20 Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. 21 When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!”
22 The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”
23 When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? 24 A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. 25 And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26 If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. 27 No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized. 28 I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. 29 But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” 30 He said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”
31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”
33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (CEB)
A House Divided
This text has always made Christians worry, and maybe for good reason. We’re afraid of the unforgivable sin of offending the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we’re nervous because we don’t know what offending the Holy Spirit is. I mean, what if we do it accidentally? Would God really not forgive us? Would God really send us to Hell because of an accident? I mean, it sounds kind of harsh. I’ve had people come to me and ask what it is because they don’t understand what it is. They wanted me to identify it for them so they could make sure they didn’t do the big oops and wind up in a situation where they won’t be forgiven.
Whenever Jesus says something that we find confusing, we have to look at the context. It’s something Rev. Dr. Mike Rynkiewich and I are teaching in our Bible study classes on Tuesday mornings and Wednesday nights. Context matters. It can inform those difficult-to-understand snippets, especially when we read the snippet as if it’s not related to the stuff before and after it.
We know things had been going on before this text because Mark tells us, “Jesus entered a house. A crowed gathered again…” (c.f. Mark 3:20 CEB). That word again tells us that this wasn’t the first time a crowd had gathered around Jesus. When we come across a word like again, wise students of the Bible will turn the pages backward to check out the previous instances of whatever happened, and maybe the other stuff that Jesus has been up to as well.
When we look at Mark chapters 1, 2, and 3, we see that Jesus was baptized by John, who announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me” (1:7 CEB). Jesus was baptized and tempted in the wilderness. Then, he started preaching, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (1:14 CEB). Note that Jesus didn’t say, “Dig in your heels” but “Change your hearts and lives, and trust…” He called his disciples to follow him, too.
Then, in one day, he healed a demon-possessed man on the Sabbath while in the Synagogue at Capernaum, he healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, and that evening he healed multiple people of sickness and demon-possession because everyone who knew a sick person was bringing them to Jesus for healing. This was the first big crowd.
Later, Jesus healed a man with a skin disease who blabbed so much about being healed (directly disobeying Jesus’ stern order to keep quiet) that Jesus could hardly enter a town. So, he stayed out in deserted places, but people still went out to him. So, more crowds gathered. Many crowds gathered.
In Chapter 2, Jesus went back to his home in Capernaum, and when people heard it, a crowd packed his house. So many people gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door. So a few enterprising people tore a hole in Jesus’ roof to lower their sick friend down to him. But first, Jesus forgave the man of his sins, which annoyed some legal experts who were also present in Jesus’ house. To prove that he had authority to forgive sins, he healed the paralyzed man before the legal expert’s eyes.
Later, another crowd gathered near him at the lake, and he taught them. That’s when he invited Levi, the tax collector, to follow him, and he went to eat at Levi’s house alongside many other tax collectors and known sinners. You see, everyone KNEW these people were sinners. They had no doubt that these people were sinners. But Jesus did this incredibly unexpected thing and ate with them. The Pharisees saw it as a violation of purity laws to have fellowship with a sinner of any kind. Jesus was breaking the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law of Moses.
Jesus and his disciples also picked grains of wheat on the Sabbath and ate them. And, the Pharisees asked why Jesus was breaking their interpretation of the Sabbath Law. The Law said that no work should be done but doesn’t specify the nature of the work. Jesus and his disciples are essentially gleaning, which was legal. So, the question is whether or not it was legal on the Sabbath to pick grain, not in order to harvest but to satisfy hunger. The interpretation that Jesus made of the Law is that it was okay for hungry people to feed themselves. The Pharisees disagreed.
Next, in chapter 3, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Because this action of healing a person violated their interpretation of the Law, the Pharisees and supporters of Herod went out and sought a way to destroy Jesus.
All of this context points to what happens in the Gospel lesson for today. Jesus entered his house and a crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him or his followers to even eat bread. His family had heard all about it, and they were fit to be tied. They decided it was time for an intervention because Jesus was obviously out of his mind. The word used is a compound word made up of out of and to make stand. So the way they said someone was nuts back then was to say they stood out of their self. (Now, the next time someone tells you you’re outstanding, you’ll wonder if it’s a compliment).
Not only is Jesus’ family coming to get a hold of him, but the legal experts have mobilized in their effort to destroy him. They’ve sent a contingent from Jerusalem, and they were spreading the charge that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, which is a name that means Lord of the Flies. Jesus, they say, throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.
So, what we see here is a group of religious people who held to a certain interpretation of Scripture, and they were so adamant about that particular interpretation of Scripture that they were willing to say anything to denounce Jesus and destroy his reputation.
The thing is, the Pharisees and legal experts had seen with their own eyes the things Jesus did. They saw him heal people. They were drawn to him, too, that’s why they were at his house when he healed the crippled man. According to their own understanding of the Law, God doesn’t listen to sinners. Only someone who was on God’s side could do the things Jesus did (c.f. John 3:2). In fact, these signs were proof that Jesus was a prophet of God. The legal experts and Pharisees knew that. But, now that they felt the need to defend their interpretations and conclusions about the Scriptures and religious life, they actively attempted to make Jesus and his work into something Satanic.
So, Jesus called everyone together and told a parable. The first part is logic, “How can Satan throw Satan out? A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for” (Mk. 3:23-26 CEB).
The second part is Jesus describing himself as the one who walked into the strong person’s house and tied him up so he could burglarize it. Remember what John the Baptist said back in chapter one: “One stronger than I am is coming after me” (1:7 CEB)? Jesus is stronger than Satan, and that’s why he’s able to throw demons out of people who were possessed by them. He’s not Beelzubul in disguise. Jesus is essentially saying, I tied Beelzebul up and started stealing his stuff. Beelzebul owned some people, I stole them back.
Now, we’re at the part that can worry us, and maybe should worry us. It should especially worry us when we think that we know God’s will so perfectly that we can map out the movements of the Spirit, that we know what lines God will never cross, when we know exactly who and what God accepts and who and what God rejects. Jesus said, “‘I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” Mk. 3:28-29 CEB). Mark lets us know that Jesus said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.’” (Mk. 3:30 CEB).
The unforgivable sin happens when we see the work of the Holy Spirit with our own eyes, or hear of it with our own ears, yet because we don’t like it—because it doesn’t fit with our preconceived notions and interpretations—we identify it as the work of Satan. The detractors of Jesus saw and heard of his healings, but because certain matters of his Biblical interpretation didn’t jive with their interpretations, they labeled the work of the Holy Spirit as evil. That kind of arrogance can lead any of us to mislabel what God is doing as the work of Satan. Whether the sin is eternally unforgivable is another matter of debate because Jesus used hyperbole all the time. My understanding of the matter is that if we repent of that sin and join in with the Holy Spirit’s work, then God will forgive us.
Now, in the next few years, our church, The United Methodist Church, has some stuff to figure out about human sexuality and whether people who are homosexual are going to be fully welcome among us. And it’s not going to be easy. It was apparent at Annual Conference in Indianapolis due to some of the resolutions we discussed and did not pass. It has been made apparent at several other annual Conferences that have taken place this year based on resolutions they have passed or failed to pass. Lines are being drawn and people are fighting for their understanding of the issues of human sexuality, and for their interpretations of the Scriptures.
But I want to offer a pastoral word of caution. Before we withdraw into our already-firm conclusions and our personal Biblical interpretations, before we start calling one side or the other evil or wrong or sinful—whether aloud or in our internal monologue—I caution each of us to be patient. I hope we’ll listen to perspectives that differ from our own. I hope we’ll open our hearts and minds to see where that unpredictable Spirit of God is blowing.
There was a time when the church was segregated by race, but now all are supposed to be welcome. That’s what our baptismal & membership vows claim. (I think we still have some work to do on that one). There was a time when women were not allowed to be ordained or hold certain other leadership positions in the church, but now we ordain women and every leadership position is open. (I think we still have some work to do on that one, too).
We don’t know what’ll happen at the Special Session of General Conference in 2019 or how we’ll move forward as a church. Three plans have been set forth for consideration, and I encourage you to read them. I urge you to speak and, most importantly, I urge you to listen with empathetic ears. What I believe, wholeheartedly, is that if we pay attention—not for that moment when our side wins the debate—but if we pay attention to the movements and urgings of the Holy Spirit and see other people as beloved of God, we’ll move into the next decade and beyond as The United Methodist Church.
But if we fight amongst ourselves in a civil war and try to throw each other out; if we rebel against each other and are divided, then we’re done for. We won’t endure.
When Jesus’ family showed up at the door to his house, they couldn’t even get inside. So people told him, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.” (Mk. 3:32 CEB). The thing is, when Jesus replied “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Mark 3:33 CEB), he didn’t reject his family. He broadened his family. He made it bigger. Jesus said, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (Mk. 3:34-35 CEB). Perhaps we can discern God’s will by listening and speaking, praying and worshipping, loving and seeking – together.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay