Jesus, the Lord of the flies, and madness

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to ponder Mark 3:20-35. In the English Standard Version, the selection includes two headings. The first, for verses 22-30, is “Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit.” The second, for verses 31-35, is “Jesus’ Mother and Brothers.”

When Jesus began his public ministry, he began with a splash. Not just the splash of the water of the River Jordan when John baptized him. Also, the splash of evil spirits and diseases. Wherever Jesus went, there was salvation, healing. People were freed from bondage to disease, depression, demon possession.

Jesus’ reputation spread. Like a pandemic. Everyone was talking about him. People came to him from all over. And Jesus was doing all his teaching and preaching and healing in Galilee. In this instance, in the town of Capernaum.[1] Not Jerusalem, the place to which God had told the Israelites to bring their sacrifices and worship him.

Jesus was an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As their descendant, he was a worshipper of YHWH, unique among the nations.

YHWH, who insisted he must not be represented by any image. YHWH, who insisted no other should be honoured as God, the maker and sustainer of all things. YHWH, who insisted he made mankind, and that too in his own image. YHWH, who insisted people must live in communities of justice which reflect that conviction.

YHWH, the one against whom Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, rebelled, at the instigation of Satan, whose principal desire is to dishonour God. YHWH, who repeatedly punished and restored his chosen people, the nation of Israel. YHWH, who had placed the Israelites under Roman oppression and caused his son to be born among them.

YHWH, who tolerated the abuses of his name by the leaders of Israel. By Herod “the Great,” who claimed to be king of the Israelites, the Jews. By the High Priests and Sadducees who dominated the Sanhedrin, the council of 70 men in Jerusalem who mediated the power of Rome in the occupied territories. And the Pharisees and scribes.

Jews were as oppressed in their own land as the Palestinians today are oppressed in their own land. There was no middle class. There were only the very rich, whose wealth was rooted in their connections to the oppressors. And the very poor, whose toil paid the taxes which wrapped the rich in abundance.

Jesus came into this mix. People were drawn to him. They came from all over. They came “from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon.” He attracted the crowds like rock stars today.[2]

In the passage, we read of two groups which became very concerned about Jesus’ popularity. First, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Second, Jesus’ own family.

The Jewish leaders sent a delegation to gather intelligence, to engage Jesus, and to spread false narratives about him.

One of the narratives they spread about Jesus was that he was releasing people from the bondage of Satan by the power of Satan. We read in verse 22 that they said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”

We read that Jesus responded by calling them out. He “called to them.” And he engaged them. Publicly. Bluntly. He ridiculed them. Why would a General shoot his own soldiers? Surely only a mad man would do that! And then he made it personal. Personal to them. He challenged them. He asked them to consider another explanation.

What if the tsunami of release from demons is due to him, Jesus, having “bound up the strong man,” the one who oppresses people through demon possession? Should the scribes not treat the liberation from oppression as proof of who Jesus is? As proof that he is the one who, in Luke’s words, came to set at liberty those who are oppressed?[3]

Recall that after Jesus was baptized, he was tempted by Satan.[4] He resisted Satan for 40 nights. He defeated Satan. All the spiritual activity in the days after the temptation is proof that one mightier than Satan has come.

Jesus warns the scribes, and us: it is no small thing to say the Lord of the Universe was projecting “Beelzebul,” which could mean “Lord of carcasses” or “Lord of the flies” which swarm over carcasses. Those called to honour YHWH said instead that his servant was channelling evil! Their punishment is eternal separation from God.

The second group who were very concerned about Jesus were his mother and brothers. We read, in verses 20, 21 and 31, that they thought he was out of his mind. They tried to seize him, to take him away. Why? Was their motive different from that of the scribes?

Their concern may have been his well-being – like the parents of a rockstar wanting to enforce some rest on their prodigy. Or, their concern may have been the negative response of the “other” authorities, the Romans, the oppressors. They may have worried that the fate which befell John Baptist awaited Jesus.

But I’m drawn to another thought. And that’s the purpose of the author, Mark. I think of how Mark uses the concern of Jesus’ family. He speaks of substitution. The new family, of disciples, substitutes for the old family, of blood and ancestry.

As I wrote last week, Jesus is a threat to the status quo. Siding with Jesus is dangerous. It often requires going against what the world is saying and doing. Families want to protect their own. And this puts much pressure on those who choose to follow Jesus.

The website of Catholic Charismatic Renewal has a reflection on today’s passage. It’s titled “Did Jesus’ Family Think Him Mad?” I encourage you to read it. I end with the last paragraph in that article:

“… this text speaks also to today: the families of many committed Christians today reject them and think that they are mad. Those families make no attempt to understand (just as the natural family in the story stays outside and does not attempt to come in to listen to Jesus). The natural family often make life difficult for the Christian. This text reminds us today that the choice to follow Jesus is the only right one. Nothing is more important than doing the will of God, because only in that way does a person becomes a child of God, and a brother or sister of Jesus (3:35).

Peace be with you.

Note: The illustration is one artist’s depiction of Jesus before the Sanhedrin.

[1] Mark 2:1.

[2] Mark 3:7-8.

[3] Luke 4:18 … to set at liberty those who are oppressed, …

[4] Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13.

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