First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 2

William Loader

Pentecost 2: 7 June Mark 3:20-35

This passage begins and ends with family problems. Sandwiched between the beginning and the end is an exchange about exorcism. It is a typical sandwich construction, of which Mark is fond. In fact the whole passage is about madness. It begins with Jesus' family worried about him and wanting to restrain him. The Greek then simply explains: "they were saying, 'He has gone out of his mind'." The most natural way to read this is to see it as the reason why Jesus' family wanted to act. They thought he was out of his mind. It is possible to understand the words, "they were saying" as referring to what others were saying. The NRSV opts for this translation. It is less problematic for people who do not want to imagine that Jesus' family thought such thoughts. How could Mary, who gave birth to Jesus under miraculous circumstances, think such a thing? But Mark shows no indication of knowing about miracles and Mary. Later, in reporting Jesus' preaching in his home town synagogue Mark does not hesitate to say again that his own family rejected him: "‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ (6:4). Naturally, both Matthew and Luke censor the detail about the family and madness, deleting it when they rewrite this section of Mark.

The family comes again in 3:31. It looks like picking up where Mark left off in 3:21. Jesus does not reject his family, but makes it very clear that there are higher priorities than family; those who take God's will seriously and do it constitute a new kind of family. Jesus had parents and brothers and sisters. Family ties were typically very strong in his Jewish culture. By setting out courageously on a new adventure instead of doing what all families would have expected at age 30, namely getting married and having chidren to build security for the future of the clan, Jesus had already challenged established patterns. He told some people to stay with their families and live radically for God there; but others he called to leave all that behind and join him. At home or on the road, from now on God was to rule, not family.

So Jesus' family thought he was going mad; or at least some around them did, and they set out to rescue him. Mark places another story inside this story with telling effect. The religious leaders also thought he was mad, but put it in terms of being possessed or in league with the prince of demons, Beelzebub. Jesus' family and friends are not in good company. Jesus rejects the criticism, pointing out that he had been freeing people from demons and this could hardly have been in the interest of the prince of demons. Rather than being partners, Jesus was undoing Beelzebub's work, just as in the wilderness he had engaged in conflict with Satan. Jesus doesn't even mind too much if they slander him personally, but he does mind when they slander the Spirit of God who empowers him to do such work (3:28). Rejecting God means rejecting forgiveness and grace, making no forgiveness possible.

When the ancient world spoke of people being demon possessed, they were describing what we, too, can see, when people act out of character and sometimes in delusory ways. We have different understandings of mental illness and different methods of healing. The reality is that, however he did it, Jesus engaged in healing which liberated some people from mental illness. Jesus embodied God's agenda of restoring people to wholeness so that they could take their place again in creation and be free. This was liberation, salvation. That agenda has not changed. Bringing God's reign and reality into the present means engaging in liberation. This is much broader than dealing with mental illness. It includes both personal and community liberation. Setting people free from oppression, whether within themselves or within their communities through oppressive political regimes or self-indulgent politics which seeks only the interests of the rich - this remains the agenda, for which God's life within us through the Spirit inspires and enables us.

By placing the scribe's accusation beside the family's worries, Mark helps us recognise that sometimes people really do need to be liberated from their families. We can understand that psychologically, when people remain bound by memories or patterns of behaviour which have derived from dysfunctional behaviours and patterns within their families of origin. People who marry need to reflect on how the grooves have been worn by past experiences and be alert enough to regrade the road along which they are going to travel in future. The call to follow God's will entails being willing to acknowledge and change old patterns, go through a conversion process, which leaves mad ways behind. Our families serve us best when they set us free, not only at birth, but through into adulthood. At best we then embrace and honour that love and freedom which families can bring. At worst we need to be saved from our families.

Family values need not appear mad. Our family values may reflect our family's reduction by the self-indulgent agenda of living just for ourseves and ignoring the needs of others. It can instill political attitudes which have us unwittingly live as allies of the rich and enemies of the poor or at least with little concern for them. For many this is very normal. Mark challenged the family party, and called instead for people to embrace the family of solidarity with him in doing God's will and being good news for the poor. But then, as Mark also indicates, people will say this is mad.

Epistle: Pentecost 2: 7 June 2 Cor 4:13 - 5:1