New Testament Reading | Mark 3

The theme of laws continues here, and we begin to be shown more about what Jesus is doing and why.

Translation

This is my rendering, which shouldn't be treated as definitive. Many other translations are available on Bible Hub, while the NRSV can be found here.

Then Jesus went into the synagogue, and there was a man with a withered hand there. And some were watching to see if Jesus would heal him on the Sabbath so that they could accuse him.

Jesus said to the man, “Get up and come to the middle.” Then he said to the others, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do ill, to save a life or to kill?”

Everyone was silent, and Jesus looked around at them angrily, grieved by the hardness of their hearts. He said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” The man did, and his hand was restored.

The Pharisees went out straight away to the council of Herod, where they made plans to destroy him.

Jesus, along with his disciples, went back to the sea. A great crowd followed out of Galilee, Judea, Tyre, and Sidon, listening to everything that came from him. Jesus asked his disciples to get a boat ready so that the crowd did not press upon him; he had healed many, so many more with illnesses were trying to touch him. Those with unclean spirits fell down before him and cried out, “You are the son of God.” But Jesus charged them with not revealing who he was.

Then Jesus went up on the mountainside and called those he wanted, and they went to him. He gathered twelve who would be with him and whom he could send out to teach, and he gave them the power to cast out demons. He chose these twelve: to Simon he gave the name Peter; James son of Zebedee and James' brother John he named Boanerges, for they were the sons of thunder;[^1] and he also chose Andrew, Phillip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddeus, Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who would betray him.

Then Jesus went into a house, but a crowd surrounded him, and he and his disciples were not even able to eat. Hearing what was happening, his family came to take him away. And the scribes come down from Jerusalem said that Beelzebul had him, and that only the leader of demons could cast them out.

Jesus called them to him and spoke in parable, saying, “How can the enemy cast out the enemy? A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, and a house divided against itself cannot stand. If the enemy were to rise up against itself, it would not be able to stand, but would be ended. No one can plunder the house of a strong man without binding him first.

“Truly I tell you that any sin will be forgiven to the sons of men, and any slander, except for blaspheming the Holy Spirit. The guilt for that sin lasts forever.” Jesus said this because they claimed he had an unclean spirit.

Then his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside, they sent someone in to call for him.

A crowd was seated around him, and they said to him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are outside waiting for you.”[^2]

Jesus answered, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” He looked around at those seated about him. “See my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God, there is my brother or my sister or my mother.”

Thoughts

We begin with another example of Jesus going against rigid compliance with rules. He asks if it's lawful “to do good or ill” on the Sabbath. When I first read this passage, I was thinking that he was challenging them on defining the limits of the law or something like that.

Instead, I think he's pointing out something far more profound. We have this man in front of us with the withered hand. Jesus has a choice, to do something or to do nothing. Both are choices with their consequences. So what he's asking is actually far more literal. He's saying that he has to do one or the other: he can either heal the man (doing good) or not (doing ill). By doing this, he's forcing us to think through the consequences of the rules we create for ourselves, and the danger of words like “always” and “never.” In other words, there can be a sort of transitive property when it comes to law. After all, the Pharisees' rule could be said that “you cannot help others on the Sabbath.” Jesus says elsewhere (see my discussion of chapter 2) that sometimes laws are written to allow us to do things we shouldn't. I also don't think Jesus is talking about unintended consequences, in that “not thinking about something” doesn't really qualify as “unintended.”

It's worth thinking about how this can play out in our lives today. It's far too easy to hide behind a rule or slogan without thinking about what it's not allowing (or what it is allowing, in the case of a prohibition). There's a canard that “the government shouldn't be picking winners and losers.” Perhaps not, but remember that this isn't saying that no one should, since removing one source of power doesn't remove them all. The unspoken part of this slogan is that “whoever else that has power will.” The “if you ban x, only criminals will have x” argument is also a form of this. To be clear, I'm not taking a position on when government intervention or bans are appropriate, as that's a far more complicated and nuanced conversation. (Or at least it should be.)

An interesting textual note here is in Jesus' family coming to take him. This part is missing from the parallel stories in Luke and Matthew, and at least a couple early manuscripts actually change this verse in Mark to read “when the scribes and the others heard.” Any time you see something potentially embarrassing or difficult, it's safe to assume it's original, as it's much more likely that difficult passages would be omitted than added. As I mentioned, this is part of the draw of Mark for me, as his Gospel can be more theologically challenging.

Moving on, many of us are very familiar with the expression that a house divided against itself cannot stand. In the United States it's a big part of our history and is firmly embedded in the popular conception of the Civil War, thanks to a speech by Abraham Lincoln as he began his Senate campaign in 1858.

Anyway, there are a couple things happening with this part. First, Beelzebul (Gk. Βεελζεβοὺλ, Beelzeboul) is used as another name for Satan, the leader of demons. After all, the Pharisees say that only the leader of demons could cast them out, and say that this is who Beelzebul was. Mark uses the name interchangeably with the “leader” idea, and Matthew and Luke do the same. The analogy of “plundering the home of a strong man” continues from there, in that it gives an alternate explanation to what Jesus is doing (the Greek phrasing that begins this sentence sets off a strong contrast).

The implications of this are interesting, though. While recognizing Satan's power, Jesus is establishing himself as more powerful (since he wouldn't be able to “bind” Satan if he weren't). But why does this “binding” need to take the form of his Earthly actions and teaching? Why can't he just snap his fingers and banish Satan and his demons?

The cynical interpretation is simply that no one has this kind of power, and Mark needed a way to explain this away.

For my part, it actually ties back into this theme of laws, in that there needs to be some human agency here. Jesus isn't here to infantilize us, he's here to set us free. (Here my own personal theology would replace “Jesus” with “God”, but either way.) But choice, faith, all of it are meaningless when they're our only option. Children like us have to be allowed to stumble, to fall, to err. Remember, during this same story, Jesus also says that all sins (other than blasphemy against the holy spirit) will be forgiven to the children of men. He's just been explaining in this chapter and the previous one how we need to think about the laws we impose, and not lose sight of their true purpose. So he'll help us by showing us the door and helping to open it if we can't, but we have to take those steps ourselves.

Basically, Jesus is giving us the chance to grow up.

[1] The definition is in the original, explaining that they were the sons of βροντή (brontei), thunder.

[2] Interestingly, some manuscripts add “and your sisters” to this line. There is some debate about whether this is original. On the one hand, it's been argued that it could easily have been a scribal oversight (jumping from one “your” to the next) or a deliberate omission since there's no reference to “sisters” anywhere else. On the other hand, the absence of any reference to “sisters” anywhere else in this chapter or in the parallels in the other Gospels seems to suggest that it was added later. Plus, as a cultural/historical matter, it seems unlikely that Jesus sisters would've come to publicly stop him.

#mark #newtestament