Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Pentecost 2, 7th of June 2015
Be afraid, be very afraid. After the joy of the Easter season, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday, the church is now in ‘Ordinary Time’ and this year that means that we’re spending serious time immersed in the Gospel according to Mark. As I’ve said several times already this liturgical year, Mark is the shortest, the earliest, and the ‘scariest’ of the canonical gospels.
In today’s reading from the gospel, we see that strangeness and scariness up close, as Jesus is accused of being in league with demons and his family tries to restrain him because they believe he’s out of his mind. It’s a story that includes Jesus describing an unforgivable sin, and turning from his biological family in favour of the people gathered around him. This week’s reading is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who are relaxed and comfortable with the status quo.
The reading is an example of what biblical interpreters call a ‘Markan sandwich’. We start with a couple of verses about Jesus’ family who, either worried for his safety or embarrassed by him, seek to contain him, by force if necessary. At the end of the reading, they ask for Jesus from outside the house where he’s staying, and are denied. In between this tale of Jesus and his family is the accusation from the scribes. The two accusations, that Jesus is out of his mind and that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, are thus interlinked; as are Jesus’ family, which is possibly seeking to protect him, and the religious authorities, who are accusing him of a crime. Both groups, in trying to control and restrain Jesus’ ministry, are guilty of opposing the work of God.
Jesus’ family seek to restrain him because people, whether members of the family themselves or others, think that he has gone out of his mind – in the Greek that he is literally ‘outside himself’. The accusation by the religious authorities, the scribes from Jerusalem, is even worse. They accuse him of being in league with Beelzebul and casting out demons through him; a possession that could also be seen as a form of madness, but is here used as an accusation of magic, a capital crime.
Jesus has two answers for this, which he gives in the form of parables. He asks the scribes: ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.’ Mark’s audience would have been well aware of this; they would have seen the internal divisions that brought about the defeat of the Jews in the Jewish wars, and the instability in Rome that followed the death of Nero. If Jesus is in league with Satan, and casting out Satan, then Satan will fall. If Jesus is not in league with Satan, then the scribes have no case. Either way, Satan’s end is coming at the hands of Jesus.
Jesus’ second parable is much more down-to-earth: ‘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.’ The house of the world is in the hands of Satan, the strong man, but as John the Baptist announced, Jesus is the one who is more powerful, the one who can bind the strong man.
Mark’s gospel is full of demons with which Jesus is constantly in conflict and, as one commentator I read this week wrote, this can make passages like today’s hard to preach. But as that same commentator went on to write: ‘Satan does not necessarily mean a personality with horns and a red tail, but it does name a demonic power that is actively engaged against the compassionate and reconciling love of God’. Mark’s demons represent all the forces by which people are held captive, the various societal and global forces that dehumanise people today: racism, sexism, materialism, fear of those who are ‘different’. These are the demons that Jesus fights – and they are still very much with us. These are the demonic powers from which Jesus is to free the world by bringing in the reign of God.
The religious authorities consider Jesus mad. Those who should know the most about how God works in the world don’t understand. By inaugurating the reign of God Jesus is challenging and over-turning the status quo. His message is that God is love; that God desires the health of all God’s creation, that God stands in solidarity with us, that God is determined to love and redeem us no matter what the cost, and that God is with us, all of us.
So, it’s no surprise that the scribes find this hard to accept. Their entire life has been about determining how we are to relate to God, they are part of a long and proud tradition of faithful service to God and the people of God. They help humanity keep the rules that enable us to relate to God. But Jesus is declaring that how we relate to God isn’t a matter of rules. The law isn’t about regulating our relationship with God but was given by God to enable us to have life in abundance. So Jesus heals whenever and wherever there is need, even on the Sabbath. He welcomes everyone, even those normally excluded by religious restrictions. He liberates a world imprisoned by unclean spirits.
In everything he does Jesus reveals the wildly merciful and unpredictably gracious God who is always doing a new thing. Since human beings are frequently threatened by change, the new life to which Jesus is inviting people scares those who are quite happy with their current lives and the status quo.
As I said, the structure of this story is a Markan sandwich, and it links Jesus’ family with the scribes. They, too, don’t understand what Jesus is doing and wish to end it. Their motives may be better than those of the scribes, but they too are blind to the way God is working in the world. By connecting the rejection of the scribes with the rejection of Jesus’ family, this story reminds us that sometimes we need to be saved from our families. This is obvious when our families are abusive or neglectful, but it can be true even when they are caring and well-meaning. One American commentator I read on this passage describes growing up in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s, taught white supremacy and racism by loving and caring people like his mother and church leaders. He describes them as wonderful people captive to racism and he had to be liberated from that captivity. For Jesus, families are not automatically good; contrary to what many politicians apparently believe, Christianity is not automatically pro-family.
Be afraid, be very afraid. Jesus has come to overturn the status quo, to bring about a new world, to challenge religious authorities, and to free us even from our families if those who love us and take care of us also imprison us.
The good news is that Jesus, who frees people from demonic powers, is the master of an undivided household, a new family made up of those who do the will of God. Membership of this new family isn’t based on blood – or at least isn’t based on our blood. It is based on the blood of Jesus, shed for us. We, and all the world’s misfits and outsiders, are welcomed into this new family. Thanks be to God.
 Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Strathfield: St Pauls Publications, 2008), p. x.
 Nibs Stroupe in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3, p. 117.
 Byrne, A Costly Freedom, p. xii.
 Nibs Stroupe in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3, p. 121.