An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Ties that Bind

A sermon on Mark 3: 20-35 by Nathan Nettleton

If you have ever wondered why Jesus was so unpopular that he ended up getting killed, some careful consideration of tonight’s gospel reading might answer a few questions. We don’t hear this story very often because this set of readings only comes up in years where there is an early Easter, and that’s unfortunate because, although this is not a popular story or an easy one to make immediate sense of, I think it is an extremely important one. The things Jesus says publicly in this story are tough and uncompromising and would probably get him in just as much trouble today as they did then. And so if we are to be his followers, they ask some pretty tough questions of us and just where we stand.

Jesus is already in trouble before this story starts. In Mark’s gospel we are only half way through chapter three, but we’ve already heard that after he healed a crippled man in the synagogue on the Sabbath, the Pharisees and the Herodians are plotting to have him killed. You’d think it might be time to pull his head in a bit, but instead in today’s episode, he comes out and publicly kicks two of the most sacred of sacred cows: loyalty to family, and support of law and order. And in the process, he unmasks some of our most cherished delusions.

The family question frames the episode. Evangelical Christians these days are very fond of proclaiming ourselves to be champions of the family, and of family values. When Christians start political parties, we usually call them things like “Family First” because it is assumed that commitment to family is a major Christian value that has appeal to the wider community. Whenever anybody’s personal virtues are being trumpeted, top of the list is usually that they love their family and would do anything for them. In Jesus’s day, absolute allegiance to one’s family was, if anything, even stronger. Families were mostly extended rather than nuclear, but one’s allegiance to family was unquestionable. Except by Jesus it seems. Clearly Jesus’s family thought it was time for him to pull his head in before someone took it off. The text tells us that they thought he was losing his mind and had come to take him home and get him out of harm’s way. The ties that bind him to his family are to be the ties that restrain him and keep him out of trouble. And at that point, Mark interrupts his telling of the story with another story that helps us see clearly what the issues are with the family, so let’s follow Mark and we’ll come back to the family question when he does.

The interruption comes in the form of the religious experts arriving from Jerusalem to deal with the growing hysteria around this religious maverick. Jesus has been calling into question the value of unswerving allegiance to the Temple and its leaders and practices. He has been exposing demonic strongholds in the heart of the religious systems, casting demons out of the synagogues and the like. And when they arrive, they find no small amount of hysteria. Jesus is holed up in a house and he can’t even get out to eat because of the huge crowd gathered outside trying to catch a glimpse of him. It is definitely time for the religious experts to reassert their authority and hose down the enthusiasm for this Jesus character.

The fact that Jesus has healed some people and exorcised some demons could not be denied, so they have to take a different tack. They take a time honoured approach and question his motives and his methods. What he has done might look good at a glance, they suggest, but scratch a bit deeper and you will find corruption and a dangerous disregard for the most important institutions that safeguard all we hold dear, like family, and law and order, and religion. These things he’s done are evidence of black magic. He is an agent of the devil, and we must all unite to resist him before he drags us all into the pit of hell.

Now, Jesus’s response to this only further galvanises the fury against him, because what he does effectively turns it back on his accusers. In effect he says that it is the normal structures by which you maintain the institutions of society — family, religion, and and law and order — that are satanic. The satanic work you are accusing me of, he says, is what you are unwittingly engaged in yourselves. Let me show you how he says this.

When they say he uses the power of satan to cast out demons, Jesus responds with a riddle, “How can satan cast out satan?” Now at first glance, this seems to be a denial of the foundation of their argument. He seems to be saying that satan wouldn’t attack his own, and therefore the charge is ridiculous. But actually, that’s not where Jesus goes with it. Because he follows up by saying, “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.” And of course, the idea that satan’s end has come is exactly what Jesus is saying. That’s why he goes straight on to the little parable, “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.” So Jesus is in fact claiming to be the apocalyptic “thief in the night” who has tied up the violent one and is now liberating all that was locked in his house. So yes, he implies, satan’s end has come because satan’s house is divided and inherently unstable, and yes the power of satan is being used, but I’m not the one using it.

What Jesus is pointing to and labelling as satanic here is the basic mechanism by which human cultures maintain their stability and normality whenever they are threatened. He is suggesting that the accusations that he is facing are far from unique. They are part of the normal pattern. When there is a major crisis and people are becoming divided and turning on one another, there is a mechanism we always resort to to unite people and get things back under control. Satan’s house divided against itself and what we do is we look for a culprit and we turn on the culprit. We accuse the culprit of all manner of evil and of being the centre of an evil conspiracy that threatens to bring down our society. And as we relentlessly pile up the accusations, public hostility towards the culprit grows and grows until we find ourselves strangely united and unanimous in our verdict that the only way to rid ourselves of the chaos and division that threatened us is to rid ourselves of the culprit, to purge the community of this bringer of evil. And as we expel or execute the “evil culprit” we feel purged and exhilarated and pure and united in a community of righteousness. Sometimes even the culprits will get caught up in the frenzy and turn on themselves, begging to be punished and cast out in some delusion of cleansing self-sacrifice. And thus stability is restored and the community is saved.

It works. It has been working over and over and over since the dawn of civilisation. But, says Jesus, it is a satanic structure. It is satan casting out satan. It is the majority doing the work of satan by accusing a minority of being the satanic trouble-makers, and casting them out into death or exile. What does the title “the satan” mean? The accuser. This work heaping accusations on a culprit is inherently satanic. And here you go again, says Jesus. This time you’ve decided that I am the culprit, the victim, who must be demonised and eliminated for the sake of the community.

And so the answer to the riddle, “Can satan cast out satan?”, is yes. Satan can and satan does. And as long as we can continue to be deluded into believing that we are doing the will of an angry, demanding, righteous God when we are purging these “evils” from among us, the structure of satan casting out satan, although inherently divided and unstable, will continue to see satan’s domain holding together against the threat of being overthrown by forgiveness and mercy and love.

But now comes Jesus, to bind the violent one and plunder his house. How? By untangling the ties that bind us to one another and to the institutions of family and religion and law and order in this satanic conspiracy of scapegoating and purging, and exposing them for the idolatrous lie that they are, and showing us who God really is. In order to expose them, Jesus has to walk right into them, to offer himself as the culprit, the victim, who absorbs the full force of our bitterness and rage, but who, instead of returning them that they might regather ready for the next culprit, swallows them and returns only love and forgiveness, thus unmasking the lie that God is pleased by our accusing and purging and sacrificing. By dying with only words of forgiveness on his lips and rising to life again, still breathing only mercy, Jesus reveals a God who does not sanction our righteous violence; a God who wants mercy, not sacrifice. And in so dying and rising, Jesus drove a fatal nail into the satanic structures, because those structures always depended on the frenzied unanimity of the crowd, and Jesus’s radical and shocking acts of forgiveness forever shattered the unanimity.

I often wonder whether Jesus has forever regretted the way he worded the next thing he said, the bit about the unforgivable sin, because it has been so constantly misunderstood and misused. Even the victims have sometimes used it against themselves to declare themselves guilty and endorse the community’s action in purging itself of them. But of course, what Jesus is actually saying is that there is nothing you can do that would exhaust God’s willingness to forgive you. Nothing that would put you beyond God’s desire to gather you into God’s love and mercy. The only way to remain unforgiven is to spit in the face of mercy, to make yourself an avowed enemy of God’s loving and forgiving and liberating work. And as the Apostle Paul would no doubt tell us from his own experience, even if it looks like you have disappeared off down that road, still God’s love and mercy will follow you and call you back if you will let go of your spitting snarling hostility to love.

And so Jesus has bound the violent strong man and is rescuing us from his house, unbinding the ties that bound us to the structures of righteous indignation and sacred violence. But where does that leave the institutions we have seen as so essential and to whom we have given our allegiance?

Well, Mark tells us, Jesus’s family arrived outside the house and sent word in that they had come to take him in hand. The ties that bind to the sacred institution of family were to be used to prevent him so shaking the foundations that he would become the next culprit of the system. And what does Jesus do? He pretty much disowns them. “Who are my family?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my true family! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Where we get the idea that Jesus is the champion of the traditional nuclear family is completely beyond me, but neither is Jesus saying that you should disown or abandon your family. What he is saying is that having been liberated from the strong man’s house, from the relentless cycle of binding ourselves to one another by uniting against outsiders in unanimous sacred violence, our primary allegiances are now formed through ties of common forgiveness and hospitality. We are bound to one another through our shared experience of liberating mercy. And nothing, not even the claims of family, should ever compromise that. If your family share a passion for mercy and love, then they are family indeed. But if they set out to stifle and repress the work of grace, then you have a higher allegiance to answer to. We might be fond of saying that blood is thicker than water, but as Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase of this passage (The Message), obedience is thicker than blood. And so it is as a new family, bound together by ties of shared obedience to God’s radical ways of love and mercy and liberation made known in Christ, that we gather here to sing and pray and share at the Table where love is tasted and forgiveness is poured out and all are free as Christ is free.


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