A Sandwich to Chew On
Mark has a habit of telling stories “sandwich” style. He often starts one (one piece of sandwich bread), interrupts its telling to relate another story (the meat), and then return to finish the first story (another piece of sandwich bread). And just like we eat the bread and meat of a sandwich together, Mark intends us to interpret these two stories together.
The bread of this sandwich story is about Jesus and his family. His natural family, having heard about his strange exploits with the supernatural (exorcisms) worry about his mental stability and their own family reputation in the community
“Exorcists often invoked a higher spirit to get rid of a lower one, so Jesus’ opponents accuse him of gaining his power for exorcism from sorcery-relying on Satan himself. Insanity (3:21) was often associated with demon possession (3:22). Because false teachers were sometimes thought to be inspired by demons and the official penalty for misleading God’s people this way was death (Deut 13:5; 18:20), Jesus’ family had reason to want to reach him before the legal experts did. (The legal experts could not enforce the death penalty, because Palestine was under Roman domination; but the public charge alone would humiliate the family.) Teachers offended by reports of the events of 2:1-3:6 are now taking the offensive.” (Craig Keener, IVP Background Commentary on the New Testament, on Mark 3:20-22)
Jesus’ opening campaign recounted in 2:1-3:6 gave plenty of ammunition and opportunity for his opponents to strike back at just this point. Mark breaks off the family issue here and veers into a story of the scribes coming at Jesus with venom and accusation. They accuse him of being in league with the devil himself, operating under his authority and power (v.22).
This is a pretty desperate expedient, it seems to me. When Jesus turns their accusation back on them, it seems self-evident, doesn’t it? Of course, a kingdom divided against itself is already beaten. It can’t go on working against itself. It will fall.
But the scribes have already decided that Jesus is not on their side, on God’s side. Therefore, he MUST be on the other side, Beelzebul’s. They are forced into a weak argument because it is they themselves who are not in their right minds.
Jesus follows up with the well-known parable of binding the strong man and plundering his house (v.27). Isaiah 49:24-26 seems to lie in the background here:
“Can the prey be taken from the mighty,
If Jesus has this scripture in mind, he is doing through his exorcisms what God himself promised to do for them through the prophet. And don’t forget, Jesus promised his New Exodus community this same power to continue his work.
His final comment on this scene is that only those who determine the work of God’s Spirit to be of the devil, that is, “blasphemes against the Holy Spirit,” may receive the forgiveness God offers them through Jesus. Those who do this, by definition, cannot/will not receive such forgiveness, “for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” (v.30)
It is one’s disposition to Jesus that finally determines whether an “eternal sin” has been committed. Any other in, as he himself said, can be forgiven. So whatever sin one has committed, short of rejecting Jesus, will be forgiven. And it is those who worry whether the sins they have committed might be “unforgivable,” are those who have little reason to worry.
And with that Mark turns to the next piece of bread and finishes out the “family” part of this section. Jesus’ family came to his house, and remember they have already implicated themselves with the “he has an unclean spirit” side, so we are not surprised that they are “outside” (v.31). The crowd tells him they are here and want to see him. Again, Mark mentions they are ‘outside.” So he asks the question of the moment: “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
And here Jesus makes a most profound and fateful move. With this question he opens up membership in the people of God dependent on something other than ethnicity! And doing the will of God is that something.
Family, Jesus’ family, are those who do the will of God. Participate in his New Exodus movement. Be his Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement. And in this moment of fulfilment, Jesus opens membership to this community to any who will live its way of life in faithfulness to him.
The Holy Spirit is here revealed to be the agent and power of Jesus’ liberating ministry and, therefore, the heartbeat of his family. And that same Spirit will work liberation through us in similarly scandalous and troublesome ways.
In a series of parables in the next chapter Jesus clarifies the scope and nature of the kingdom movement Jesus’ leads.