Commentary on Mark 3:20-35
Jesus generates a lot of worry in this passage. But I suppose he always has.
Because it’s only Mark 3, and because we’re considering this text during the bliss of early June, we might fail to appreciate the weight of worry in the pronouncements people express concerning Jesus. Yet, if we want to understand Jesus’ purpose and the offense he causes, we had better linger with these verses for a while and consider their place within the overall Gospel narrative. The rest of our journey through Mark during Year B will be more focused as a result.
The cast of characters
First, the crowd arrives. They keep doing this, swarming Jesus at almost every turn (Mark 1:33, 37, 45; Mark 2:2, 13, 15; Mark 3:7-10). The reign (traditionally, “kingdom”) of God that he enacts with words and actions seems to be magnetic. In this scene the crowd does not speak, and they express no worries, but their actions suggest they want more of Jesus.
Second, “his family” (hoi par’ autou) arrives, intending to seize Jesus. Now the worrying begins. Those who might know him best, those who might have the most to lose if his ministry provokes the people who possess the power to end it — they want to take him away. Mark says that those family members think he is “beside himself” (existemi); they have determined that Jesus is not in his right mind.1 It seems they have no other way of interpreting what he has been saying and doing since he went to see John and undergo a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. They have drawn their conclusions.
Third, the scribes from Jerusalem previously arrived, eager to offer their explanation of Jesus and his power. Mark narrates their visit as a sort of flashback (Mark 3:22-30) tucked within the story about Jesus and his family. The intercalation of the two scenes allows them to interpret one another, emphasizing the theological errors being made by two groups who should know better and accentuating the dangerous implications of the declarations that Jesus will make.
Those scribes were theological heavyweights. They represent the authority and theological wisdom of the temple establishment — the same establishment whose leaders will ensure that Pilate crushes Jesus at the end of the book. We should understand those scribes’ credentials as impeccable. Their pronouncement, that Jesus is a satanic agent and not a divine one, recognizes power at work in him. He is no charlatan or illusionist. But they decide the power is perverse. They offer the most damning assessment they can.
The Jerusalem scribes’ pronouncement offers a plain illustration of what Jesus means when he mentions, later in the scene, the very specific instance of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Those scribes have dismissed the possibility of God’s restoration, for they write it off as a satanic deception. They show themselves devoid of hope and openly contemptuous of God’s work. Around them, people are being set free from their demons. People are experiencing wholeness and life. People’s dignity is acknowledged. Jesus promises that sins and “whatever blasphemies” may occur will prove no obstacle to people’s renewal (Mark 3:28)! And yet the scribes scoff and denounce all of this as false or dangerous. How can people — religious elites, even! — who have grown so cynical and scornful of real, lived blessings ever be able to experience deliverance from their own spite and nastiness, to say nothing of freedom from the pains they have endured?2 The extraordinary kind of blasphemy of which Jesus speaks (and which he distinguishes from other, forgivable blasphemies) is an “eternal sin” only because it reveals an entirely calcified mind; such people have seen the works of God up close in Jesus himself and yet repudiated the transformative power of God’s grace.
Once the three groups — crowd, family, and scribes — have found themselves brought together in the same narrative space, so to speak, in these interwoven scenes, Jesus speaks. He has a few declarations of his own.
Jesus spends little time refuting the scribes’ assessment. He indicates the absurdity of their reasoning, for he says that satanic power never shows an interest in loosening the screws that hold oppression and indignity firmly in place. We also read implied pronouncements from Jesus about the state of the world. The reign (“kingdom”) he associates with Satan is a formidable, coordinated power. It enforces a fearful hegemony. It retains that dominance because it is ruthlessly unyielding. Jesus’ comments suggest that the scribes appear to grasp all of this very well, since their accusation ironically exposes them as having succumbed to that kingdom’s inflexible logic.
Yet Jesus considers himself even more powerful than satanic imperial dominion. In a short and violent parable about a home invasion he characterizes himself as the one able to overwhelm Satan’s reign by “tying up the strong man” and plundering the things the “man” has taken as his own. The parable may be taken as Jesus’ mission statement in Mark, urging us to interpret the rest of the narrative guided by this image. The whole Gospel is a story about the reign of God coming to displace another reign, and that other one will not relinquish its power without a fight.
Mark is, therefore, a story of redemption from a “house” of oppression that manifests itself on many levels of human existence. There is no escaping this Gospel’s accent on conflict and clashing powers. As I have explained elsewhere about Mark, God’s activity through Christ entails incursion and deliverance — but also mercy.
Finally, the focus returns to Jesus’ family, the ones who have come to spirit him away from the crushing crowds, the consequences of the dangerous criticisms he levels against the religious leaders, and his dangerous visions of a battle he fights for the sake of the world.
Not only does Jesus resist the intervention of his mother, brothers, and sisters; he renounces their claim on him. They remain “outside” while Jesus embraces those encircled “around him” in the crowded house.
In short, Jesus redraws the lines of family and belonging, saying that those who do God’s will are siblings and mother to him (see also Mark 10:28-30). (According to Mark 8:38 and Mark 14:36, Jesus already has a “Father.”) In that culture, in which responsibility, identity, stability, and opportunity were so bound up with kinship structures, Jesus’ pronouncement of a new family might elicit gasps.3 But it also can bring great joy to some, especially those followers who find themselves estranged from their own families of origin.
The story so far
In Mark 3, people have started to conspire against Jesus (3:6). For his part, Jesus has organized his associates and granted them authority to contribute to his efforts (3:13-19). Now, in this passage, he declares the imminent end of a satanic reign, mocks the big-league scribes and describes them as utterly resistant to God, and tells his nervous family that he does not belong to them but to his collaborators. Religious authorities and his own relatives lack imagination; based on how they view things, “demonic” and “insane” are categories that promise protection. Those labels represent last-gasp attempts to hold onto faulty worldviews. Yet the labels do not stick.
Scribes and relatives cannot figure him out, and so they attempt to quarantine him. He seems rather willing to write them off for the sake of achieving something great.
Only three chapters into the narrative, and a lot of people are understandably worried. In many ways, we still should be.
Many things remain to be seen as Mark 3 ends, including how all of this will play out and whether Jesus himself is a leader worth following or whether he will just institute new tyrannies to replace the old ones. Jesus has certainly promised good news, but he keeps insisting that we must not mistake that for comfortable news. What’s certain here is this: the reign of God Jesus keeps talking about is certainly not going to be about maintaining business as usual.
- The Greek of Mark 3:21 reads, “for they were saying” and not “for people were saying” (as in the New Revised Standard Version). Jesus’ family is the clear antecedent of “they.”
- The verb commonly translated “forgiven” (aphiemi, as in Mark 3:28) operates out of a sense of “released” or “freed.” Whatever we understand “forgiveness” to entail — in any context — has to involve more than simply eluding punishment or escaping responsibility for a misdeed. Jesus’ comments about blasphemy appear to be describing a person who has utterly surrendered to a disdainful existence that has renounced all openness to God.
- While this passage depicts Jesus as essentially replacing his old family with a new one, other passages in this Gospel offer good reason to avoid simplistic conclusions that Mark regards Jesus as anti-family. Jesus reconfigures but does not entirely reject aspects of familial structures. See the helpful study by E. Elizabeth Johnson: “‘Who Is My Mother?’: Family Values in the Gospel of Mark,” in Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (ed. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby, Westminster John Knox, 2002), 32-46.