Commentary on Mark 3:20-35
Jesus did not fit in. He was at odds with his family’s sociological script and with the religious authorities.
Even among his closest companions, as we have just read in 3:19, there is one who will betray him. But undergirding all of that resistance from the beginning, he was at odds with Satan.
This passage has a chiastic structure and is an example of Mark’s way of framing one episode with another (a Markan intercalation, or sandwich):
verse 20 Crowd
verse 21 Family
verse 22 Scribes (Jesus is casting out demons by the ruler of the demons)
verses 23-27 The parables of Satan’s end
verses 28-30 Scribes guilty of unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (because they have said that Jesus has an unclean spirit)
verse 31f Family
verse 32f Crowd
Here Jesus’ conflict with his family frames an account of his conflict with the religious establishment, and at the center of the chiasm is the conflict with Satan, told in a parable. This conflict began in the wilderness from which Jesus emerged proclaiming the kingdom of God in 1:12-15. Now it is Satan’s kingdom or household that is in question.
The first group introduced in the passage is the crowd, pressing in on Jesus and his disciples. The word crowd appears in 14 of the Gospel’s 16 chapters, and even in chapter 1, where the word itself does not appear, the whole city gathers around the door (1:32-33), everyone is searching for him (1:37), and he can no longer go into a town openly (1:45). At the other end of the Gospel, a crowd will arrest him in 14:43, and the crowd will call for Barabbas’ release and Jesus’ death in 15:8, 11, 15.
The crowd presses upon him, threatening to crush him, in 3:9, so much so that Jesus has a boat ready for his escape, and by 4:1 he is preaching from the boat because of the size of the crowd. He and his disciples cannot manage to eat in the present passage, and the same happens in 6:31. But in 6:34, Jesus will have compassion on the crowd, whom he sees as sheep without a shepherd, and he will teach and feed them. So here also, when the crowd of 3:20 reappears in 3:32, it has become his inner circle, people whom he identifies as his brothers and sisters and mother when his family of origin has rejected him.
In 3:21, Jesus’ family goes out to restrain him. The verb used here is also used to describe Jesus’ arrest (14:1, 44, 46, 49) and John the Baptist’s (6:17). They are saying that he has gone out of his mind. While the crowd is drawn in, the family becomes outsiders. This contrast between insiders and outsiders is further developed in 4:11, again in connection with Jesus’ teaching in parables. Those inside are given the secret of the kingdom, but those outside are left unmoved and mystified.
The family’s rejection of Jesus here is echoed in John 7:5, where we read that his brothers do not believe in him. We also find references in John 7:20 and 8:48, 52 to accusations that Jesus has a demon. Then in John 10:20 the suggestion that he is possessed accompanies the accusation that he is out of his mind. Here in Mark 3:21-22, the two accusations come together again as the scribes from Jerusalem conclude that the power behind Jesus’ exorcisms must be Satan himself.
The scribes have already been mentioned at the very opening of Jesus’ ministry as those whose teaching is less authoritative than Jesus’. They question in their hearts and accuse him of blasphemy when he forgives the paralytic in 2:6. They criticize him in association with the Pharisees in 2:16 and again in 7:1, 5. But when the Pharisees fade away as the story moves toward Jerusalem, the scribes continue to hold a central role in the opposition, alongside the chief priests and elders (see, for example, 8:31; 14:43; 15:31). The reference to Jerusalem in 3:22 hints at the ultimate conflict with the Jerusalem religious authorities.
Jesus, preaching in Jerusalem, will warn the crowd in 12:38-40 to beware of the scribes who like to be honored in public places while they secretly devour widows houses. “They will receive the greater condemnation” (12:40). Already here in 3:29-30 they are guilty of an unforgivable sin because they mistake the Holy Spirit for Satan. They recognize that Jesus must be drawing on great power to perform exorcisms but fatally misidentify its source because he does not behave as they expect a righteous person to behave, which is to say, most of all, that he is not one of them. He associates with the wrong people, breaks Sabbath laws, and blasphemes by forgiving sins, and so they commit the greatest blasphemy of all.
Exorcisms, of which there are four in Mark in addition to many other references to them, point to the cosmic battle with Satan, a battle that begins immediately after Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit drives him into temptation. The unclean spirits recognize Jesus from the beginning and know that Jesus can destroy them (1:24) as others are plotting to destroy Jesus (3:6)
Now Jesus makes clear, in the form of a parable, the scope of what he is doing in his freeing of the demon-possessed. Jesus is coming to plunder Satan’s household and bring about his end, not by division from within but by stealth and force from without. Jesus, who was stronger than John the Baptist (1:7), is stronger than the strong man Satan too.
Jesus’ stealthy binding of the powers of evil ultimately undermines Satan so completely that even when he appears to have succeeded in destroying Jesus in the crucifixion, the very destruction of the Son issues not in defeat but in the mysterious victory of God.
This passage, like most passages in the gospels, contains the whole story in nuce. At the center is Jesus’ victory for the kingdom of God, the subversion of the strong man by the stronger one and the freeing of the plunder, God’s good creation. Moving out from there, we also see reflections in Jesus’ story of the story of the community in which the Gospel was first told and read and proclaimed and the ones who in following Jesus have met similar resistance.
These, like Jesus and his disciples, may have lost mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and houses and fields for the sake of the good news (10:28-30) and may have felt themselves under threat from powers and principalities as he was. So for those people, then and through the ages, there is comfort in the turn from restraint and threat to freedom, courage, and hope, even in the face of the ones who would kill Jesus.
Then here perhaps are we, the crowd pressing in to see him and touch him, maybe urgently and desperately, but as the tale turns we find that our desperate desire has been more than met. We also are claimed by him as his sisters and brothers and mother, no longer outsiders at a distance, but holders of the secrets of the kingdom, drawn into the inner circle of the mystery and love of God.