Commentary on Mark 3:20-35
How fitting that 21st-century church-goers should deal with Jesus’ weird apocalyptic teaching on tying up Satan on a Sunday in June between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Close readers of Mark 3:20-35 can’t help but notice that Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching about binding Beelzebul is flanked by stories about Jesus’ own family on either side. Jesus’ family, portrayed in verses 20-21 and 31-32, is demonstrably worried that Jesus is out of his mind. Perhaps they are concerned that Jesus’ Galilean ministry of healing, exorcisms, and controversial teaching looks nothing like nice, traditional familial values. Frankly, we as contemporary readers may feel similarly: Hallmark sells cards for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, which sentimentally reinforce the familial order, but what greeting cards are suitable for a “Happy Exorcism” or “Wishing you all the best with your unclean spirit”? Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings and actions just don’t fit the traditional family.
Then all of this gets complicated by the interests of religious authorities in verse 22. The scribes who show up to intervene “come down” from Jerusalem. They also come down on Jesus by diagnosing his unusual Galilean ministry as demonic behavior. The text describes the scribes’ action as an exercise of power from the religious and cultural center. Mark’s description of scribes ought not give license to any generic indictment of Judaism. Jesus himself later notes that another scribe is “not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). As for Jesus himself, he is and remains Jewish. The point in Mark 3:22 is that the power center is unsettled by Jesus’ ministry and explains his actions as Beelzebul’s influence.
That puts Jesus in dire straits. His family is up in arms and the authorities are raising questions about him. Jesus’ family is attempting to rein him in because they are worried about his eccentric ministry of healing, exorcism, and forgiveness in Galilee. Along come the authorities who wish to delegitimize Jesus with the damning diagnosis of Beelzebul-itus. The outer rings of our pericope (verses 20-22 and 31-32) are closing in on Jesus with the aim of closing down his Galilean ministry. For the sake of familial and religious order, this Jesus should be detained.
But in the center of Mark 3:20-35 are neither familial sentiments nor the good order of religious power elites. At the center of this pericope in verses 23-30 is Jesus’ clever apocalyptic parable about Satan and who really is being detained. Religious order and familial concerns are on the edges of the text, but smack dab in the middle of verses 23-20 is a Satanic power struggle.
Now since Jesus’ teaching is apocalyptic, we should beware. His discussion about Satan is “in parables” in verse 23. Jesus is not speaking in plain speech, but in the language of mystery. Jesus begins by summing up the scribes’ argument about Beelzebul with his own question: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Having thus reduced the scribes’ argument about Beelzebul to an absurdity, Jesus draws on commonplace statements: divided houses and divided kingdoms are not long for this world—and the same goes for Satan himself (verse 26) who will meet his end. But now comes the coup de grâce: Jesus’ clever statement about the mythological Satan actually reframes the family and the scribes’ narrative about Jesus. “No one can enter a strong man’s house,” Jesus says, “and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered” (verse 27). Comparing Satan to a strong man makes sense since evil does seem pretty intractable. What is more, with Satan all tied up, it might be possible for somebody to plunder Satan’s house and shake things up. But Jesus’ statement begs a question: just who is stronger than Satan? But here’s the good news! Mark has been anticipating precisely this question for three chapters. One is stronger or more powerful, as we learned from John the Baptist in Mark 1:7. Satan is strong; but Jesus is the stronger one to come. The mystery of the tied up strong man is being revealed parabolically through Jesus himself.
The apocalyptic parable also explains the awkward talk about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in verses 28-30. Mark is not just throwing in some arbitrary verses to trip up the spiritually scrupulous for the next twenty one centuries. No; in the apocalyptic turn of the ages, only the sin of misnaming God’s Spirit work in Jesus is beyond the pale and eludes the new age forgiveness already on offer.
As a preacher, I usually want to focus on where I encounter gospel in a text. This is especially true in the strange apocalyptic Gospel of Mark. In this pericope, I hear gospel most clearly in Jesus’ weird parable of the tied-up strong man in the middle of his struggles with family and religious authorities. The parable is gospel not because Jesus is being nice (like you’re supposed to be in a family) nor because Jesus is respecting the authorities (like you’re supposed to do when you’re from Galilee and the officials waltz in from the Jerusalem home office). It is gospel because it portrays Jesus himself in the struggle for God’s coming reign. The word for gospel “good news” is not just a New Testament word, but goes back to Second Isaiah as well as Hellenistic culture. Mark commentator Eugene Boring even describes gospel as “good news from the battlefield.”1
Now I do not usually like Bible references that sound militaristic, but I find myself fond again of the phrase “in the struggle” to elaborate on the good news of the gospel. The good news here is that God is not far off and disengaged, but already mixing it up, “in the struggle.” There is a beautiful grace in the notion that God, or in this case the Markan divine agent, Jesus, is not pleased that people are in bondage, subject to illness, mired in something less than life. I take comfort from that. Even when good institutions like family and religious order are arrayed against the thriving of human beings (think of our own church struggles over LGBTQ inclusion, how long it took to get it right and how long it takes to continue to be reconciled), the good news invites us into the central gospel struggle which has already begun with Jesus and his persistent ministry of healing, exorcism, and unmistakable forgiveness.
- Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, (Louisville: WJKP, 2006), 30.