Is Jesus Crazy? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 2B
20 And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 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.
28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters[a] are outside, asking for you.”33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Was Jesus crazy? According to Mark, that’s what Jesus’ family may have thought. According to Mark 3, Jesus went home to Nazareth after his baptism and his early ministry in and around Capernaum. He had even called together a group of disciples with whom he could share ministry (even as he taught them his message). He’s had some success with his preaching and his healing/exorcism ministry, drawing both supporters and opponents. The question was—how would he be received in Nazareth?
Mark’s discussion of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth begins and ends with the manner in which he was received by his family, who seem to think that he’s crazy (Mark 3:21). Sandwiched between these two parts of the story of his family’s attitudes is his encounter with religious leaders who suggest that Jesus might be in league with the powers of darkness.
Most assuredly Jesus posed a problem for his family when he came home. Nazareth wasn’t a big town. You can’t hide when your child proves to be an embarrassment. It would seem that even his mother is fit to be tied by his outlandish behavior. This isn’t the mother portrayed in the Gospel of John who is there at the beginning encouraging Jesus to use his powers to make wine for a wedding (John 2:1-11). In Mark the family is concerned that Jesus could get himself in trouble with the authorities—remember that religious authorities and political authorities were often one and the same—perhaps for disturbing the peace or even for preaching less than acceptable doctrines. The last thing that a family needs is a religious fanatic who not only disturbs the peace but brings unnecessary attention to the family. If only they could get to him and drag him home, perhaps they could keep him safe and keep the family out of trouble.
As we look at this passage, which depicts Jesus’ conflict with family sandwiching a conflict with the religious leaders over Jesus’ authority, whether it comes from God or Satan, we need to remember that this is the first mention of family in Mark’s gospel. Mark doesn’t have an infancy narrative, and while a Mary, the mother of James the younger, Joses, and Salome, is found at the cross and tomb, Mark doesn’t identify this Mary as his own mother (Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1-8). As far as Mark is concerned Jesus’ biological family are numbered among the non-believers and even opponents of his ministry. Yes, they think he’s crazy. They want home where they can keep him out of sight. As for Jesus, he’s willing to return the favor, and even goes further by breaking completely from his family of origin. The only family he’s interested in is the one who does the will of God and follows him. So much for Jesus being the champion of “family values.” For him family is that community that shares the common cause of the gospel, not the ones that share immediate DNA. After all, they could stand in the way of your ministry. Such is often the case.
Converts from one religion to another can face pressure from family to abandon the new faith community. Conversion can be seen as a rejection of family tradition and values. Early Christians knew this to be true, and most likely this was true for Mark’s community. They had chosen to follow the way of Jesus, and family and friends may not have been supportive. Family might have thought these converts to be crazy. So, come home, abandon this new religious identity, and remember where you belong. That was the message Jesus was getting, and it was the message being sent to the community that had emerged several decades later, the one to whom Mark writes.
In between these two slices of bread, to pick up the sandwich analogy that William Placher shares with us, is this debate with the religious leaders about Jesus’ authority. Does it come from God or from Satan? If it comes from God, then to oppose Jesus is to oppose God. Since they see themselves as representing God, surely Jesus is not a godly figure. Either they are in the wrong, and thus kicking against God’s revelation and authority, or Jesus is in league with Beelzebul (Satan), the ruler of the demons. Since they know where they stand, then Jesus must be in error and acting in league with Satan.
In his response to their charges, Jesus asks some questions in the form of parables. He asks the religious authorities, how it would benefit Beelzebul if demons were pitted against demons. Surely this internecine battle would undermine Satan, not strengthen Satan’s hand. After all, neither Jesus nor his critics believed that Jesus was casting out good spirits. This is what made Jesus’ ministry so frustrating. He was healing people and restoring them to health, he just wasn’t going about it in the authorized manner. He hadn’t been properly trained and ordained by the religious authorities, and besides that he was doing this on the Sabbath—and the Sabbath was not an appropriate day for such activity. There six days in which such activity is to take place, but on the Sabbath no work, not even healing, should take place.
I think we can understand where the religious authorities are coming from. It’s their job to protect society against interlopers who would undermine proper order. That’s why we have governments and religious institutions. Most people like things done decently and in order. No one enjoys chaos. Even anarchists have to come up with some form of governance if they’re to work together, unless they are all lone wolves doing their own thing. So what do we make of Jesus?
Jesus’s answer to his critics is to turn the question back on them. They’ve accused him of being on the side of Satan. But how can that be if he is pursuing actions that turn the tables on Satan? How can a kingdom stand when divided against itself? This was a question the United States faced a hundred and fifty years ago. President Lincoln asked the question of how a nation could stay together if it was half slave and half free. The answer was a Civil War, which is in some ways still being fought. Slavery may have ended, but the implications and ramifications of that institution with us today in the form of racism and discrimination. For a century the United States lived with the demonic implications of slavery, allowing suppression of rights for persons of color, until a movement arose that challenged the status quo and brought this demonic vision to light so that it could be dismantled. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been many rear-guard actions to overturn the new reality and return to the old status quo.
In this case Jesus challenging the status quo and acting as sort of a Robin Hood figure. In a turn of phrase Jesus becomes the thief in the night who plunders the powers that be. Satan is sort of like King John of infamy, suppressing and infecting the people with evil, while the authorities cover up for it. Jesus is present to plunder the house. Yes, what Jesus is doing here is tying up Satan, so that he can free those whom Satan (Beelzebul) has imprisoned. As William Placher points out, helpfully:
Sinners do in a sense belong to Satan. The Jesus who rescues sinners is not a defender of the status quo but one who challenges it, who breaks the law of property. Moreover, he tells sinners that he has already redeemed them. [Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), p. 61].
But Jesus isn’t finished. He challenges his opponents even further suggesting that by linking his ministry of healing and exorcism to Satan, they were committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That is an unforgivable sin. In other words, be careful when you link a good work of God to the opposing power.
With that we come back to Jesus and his family. This is probably not the text to choose for a Sunday celebrating “traditional” family values. He doesn’t suggest that our first loyalty is to the immediate family, who might just oppose our calling to follow Jesus, but rather to the community of disciples. For Jesus, to do the will of God is to be counted as his mother and siblings.
So, is Jesus crazy? Even worse, is he in league with Beelzebul? And as a side note, the title Beelzebul is related to the word Beelzebub (same reference), which is translated Lord of the Flies? Or, is Jesus one in whom God is fully present, bringing salvation (including healing/wholeness) to the world? How do you cast your vote? Or to put it a bit differently, where do you place your allegiance? These are the kinds of questions that Mark always leaves up in the air. Who is Jesus? Not even his family knows for sure, nor, as we learn as the story continues, do his disciples. Whom do you say that he is?