I was traveling on Thursday morning, and when I stopped for breakfast, I saw a men’s Bible study group using a table in the restaurant. So I found myself judging them for a “public display of religion,” even though I meet with a group of pastors for a Bible study – in a public place! – most Tuesday afternoons. But, speaking for most of us “moderate” religious people, I know I can be suspicious of people who are too invested in a particular set of ideas – this invisible reality Paul talks about – because they tend to sound a little bit crazy.
So speaking of crazy, let’s disassemble the sandwich of stories in Mark’s gospel:
Then Jesus went home. Again such a large crowd gathered that Jesus and his disciples had no time to eat. When his family heard about it, they set out to take charge of him, because people were saying, “He’s gone mad!”
Jesus’ family distrusted him. They thought he was crazy, and they came to have him committed. And that’s where the meat – the middle part of the sandwich comes in.
Some teachers of the Law who had come from Jerusalem were saying, “He has Beelzebul in him! It is the chief of the demons who gives him the power to drive them out.”
The teachers of the Law get more to the point: Jesus is not just mad, he’s demonic. (Note that “crazy” and “demon-possessed” are the same thing in New Testament culture.) They accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of evil.
So Jesus called them to him and spoke to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a country divides itself into groups which fight each other, that country will fall apart. If a family divides itself into groups which fight each other, that family will fall apart. So if Satan’s kingdom divides into groups, it cannot last, but will fall apart and come to an end.
Jesus’ defense is not immediately convincing, within the conceptual world of Beelzebul/Satan. I don’t imagine that the Lord of Demons has much sympathy for his underlings – after all, don’t we expect the bad guy to be mean even to his henchmen? So why couldn’t Jesus (hypothetically, of course) be casting out Satan by Satan?
So let’s posit that he might be. Even so, what he said is true: when forces divide against themselves, they weaken. So even if Jesus had been on the wrong side, the wrong side still loses, because unity is stronger than division.
Moreover, Jesus is not on the wrong side. The demons know that: all along, they scream that he’s the Son of God. It also shows if you’re looking when Jesus gathers people from the edges into the center of God’s love, when he heals brokenness and releases people from the powers of death, when he proclaims and lives the kingdom of God. The ultimate Christian claim about Jesus is that his life shows us what God’s realm is like, that he uncompromisingly sets God’s ways higher than any other, that he acts like the universe really is under God’s control.
“No one can break into a strong man’s house and take away his belongings unless he first ties up the strong man; then he can plunder his house.
“I assure you that people can be forgiven all their sins and all the evil things they may say. But whoever says evil things against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, because he has committed an eternal sin.” (Jesus said this because some people were saying, “He has an evil spirit in him.”)
Jesus’ question (his language about an “unforgivable sin” comes across as scare tactics to me) is, do we buy into the idea that life is fundamentally doomed or do we imagine that it’s fundamentally… well, alive? We can get plenty of things right or wrong, but what ultimately matters is whether we’re living as if life is based on destructive division or on creative unity. Ultimately, we get to choose which story we believe – which reality we live in – and that choice actually helps create the reality we buy into.
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside the house and sent in a message, asking for him. A crowd was sitting around Jesus, and they said to him, “Look, your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, and they want you.” Jesus answered, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” He looked at the people sitting around him and said, “Look! Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does what God wants is my brother, my sister, my mother.”
That’s what the bread of Mark’s sandwich is about: “my family” is created of people living in God’s transforming reality. Our choice is reflected in our life in the world, even though the reality to which we testify is invisible.
So what does it look like when we start to reshape the world? We pray, knowing that the very act of praying can be more powerful than anything we might receive as an “answer.” We feed the hungry, not because they did something to deserve it (nor despite anything they did otherwise), but because we know that a well-fed world is a better place. We give ourselves to our community even though we know that much of what we do will be unappreciated or will bear fruit long after we’ve gone.
God doesn’t command us to make-believe something impossible, God invites us to create something that is possible when we commit to the idea that this is how the world ought to be. Because it can. I’m not sure how all time, but it can. So thanks be to God.