Father, their activity is shown up as self-deception, by which they only shifted their own guilt. The self-judgment whose mechanism Jesus opened up and against which he warned people consists not in explicit self-accusation (such a thing, carried out in humility, would be healing), but in the contradiction between word and deed and thereby in the concealment of guilt and the shifting of evil onto others. The judgment on Jesus and the use of ridicule against him are consequently to be read as utterances which indirectly betray a truth about those responsible for these actions. They (and not the accused) are the ones who in fact blaspheme and who want to help others (in words), but cannot help themselves (by deeds). The self-deception is made complete above all in the cooperation, or better the ganging up, on the one, in which the false judgments of individuals mutually confirm one another and thus gain the appearance of factual objectivity. The one who is declared to be guilty, a blasphemer, serves the others as a scapegoat and gives to their kingdom of lies that appearance of peace and stability which every kingdom needs, even Satan’s (see Mark 3:22-30 and parallels), in order to be able to continue.
The self-judgment of humankind, in which people shifted their guilt onto Jesus in self-deception, became a judgment on him. But from his viewpoint this was a judgment of a completely different sort. He allowed himself to be drawn into the process of self-judgment of his adversaries, in order, through participation in their lot, to open up for them from inside another way out of their diabolical circle and hence a new path to salvation. He did not pay back the lying judgment and violent attack with the same coin, but he turned around the intensified evil and gave it back as love redoubled. He made of himself a gift to those who judged him and burdened him with their guilt. His atoning deed was not a reimbursement for sins, so that the heavenly Father would forgive, but an act in the place of those who should have welcomed the kingdom of God, but who from the beginning rejected it. Jesus uses precisely this rejection in order to advance under its “cover” into that dark realm where people judge themselves. By allowing sinners to shift their actions onto him, he managed to be drawn into their dark world (fear of death, abandonment by God) in order from within to open up this world once more to the Father.
It is decisive in this interpretation that the handing over by the Father, which Feldmeier stresses in his interpretation of the Gethsemane narration, is seen entirely in connection with the message of the kingdom of God and with the actions of Jesus. From this perspective it cannot be said that the Father handed over the Son because he wanted to judge him and punish him in place of sinners. The judgment did not start from God but from humankind, and the will of the Father was only that the Son should follow sinners to the very end and share their abandonment, in order thus to make possible for them again a conversion from the world of hardened hearts and distance from God. (pp. 116-118)
4. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, ch. 4, especially pages 164-168. Myers takes the title of his commentary from this passage. Here’s his opening to chapter 4:
Jesus spins a parable so shocking that it not only polarizes the political climate, but provokes a rift with family and friends. He compares himself to a thief struggling to break into the house of a ‘strong man,’ whom he intends to bind and whose captives he intends to liberate. And he claims that in this criminal venture, his accomplice is none other than the Holy Spirit!
He has further helpful comments on this passage, among them being that the word for the “property” of the strong man in v. 27 appears again in Mark only in 11:16 as Jesus is cleansing the temple. Also, the image of the thief is a prominent one for apocalyptic literature (the Messiah coming as a thief in the night).
Myers also has an excellent distillation of Binding the Strong Man, with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship; this passage also falls in ch. 4 of the latter book. In the “The Word in Our World” portion of this chapter, Myers and his team name the strong man as our economics:
The social context reflected in Mark’s narrative may be alien in form from our own, but not in substance. Our world is hardly free of systems of domination. Today the free market has become the strong man. Adherence to its principles is necessary for any person, community, or nation that wishes to participate in the global economy. This system includes the public and private sector; domestic bodies such as the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve; international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; commercial banks and pension funds; advertising agencies and the media; and stock markets and money movers responsible for the more than 3 trillion unregulated dollars that cross national boundaries daily. (p. 36)
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 81-84:
The forces of violence accuse the victim of their own crime and the themes of driving out demons and driving out the scapegoat come to a climax. The theme of driving out is most explicitly related to the fore of the demons whore Jesus drives out, and is therefore ambiguous because now the one driven out is the one driving out. Thus arises the obvious accusation that the analysis based on scapegoating is itself guilty of scapegoating. The text takes up the problem in terms of the accusation that Jesus is himself possessed by Beelzebub and drives out the lesser demons in the power of the prince of demons. Mark links this accusation with parabolic material and connects it with the account of Jesus’ estrangement from his family.
In Girardian terms, the accusation that Jesus drives out demons by means of demons is a mythic version of the sacral procedure of driving out violence by means of violence. The GMSM [Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism, H-K’s term for the satanic powers] uses violence to control violence by transferring it violently to the victim. This does not succeed in getting rid of violence because Satan cannot expel himself and would never willingly allow his domain to be split. Only when he has been bound, as in the presence of the kingdom of God, can his realm be plundered. The exorcisms of Jesus are therefore genuine expulsions of violence by divine power and not just another turn of the screw inside the system. Those who interpret Jesus as an insider rather than an outsider and see his exorcisms as violence against violence, commit the unforgivable sin because they confine themselves within the cycle of violence and refuse the way out offered by the gospel.
The presence of the mob at the beginning of the pericope indicates the presence of the founding mechanism. The scene is again set by a going into a house. The mob follows him, virtually miming his movement (3:20). Then we are told that those with him “went out to restrain the mob because it was out of control.” Thus, the mob, as the source of both the bad and good violence, signifies the presence of the mechanism. The raging of the mob brings to our attention the question of whether Jesus acts within the cycle of violence. The speculation and accusation of the Jerusalem scribes about the league with Beelzebub are perfectly understandable in the light of his popularity with the crowd. They accuse him of their own crime.
The exorcisms are not merely another turn of the screw of sacred violence, but a break-in to the system from another dimension and an opening up of the possibility of a new order. This new possibility has its application not just in the political but also in the personal sphere where it relativizes even the traditional ties of family affection and obligation. The mob is now transformed into the circle around Jesus (3:31-35) and recognized as those who do the will of God and thus as the new family of Jesus. The dramatic contrast between the mob in 3:21, which is “out of its mind” and has to be restrained by Jesus’ attendants, and the crowd now sitting in a circle around him and listening to his teaching (3:32-34), makes the point that those who become disciples cease from being the mob that gives sacred violence its authority. The passage from rival to disciple is the passage from the lynch mob to the confraternity of the kingdom. Within this new context, the traditional family is an anachronism. The new radical fatherhood of God relativizes the claims of earthly parents and family obligations, which were in any case organized for the most part according to the forms of sacred violence.
The transformation of the raging mob into the circle of disciples contrasts with the rivalry of the Jerusalem scribes who accuse Jesus of their crime of using violence to control violence. They provide the foil against which the transformation appears more vivid. We are not told explicitly that the family members who tried to reclaim Jesus for the old order belonged with the scribes, but that is the implication. Therefore, we have in these pericopes an account in narrative form of the conflict between the Sacred and the gospel and the possibility of transformation of even the source of the old order, the mob. In teens of the parable in 3:27, this transformation is an instance of the binding and plundering of the strong man.
The poetics of place has played an important part in the communication of the message. We note the contrast between the temple, the synagogue, the house, and the town on the one hand, and the wilderness, the mountain, the sea (boat), and the open road on the other, between the urban and the rural symbolism of space. The movement from inside to outside takes place in terms of all of these places and shows that the important thing is the contrast itself (between inside and out) rather than the specific terms of the contrast. We note that Jesus describes his ministry as that for which he “came out” (1:38b). His progress into the center of the crowd goes through concentric circles of place, into the town, into the synagogue or house, into the circle of those inside the structure, and there at the center is a demoniac to be exorcized, a mother-in-law to be healed, or a tax collector to be called.
The symbol of the house is especially clear in the pericope about casting out Beelzebub by Beelzebub. It takes place in a house (3:20), and Jesus’ response, which we are told is parabolic (3:23), focuses on the image of the house. “If a house is divided against itself that house cannot stand” (3:25) takes house in the sense of household, applying the image to rival groups. If the conspiracy of the surrogate victim mechanism is broken, the unity of the group will be lost. Unanimity is essential to the survival of the Sacred. The plundering of the strong man’s house (3:27) is therefore the revelation of the truth that breaking the conspiracy disables the power of the Sacred. This is achieved not by inflicting violence but by suffering it on the cross and thus disclosing it. Jesus is the one who enters the strong man’s house by moving from the wilderness into the town, the house, the synagogue, or the crowd, and there, by his death — by giving himself “a ransom for many” — revealing the conspiracy of violence that holds the group together. (pp. 81-84)
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “The Strong Man’s Game Exposed“; and in 2015, “The House of the Strong Man“; and in 2018, “Tying Up the Strong Man.”
Reflections and Questions
1. My first reaction to Girard’s interpretation of this passage was skepticism. I was too used to reading it in its more ordinary sense, i.e., that Jesus’ question about Satan casting out Satan was a rhetorical one with the sense that it could never happen. To interpret his question as implying the scapegoating mechanism seemed far-fetched to me. Yet I’ve since noticed that Mark gives us a clue: he uses the word “parable” for the first time in his gospel immediately before Jesus’ question regarding Satan. In Mark’s gospel, “parable” has the sense of “riddle.” He seems to be signaling us that what Jesus is about to say may not have the most ordinary sense. And so these verses (3:23-26) become more compelling to me in the Girardian reading of them: all of human culture is based on Satan casting out Satan, and it is a kingdom, a household, a way of forming human community, that cannot stand. Jesus comes to offer us a new way of forming a Holy Communion that isn’t based on some version of divisiveness. Link here for a sermon on this theme entitled “The Parable of Satan Casting Out Satan.”
2. In 2015, I extemporized the sermon using PowerPoint and a short clip from the Flip Wilson Show — Flip’s character of Geraldine Jones and her famous line, “The devil made me do it” –– a sermon entitled “Healing ‘Satan Casting Out Satan’.”
3. In 2012, the sermon “A New Way of Being Human” (and extended version from the one preached) makes the point that is becoming increasingly important to me as a proponent of Mimetic Theory: that we come to see salvation itself as an anthropological event. Jesus did not come to start a new religion. In a very important sense, religion is one of the things he came to save us from. He came to give us a new way of being human that transcends our languages, cultures, and religions. The greatest religions find ways of translating into different languages and cultures, but our default anthropology based in the Scapegoating Mechanism still too easily corrupts attempts of religions to transcend cultures, so religions become a tool for division rather than unification. Anthropology is the level and category of discourse that transcends language, culture, and religion.
To say that salvation is anthropological is to combine the Girardian insights into this text with the game-changing Gospel interpretation of N. T. Wright, who is helping the church get back on track with its message of salvation and mission. The Girardian element is to highlight the anthropological dimension of salvation. We have evolved for a hundred thousand years with an anthropology based on Satan casting out Satan. Jesus coming to be in charge of the world (Wright) establishes a new anthropology based on a new kind of kingship. Human beings can now be organized around the loving service of the Forgiving Victim instead of the collective violence against a victim. A new anthropology is the first step to new creation — as Paul tells us in Romans 8, that the whole creation is waiting in eager longing for the children of God to get their act together. Anthropology brings together all the language of salvation from the New Testament. As I said above, Jesus “is the inaugurator of God’s Kingdom, God’s new culture. He is the first born of a new anthropology, the Son of Man, the New Adam. He rescues us from the deadly and sinful powers of the old anthropology and offers us a new way to be human, a new anthropology, a life lived in the Spirit instead of in the flesh.”
The salvation of the world does depend on this because we human beings now have the power to destroy not only our species but all others as well. Girard’s thesis is that the Satan-casting-out-Satan anthropology has saved us as a species so far, but there are serious questions about what are the long term prospects for it continuing to do so. With the ability to destroy this world, continuing to use violence to stop violence would not seem to be an ultimate answer to survival. (Girard himself was pessimistic about our prospects — except for his Christian hope — in his last book Battling to the End.) Jesus, the Human One and King of Creation, came to offer us God’s alternative, a way of rescue from the satanic powers of sin and death, a way into a new anthropology.
4. In the background for my 2012 sermon was the column I wrote for the parish monthly newsletter — reflections on WWI and the causes of war, by way of Downton Abbey. I consider WWI a war that needs the level of anthropological discourse. The ordinary discourses of politics and history don’t provide satisfying answers to why this war took place. I believe it only makes sense when considering the deeper anthropological current of Satan casting out Satan as our way of peace for 100,000 years of being homo sapiens.